How to succeed in post 16 Chemistry exams *maybe not*


Just to be clear, these are the top tips for doing badly in your Chemistry exams. Badly – yes that’s right.

Ignore the information in the stem of the question…head straight for (a) part i.

image1Show how expensive your calculator cost you by giving all answers to at least 9 decimal places, and preferably put the decimal point in the wrong place too. This also leaves no room on the page for units.


Units – forget them after all surely an examiner knows that most of the time it is KJmol-1 except when it’s moldm-3 and aren’t they a chemistry graduate, surely they can work it out.

Forget this is an A-Level Chemistry exam and keep answers superficial. At any hint of ozone/greenhouse effect, or those tricky application questions “suggest one other consideration…” This is your chance to waffle about needing a greener world/being environmentally friendly, or even the ubiquitous “might I suggest a quick google of the problem”

Adopt a sloppy use of language, especially those pesky technical words which no one else in the sixth form even has to bother with. It’s really best if you can muddle up the terms atom, molecule, element and compound because these are basic. However the real test is using words like electrophillic in the wrong place.Hey and if you get really stuck use electronegativity.

Past papers show you ideas in Chemistry which are often raised in exams. Hence it’s better not to look over past papers, and neither should you read those examiners reports because they say stuff like ” Few students know the reagents for synthesic organic  reactions” You will do much worse in the exam if these type of questions come as a complete surprise. Of course the worst thing you could do is practise those past papers.

Here is a great trick when answering really tricky questions – rearrange the words from the original question. eg

Q Describe and explain the effect of increasing the pressure on the Haber process?
A The Haber process makes ammonia and when changes are made like pressure it will change the amount of ammonia and the other chemicals. This can be explained by a Frenchman better than me.

Understanding Chemistry. I think a lot of students wishing to fail make this mistake. So forget about trying to understand concepts and key chemical ideas. Just head to one past paper, preferably from a different spec and preferably one you can do so badly on you are convinced you are useless. This will boost your confidence that you will do really badly.

Reading – I did mention it, don’t do it. The school really want those text books back in pristine condition ( they are only used once more) but stick to your games web sites, gambling sites and Facebook.

Talking to other students – this is another dangerous game. Sharing what you can and cannot do, could lead to you helping each other, you might discover trying to explain to a peer helps improve your explanations – avoid it

Faced with those longer parts to questions with half a page and 5 marks, do not bother to review your knowledge and select key points. Instead ramble on and on, jump from one idea to another. In fact the more chemical words mentioned the better. (A-Level equivalent to indicator goes bluey reddy yellowy greeny orangey colourlessly clear.)

Likewise with practise  and you reall will need practise the + can look like – for ΔH calc’s; Better still ink spots and extra dots on dot cross diagrams. There is also a knack to writing the fourth letter in alkane like alkene try alkøne or alkæne

On the subject of organic reactions you will probably get a mechanism, you can lose a lot of marks by random use of curly arrows – pretend they show where to attack, not where electrons move from. It’s also better to target atoms than bonds – after all bonds already have enough electrons, rather delicately shared.

Overlook the advice given in the question to help you. It is preferable to answer your own question NOT that set by the Board. A favourite here should be answering about kinetics, how fast etc when the examiner asks about equilibrium and how much . I suggest you write Le Chatelier in the original French just to show off. “Quand un système à l’équilibre est soumis à une variation de la concentration , de la température , le volume ou la pression, puis le système se réajuste à ( partiellement ) neutraliser l’effet de la variation appliquée et qu’un nouvel équilibre soit établi.” Eh voila mes amis

imageDiagrams, here you can lose a lot of marks. Make sure glassware does not connect properly, leave gaps for gases to escape edge between condenser and flask. also do like you did in the lesson and pop a stopper in the top. Remember no one does these experiments from your exam answer so the explosion will be a bit lost

Excuses – examiners love excuses to write in a friendly style to them preferably in red ink ” Dear examiner we had a useless teacher who could not explain Hess’s law” or “I had very bad toothache the day this lesson was introduced and my teacher refused to help me.”

Make sure you switch off your common sense. Some of the best answers I have seen proved you could extract 1000 tonnes of copper from 1 tonne of copper ore and who knew blood had a pH of less than 1. ( well after all it is red). With luck you can get a reaction to give a yield well over 100%.

Space – exams board work hard to leave you the right amount of space to write in, so best then to try and use just a few lines if they leave a large space and maybe make one point (when there are 6 marks available) or else write loads, round the margins and up the sides.

Some exam boards try and trick you by giving a choice of questions.So a good plan here is to do more questions than asked or do fewer than asked. If you would like some fun, don’t read the rubric at the start of the paper just guess how many questions they might expect you to do.

Timing – most students struggle with timing here is a big tip to cause major mark losses. Some students look at the mimage2arks available and the time e.g. 120 marks in 2 hours. They then spend time just short of the mark allocation e.g. Q1 is 25 maks therefore spend 20 minutes no more no less. Here is my tip – rush through the whole paper doing all the bits you find easy – shouldn’t take long! the go back and guess the next bits then go back and fill in remaining gaps just using random big chemical words (see above). Finally colour in your data sheet – as you know this is why the exam board gave it out – see it as extension work.

Saturday period 3 – Creating a silk purse from a pig’s ear of curriculum change

The old story goes of the man who asks the way to Liverpool and the bystander says, ‘if you want to get to Liverpool mate I wouldn’t start here.’It’s how I feel about curriculum design or lack of it, with the changes to A Levels. BTecs and GCSEs. At the last major revision of A Level in 2000 at least stuff hanged for everyone at the same time, but this time we have the proverbial ‘pig’s ear’. Some ALevels have changed and their AS count for less and need doing at the end of two years even if done after one. But hey shiny new Year 12 students it’s not all your subjects. So schools and colleges grapple with – shall we just do three now, shall we forget the AS for all, for some etc. Meanwhile some subjects have changed at GCSE, well two to be precise Maths and English who will see new grading of 9 to 1.Yes but reporting for the present y10 comes soon – we need to explain that carefully to pupils and to parents, oh and we aren’t really sure what really will happen to the grades. ( Check out the Ofqual postcards -they help)

INSET and training back in 1999 allowed all staff to look at their subjects, advise SLT, think about the best way ahead for the students and discuss together the best way to make decisions. So as I stare at this pig’s ear not of my making I am looking to create a silk purse from this. The big structural stuff is out of our hands but there are still important decisions to make about which courses for the best

Simplistic_Refined_11. Don’t pick for grades. We don’t know about the grades but we do know ofqual take charge.  Boards subjects apparently achieving higher numbers of A and A* isn’t “easier” it’s about the profile of those taking the subject with that board. At A Level the highest number of A* and A are from Maths – it doesn’t mean Maths is easy or your heads of sixth form recommend everyone does Maths as it’s the best way to get an A.

2 Look at content. Carefully examine the content, does it suit your pupils, does it suit your teachers. How does it compare to past content. My guess in most subjects is that its much the same – Science subjects especially but there are twists – do you like them. In Chemistry if we have a chunk of nanotechnology do we welcome that or not? In some subjects this may not be the case so do you welcome the content or gasp in horror. Think about delivering content by all your teachers and across all the abilities.

Autumnal fruits

Autumnal fruits

3 Look at assessment. It’s not the standard of specimen papers etc it’s the style, the type of questions. The assessment model should test the content but look carefully and think about your pupils. All the pupils the brightest and the weakest who will be studying. In the end, assessment models deliver the fruits, or not.




4 Look forward and backwards. How does this course prepare your pupils for what they do next. if this is KS4 how does it prepare well for Btec or A Level and then beyond into the worlds of work and further study. downloadLook back at your KS3 courses. Of course these may yet need a tweak but if you love the content and outcomes of your KS3 then how well does this dovetail. This is a bit more pig’s ear than silk purse at the moment as you are changing GCSE but not KS3 -however the decisions you make at KS4 will stay for several years and no one likes a change of spec-worth a careful think. To some extent the definitions of KS3 4 and 5 are artificial – think like that to help you decide. AND don’t forget the added complexities of post 16 funding as some BTec are weighted in different ways. [Paul Hanks @The_Data_Adonis is worth following at the least and worth contacting for advice on funding issues post 16 too.]

imageimage5 Resources
. It would be naive to ignore your bank of resources or the resources on offer from the Boards. I guess this means a default starter being the spec you study now. However your job is to teach, help the pupils  learn and a massive desire to inspire. Do those results or your creative juices excite you – do they make you want to teach this tomorrow?

6 People You probably aren’t making this decision on your own , you have to bring other staff in your dept along with you. So check the dept view, check the other networks you are in; maybe professional groups like the ASE or local networks or teaching alliances. Also think about using twitter; you can create a list and add those other ‘history teachers’ to it and get chatting. Perhaps you attend teachmeets and ask trusted people what they are choosing and why. Remember it’s your call so don’t decide because someone with 2400 followers says so, just pick a few brains and move from the foggy grey to a black and white conclusion.

Patron Saint of lost causes - St Jude

Patron Saint of lost causes – St Jude

Finally then jot down your reasons. Get ready to share with the dept with SLT, the Headteacher and possibly governors. You need two or three reasons why you chose them and two or three why rejecting the others. In fact not just for the dept for your conscience and for the pupils to be rocked and rolled.

In the end whatever “others” do to us as teachers, we must use the tools we have to do the very best for the children and young people we teach, and do you know what? We usually do.

Thursday period 3 – UCAS deadline, hey maybe that can change.

ucasThere are some jobs you miss in the profession when you move on (up, sideways or down) and some you don’t. I am ambivalent about missing UCAS references. At my school sixth form tutors do references and do them spot on (pretty well) – another of the sixth form pastoral staff polish, check etc. Over the last 20 years I have done all that, and I enjoyed writing and most of all talking with students about opportunities perhaps not enjoy because some , most are very stressed. I saw it as a bit of a privilige really. So it was always good to add a calm voice, a sensible view but of course not magic wand. It was also a collosal amount of work for me, for tutors and for students and a massive pressure pot for staff, students and parents. I daresay HE might feel the same.

Even with a new job as Head I still did three references and forms this this last week. One of those was a “Please Sir do you remember me, I left years ago but… can you lastminutereference help me out?”. Soft that I am I did – just by hours!

Meanwhile in another Universe I am trying hard with subject leaders and SLT to work out how we manage the ‘dogs dinner’of a curriculum for post 16. Whilst some changes feel bad (please don’t ask I’m a Chemist, we change to new specs, new assessment and no practical assessment but at least the spec for teaching in 6 months is now approved (as of December!). Some specs change so AS does not count in the end but at least remains coteachable, some do not. I think the staff are pretty clear on their own subjects but across the piste? Mmmmm. And what they need to consider, not much chance of that because you politician types forget we aren’t sitting around waiting your latest ideas we are…teaching a generation now.

I have always been bothered to explain to our Y13 that it is harder than Y12 because it brings the sharp end of A Level , stretch and challenge, and final exam chances, but also all those big decisions. I am also convinced those decisions can motivate and if we help students get them right they can achieve well, and aim higher than they might imagine. That has been my experience. Despite this here is my suggestion after 20 years as a Head of Sixth form

  1. Get HE to decide IF they want AS or not ( I do remember working with UCAS predictions before the advent of AS – I can tell readers it isn’t easy!) Maybe it doesn’t matter, we seem to be in a new world already whereby AAA or better gets you into most subjects in most places and probably AAB – and it feels like the rest get that same offer even if we know they may not make it. [don’t scream at me about medicine and English and RG Uni and Oxbridge I know I know]. However have these decisions clear. For example
  2. Give staff time to plan their schemes understand assessment and nuances, get to exam board training and have time to talk with each other to decide the very best way to carve up teaching and learning. Consult with SLT to design a great curriculum offer. Four subjects or three; extended essays or not, and please can someone look at the funding.
  3. Halt the AS/A2 changes now. Get the new specs for all subjects sorted for start in 2016 not 2015. Do AS and let it count or do AS and don’t let it count. Teachers and learners just need the rules ( and preferably the same rules to each subject!)
  4. Be radical on HE entry. I’ve never much favoured PQA ( post qualification application) because of the motivation I mentioned above but try this:
Which way?

Which way?

  • Minimise Y12 AS exams – one paper ( maybe or maybe not cwk) whether it counts or not. Preferably forget them as we are abandoning predictions see below! [Save some time]
  • Start the end of Y13 exams ( A2 +/-AS) at start of May. This drags exams on longer in school but staff can stagger their work in terms of revising with Y11 or 12 or 13 and all that means for schools and Colleges.
  • It takes 6/7 weeks to results, replan this. These exams start May not mid June so can have results early July?
  • After Y13 complete exams maybe mid June schools and colleges start all the practicalities of UCAS PQA. We help look at courses, we have Open days visits and we prepare statements and references BUT no predictions because the button is pressed mid July when we all know results. We will do background stuff but not forcing so many decisions so early on
  • E. do not know need to think “how many will get the grade?” “how reliable is the referee?” The form arrives with grades.
  • Over the summer there can be interviews and if not the time for HE colleagues just start term a bit later for first year UG.

    Maybe a Chemist maybe an astronomer, maybe a paeleantolo Oh hang it. I can't even spell that

    Maybe a Chemist maybe an astronomer, maybe a paeleantolo Oh hang it. I can’t even spell that

I am sure readers will say what about medics etc BUT we all see many students who think they should apply for X or Y but their results make us think they may make it and it’s hard to say a definite you won’t for some. WE also see an element of immaturity at application time, uncertain ideas which is fair enough and we make some decide by October 15th. In this new world, this all evaporates, no student will apply for the AAA course with predicted AAA ( which might mean AAA or AAB ( stats show most grades predictions are correct within a grade or two overall I recall) now they apply with AAA. I can imagine many courses offering a range of grades and I suspect they could, surely they know students with AAA down to BBC do or do not cope with this course etc

As for motivation I do like my students to do some visits in Y12 – well they can do, they can visit and be inspired to aspire, they can be helped to understand the basics by which I mean to get into this course you need….. these grades/this interest/these skills. Entry profiles take on a new highly significant meaning, this is what you aim for. It might benefit a subject like mine Chemistry maybe others where Y12 still feels like we are teaching much basic stuff and some of the more interesting work comes late Autumn and Spring of Y13. As we now stand it’s a bit late for a student who having had few ideas of what to study but been badgered by home and school to decide, and now finds a real interest in Chemistry. In fact we might all have that responsibility in our Y13 work to trumpet our subjects even more with this is what HE looks like and being nearer than a present applicant we might get those choices right and get a few more young people into the right courses and see better progress in HE.

There I’ve said it

You might like to read other posts from my timetable of teaching – each is set out from lesson in the school week, before or after school or at the weekends, appropriate to the time of day. I have also started a  class lists or “set lists” which was to answer the questions: “why be a teacher?”or “why have other responsibilities in a school?” Shortly I am starting a new area about progress from one role or experience in teaching to another with hints and tips about successfully moving on in the job and your teaching career.

Some Questions:

Q1 Might this make an optimistic call over what feels like an unwealdy future for post16?

Q2 HE Univeristy Providers what do you think?

Q3 SChools and FE Colleges what do you think?

Q4 Most important, Students what do you think?



Complete University Guide

Push University Guide

Telegraph article on choosing HE

Guardian choosing University – ideas from students

Unistats support data for making informed choices

The Student room advice


For those in a Church school:

Psalm 25:5 Guide me in your truth and teach me, for you are God my Saviour, and my hope is in you all day long.

Psalm 139:10  even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast.

Romans 12:6   We have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us.

2 Timothy 1:6 For this reason I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you

1 Peter 4:10 Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms.