Andri Achilleos, Biology Subject Advisor
Frances Evans and Steve Savill, two of our biology monitors, shared with me their experience from visiting centres. During their visits, our monitors have seen a lot of good practice and excellent implementation of the practical endorsement while teaching the course.
Teachers appreciate all the feedback they receive from our monitors, and most of the centres take on board suggestions for improvement, to enhance their students’ practical experience. In this blog I highlight the common issues our monitors encounter during their visits and their advice on how to overcome these.
Achievement records sometimes do not match the students’ evidence. Teachers should be actively assessing practical competence during the lesson and use the “Not Achieved” dropdown option in the PAG tracker if needed. There is still the perception of a ‘perfect’ assessed practical, where their learners have to achieve all the skills to ‘pass’ the PAG.
Progression of students’ practical skills is expected, as they move through the course. Students’ confidence in practical endorsement is usually developed from failure and useful feedback. So constructive feedback can help develop their practical skills in the future.
Sometimes learners are not clear of the specific practical skills they are covering and therefore are not able to track their skill acquisition. A range of tools can be used, but simple skills tick sheets for each PAG are enough. This approach makes it easier to give feedback and ensures consistency in judgements, while helping learners to engage.
There is no concept of “PAG and non-PAG practical work” or “assessed practical and not assessed practical work”. The ethos of practical endorsement is for students to develop skills in any practical activity, whether it’s large or small . In a couple of cases our monitors noticed that not all practical work done at the centre was recorded in the trackers. All practicals should be used as evidence for completing practical endorsement.
At OCR we have a flexible approach to practical endorsement. You can complete other practical activities than the ones that we suggest, or you can adapt our current PAG activities. You can even design your own practical activities that will assess specific skills that your students are not showing competency at. For example, if your students are failing to show competency at 1.2.2 (e) (production of scientific drawing from observations with annotations), you do not have to repeat the PAG. You can assess them only for this skill by having a simple practical work, where they draw a specimen (such as onion, stem, root or leaf sections, or any other prepared slide). If you are using one of our PAG trackers, you can add these as additional practical activities and match them to 1.2.1 and 1.2.2 skills.
One of the biggest issue our monitors see in their visits is the quality of drawing skills. In many cases there is lack of annotations and scales, particularly on whole specimens and dissections. It is important for learners to familiarise themselves with the guidance for biological drawing before they complete the practical activity.
If students find drawing challenging while looking at slides under the microscope, you can try and use a whole specimen instead. For example, you can ask candidates to draw a leaf or the kidney, with scale and annotations. It’s important to remember that the guidance for biological drawing is not only applied for PAG1 and PAG 2, but in all biological drawings that the students will complete during their course.
PAG2.1 (dissection of the heart) is also a very common practical activity where the students are assessed on 1.2.2 (e), production of scientific drawing from observations with annotations. Because this activity is usually done in Year 12, a lot of students find it difficult to show competency in this skill at such an early stage of the course. Our monitors advise centres to take a photo of the specimen, next to a ruler, and maybe come back to the drawing at a later stage of the course. Centres are also encouraged to use the learner checklist for drawings.
Students should be encouraged to record results straight into appropriate tables for good practice and to avoid transcription errors. Tables are generally very good and where there are errors (such as inconsistent decimal places, units in body of table, calculations in table and no border), in most cases these are picked up by teachers.
One common error with graphs is the lack of heading, and plotting of lines of best fit. According to our practical skills handbook (page 61-62), there must be a reasonable balance of points about the line. A line of best fit can be straight or curved, and they do not have to extend to the origin if this is not appropriate.
Centres are encouraged to use the learner checklist for tables and graphs.
CPAC 2* is usually tackled later in the course by many centres. Although students are evaluating their own method, this is restricted to identifying limitations and improvements. There is usually very little justification of methodology and selection of variables included. An excellent practice seen in one of our centres was to use two columns for their method. The first column had the steps and the second column was the justification of the steps (i.e. Why?).
If learners are struggling to show competence in this skills, our monitors usually advise centres to use PAG 4.3 or PAG 8.3 instead. Students could be asked to plan the experiment, without doing the practical. This can be added as an additional practical activity and could be used to assess only CPAC 2.
CPAC 5* also tends to be covered later in the course by centres with little evidence available. Here are some suggestions from our monitors on assessing those skills beyond PAG12:
Students should be aware of the correct citation system before they complete the task. Our practical skills handbook (Appendix 7) gives details of the citation system for different resources, as well as suggested websites and books that students can use (Appendix 8).
From their visits to different centres, our monitors have seen some great alternative practicals that could be used:
Thank you to Frances Evans and Steve Savill, for sharing their experiences with me.
*If you want to find out how CPAC is linked to the practical skills you can look through our Practical activities support guide, page 5-8.
If you have any questions, you can email us at email@example.com, call on 01223 553998 or tweet @OCR_Science. You can also sign up to subject updates to receive information about resources and support.
Andri Achilleos was a teacher for ten years before joining OCR in January 2019 as the subject advisor for A Level Biology. She studied Biology at University of Bristol and completed an MA in Science Education at University of York. She has taught in Birmingham as Teacher in charge of Biology, as well as an international school in Europe. During her teaching career she has taken on various roles within the department and has also been an examiner for different exam boards.