The summer term can be a time of contrasts. Fresh back from a well-deserved break, the exam season ramps up quickly and all the hard work since September starts to pay off. Then the exams are over, thoughts turn towards the next academic year, and the summer holidays beckon.
The new linear A Level courses are likely to have an impact on this, with learners now having to prepare for exams covering two years’ worth of material at the end of Year 13. This necessitates a new way of thinking about teaching, learning and assessment to support learners over the two-year course.
Underpinning great learning is great teaching, and great teaching is a craft that takes time to master. On top of knowing the subject, we need to know how students learn it and the barriers to that learning. These ideas are called 'pedagogical content knowledge', and much recent CPD (for example from the Royal Society of Chemistry and the Institute of Physics) and resources (for example the OCR Delivery Guides) can provide support.
Teaching science will always be challenging, as many of the ideas are complex, abstract and unfamiliar. Using multiple channels of communication can help learners to engage with the ideas in different ways, increasing their chances of understanding the ideas. Teaching ideas while referring to written and pictorial representations helps learners engage through their auditory and visual channels. Talking individually with learners allows them to engage with expert explanations; while talking amongst themselves in small groups allows them to co-construct their personal knowledge. Prior familiarisation with new ideas through flipped learning can also help.
Being explicit about the wider concepts (e.g. energetics, forces, genetics) that new ideas fit within can help learners build their personal knowledge and understanding. For example, many learners will happily accept the law of conservation of mass, but then be unable to rationalise the ‘loss’ of mass in combustion reactions. Using concrete examples and representations can help to form bridges between the abstract and the everyday. Modelling and practical work are particularly powerful in this respect. For example, chemical equilibrium can become more understandable with the classic two coloured cobalt species demonstration.
How do we know what the students have learnt? We ask them! Questioning is central to learning and comes in a huge variety of forms. From asking for a simple recitation of basic facts to the synthesis of arguments over fundamental concepts in new contexts and use of past-paper questions, questioning is central to teaching, learning and assessment. Continually asking questions and using learnt ideas throughout the full course will be key to long-term and effective learning. Practice and assessment of understanding of key ideas can be made explicit throughout the course. For example, setting deliberate practice points at increasing length of time from the initial learning – for example after 1 week, 2 weeks, 1 month, 3 months and 6 months can aid long-term learning. Start-of-lesson activities, such as multiple-choice question quizzes, can form both part of this practice, and a hook into the new related ideas being studied in the lesson.
Careful thought and planning will be required to make this effective, and will undoubtedly improve year-on-year as the new courses bed in to your centre. The Learning Scientists group have great articles on this type of spacing out, along with a range of case studies from different subjects.
So what now?
Ultimately, the responsibility for learning the curriculum rests with the learner. As teachers, we have the advantage of understanding the structure of the course, the concepts and how they link together, and how they can be demonstrated in different ways – we can see the wood for the trees. Beyond just teaching the specification then, we must help raise learners’ awareness above the minutiae of individual learning outcomes to see the big ideas that underpin the subjects they are studying.
As with any new ways of working, teaching linear courses will be a work in progress. So, research new ways of teaching, discuss within your department, implement some new ideas, gather evidence of their effectiveness, review, modify and repeat. Many people are in this same boat – make use of the ideas out there, and contribute to the conversation.
Considerations from Bishop Wordsworth’s School on moving to linear A Levels.
A Level reform guidance from the Association of Colleges.
Dr David Paterson - Subject Specialist - GCE Science
David joined OCR in September 2015 to support teachers in their delivery of A Level Chemistry. He was until recently a teacher of science and Head of Department in Hertfordshire schools. He is particularly interested in teacher training and development, and improving teaching methods in the classroom.
Before teaching, David worked at the Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, researching novel anti-cancer kinase inhibitors, following on from similar research during his D.Phil. at the Laboratory of Molecular Biophysics in Oxford.