Science examinations seem to have changed so very much over the course of my teaching career. I entered the profession preparing students for linear examinations, yet they would also be exposed to twelve multiple-choice tests during the two years of GCSE. These were given a disproportionate amount of my lesson time considering the minuscule contribution they made to the student’s final grade.
The full version of this article was originally published in the November 2015 Edition of our UKEdMagazine
This examination style was quickly replaced with modules, full of tick box and gap-filling questions, science for the adults of tomorrow, but not the scientist of the future. The students could fair reasonably well without really stringing a sentence together.
Since then a number of changes have been introduced to bring back rigour to the science curriculum. Like other subjects, modules have disappeared and we have had an increase in the number of written responses required from the students. With further changes ahead, designed to increase the demand of the subject, I have started looking more closely at my own classroom practice in order to evaluate if it is truly still fit for purpose.
My personal efforts and attention have been focused on the communication skills of the students. As an experienced teacher, I often find myself with the weaker teaching groups. For those students, their biggest challenge is often expressing themselves in a coherent and accurate way. They lack confidence in their knowledge and struggle to crack the longer answer questions.
In an attempt to make them more conscious of their verbal answers, I have begun to give them a card on entry to the classroom. Whatever is written on the card they must aim to use in a verbal answer. The cards contain key terms for a topic for them to use correctly in context. The challenge for the group is for all of them to have used the cards by the end. They provide an excellent prompt for the students, but also a basis for further ‘piggy-backing’ of answers. One set of well-thought-out terms can be reused every lesson, as students will be allocated different words.
The students are used to being asked to use connectives in their written work, particularly in essay-based subjects. A set of connective cards can supplement or replace the key terms in order to encourage the students to provide longer, more structured verbal responses, in much the same way mats and displays are used in history or English.
So far the cards have helped to build the confidence of the students. The regular repetition of terms and a reminder of the definitions is helping the students become more familiar and confident with the key vocabulary. The connectives are helping to push the students to give fuller and reasoned answers as opposed to superficial, one-word responses. The next challenge for me will be to ensure that this also translates into their written responses.
I’m always looking for further ways to improve the students’ ability and confidence in tackling extended writing in science and welcome any advice from those who have cracked it.
Jennifer Hart has been teaching secondary Science in north London schools for over 10 years. Having been an AST and middle manager she finally obtained her dream role as Assistant Head, leading on Teaching and Learning and CPD. She can be found occasionally tweeting as @Miss_J_Hart