How to study and pass GCSE science
The study of science is evolving – and so too are the GCSE science exams.
In order to secure a secure high grade pass in GCSE science it’s important that a student is aware of how the exam structure and format has undergone significant revision in recent years.
Furthermore, for parents who might have previously studied science themselves, the new format contains some hidden ‘trapdoors’ that are easy for the unwary to fall into.
That being so, we’ve prepared an overview of the new GCSE science syllabus, one which will be applicable for all of the exam boards, so that you can understand more about what your child may need to do, or not do, so as to achieve the best results possible.
We’ll cover the key issues, both those we’ve identified along with those that have been voiced by parents of some of the students we’re currently tutoring.
We’ve tried to cover all the bases, however, if there’s anything specific that you need to know that we’ve missed out, you can contact us here and we’ll do our best to answer your question.
1 GCSE Science overview
In the last few years the new GCSE system format has been rolled out, beginning in 2017 with Maths and English with the first GCSE Science subjects being examined during the summer of 2018.
Since 2018 GCSE science has migrated to a new grading structure which uses a 9-1 approach (which we discuss in more detail later).
This has, it must be said, caused confusion and concern for parents, students, teachers and employers, since during the transition phase comparing ‘like with like’ will be difficult until a few years of students have taken the new exams.
2 GCSE Science exam boards
Schools across the UK can choose There are three main exam boards in the UK and schools are free to select one or more of them for each of the subjects they offer to students.
Those boards are
- AQA (Assessment and Qualifications Alliance)
- Pearson, under its Edexcel brand name
- OCR (Oxford, Cambridge and RSA Examinations)
Since there are no restrictions on a school as to which board’s exams they follow, this means some schools select some subjects from more than one board, depending upon each department’s preferences.
Although all of the exam boards ensure they cover the same subject areas, each of the exam boards set their exams in a somewhat different manner. This means that it’s important to know exactly which exam board a school is using and follow that board’s course exactly.
This is also important if children move schools during their GCSE years, since the receiving school’s exams might be different from the one they were previously learning at.
Furthermore, since schools can choose from all three exam boards it’s important not to assume that simply because, for example, your son or daughter is taking AQA English that they will be sitting an AQA science paper.
Their school might prefer the OCR science syllabus and that is the one which needs to be followed.
We discuss the exam structure later but suffice it to say it’s important to consider what A-levels or university courses they might wish to take, since this may well be affected by which GCSE science course route they go down.
3 Revised grading structure
Most people who follow the news will be aware that a new grading structure was going to be introduced for the GCSE exams.
This structure, starting at 1 and increasing up to 9 as the highest grade, replaces the old F-A* grade, one which ran in the opposite direction to the new model.
Within this new system, 9 is the highest grade, and 1 is the lowest, with a U grade for ungraded tests.
Students taking Higher tier papers can achieve from 9 to 4 and Foundation tier students can only achieve 5 at the highest, down to 1.
In broad terms a grade of 4 is considered to be the lowest result you need to pass the exams, however, in practice a grade of 5 is considered a good pass.
The graphic below shows how the old and new grade boundaries map across to each other.
4 New exam specification
The actual specification dictates the overall course topics and learning objectives for their GCSE course – it’s what we would have called ‘the syllabus’ when we were at school.
Along with this re-shaped specification there has been the revised grading structure and taken together these alterations have resulted in a set of more challenging exams.
One side-benefit of these changes, however, has been to reduce the grade boundaries, meaning students currently have the opportunity to secure a higher grade with a relatively modest score.
As is often the case with newly introduced exams, the grade boundaries will be subject to review over time and so, depending upon how well each cohort do, there is the possibility that those boundaries may be adjusted in the future.
5 Coronavirus COVID-19 2020 grades
Following the emergency closure of all UK schools the Government have confirmed that for 2020 there will not be any GCSE or A-level exams taken and therefore we can at the moment only surmise as to what impact this might have upon grade boundaries.
We know from talking to parents of GCSE science students that they are concerned as to how this may impact upon their children’s A-level applications – for now it’s really a case of ‘wait and see’.
6 What subject topics are included in the course(s)?
The GCSE science course covers a very interesting and it must be said, challenging selection of topics.
This ensures that students have a good understanding of topics across all the sciences such as:
- Cell structure
- Infection and response
- Inheritance, variation and evolution
- Atomic structure and the periodic table
- Bonding, structure and the properties of matter
- Chemical analysis
- Quantitative, organic and atmospheric chemistry
- Chemical reactions & rates of chemical change
- Good lab practice
- Energy and electricity
- The particle model of matter
- Atomic structure
- Forces and waves
- Space and light
- Magnetism and electromagnetism
The structure of the courses is similar whichever GCSE pathway is chosen, however, the depth and breadth of understanding developed will vary somewhat.
7 Is GCSE science tough to pass?
There’s no way to sugar coat this – the triple GCSE Science is one of the toughest sets of GCSEs a student can take. Students will be required to understand and interpret three very challenging subjects and to perform to a high standard in six end of year exams.
Under the newly revised syllabus structure students also need to have a much stronger understanding of maths and statistics and how that applies to each component of the science GCSEs.
But don’t let the above ‘health warning’ put you, or your children off from studying science. It’s one of the most rewarding combinations of courses they could study in respect of supporting their future prospects.
Many of the top careers and Russell Group universities specify top passes in GCSE science and a high pass will make a student’s transition onto A-level studies all the easier for them.
If they are considering subjects such as veterinary science, medicine, dentistry or engineering those opportunities are only open to the strongest candidates and so correctly selecting the ‘right’ GCSEs is important so as to ensure they don’t unintentionally bar themselves from consideration.
Every year many students do achieve top marks in their science exams and so it’s possible for your child to do so too, whether that means a strong result in a Higher tier paper or a good passing grade in their Foundation tier – as long as they can achieve the best they can, that’s all parents can ever expect.
8 What’s best for my child, Foundation or Higher tier?
As with some of the other revised GCSE courses there exists the option for students to study at a Foundation or Higher level. Whilst both will be examined by end of year exams, there is a difference in the maximum grades available from each tier.
With the Foundation Tier, students will be able to achieve grades 1-5 and students studying Higher Tier can achieve from 4 -9, as the graphic from Ofqual in point 3 revealed.
This can, on the surface, make the Foundation Tier sound like an ‘easier’ exam, however, it’s best seen as the most appropriate exam for students who find grasping the breadth of knowledge covered within all three areas of science too difficult.
For them, if they were to sit the Higher Tier they might well achieve not a very good grade, since the questions in the Higher Tier paper require a much more detailed understanding of the subject.
It’s much better for those pupils to complete their schooling with a good pass grade from their science studies and achieve a Foundation Tier grade, rather than to have put time into their studies and have only a ‘fail’ to show for that work, due to having attempted an exam above their skill level.
Alternatively, for those pupils who are confident in juggling the facts and formulas that are within biology, chemistry and physics, and who are also confident in their maths skills, then the Higher Tier would be the appropriate exam for them.
9 Linear structure means removal of modular courses
Previously students were able to sit component parts of their exams (otherwise known as ‘coursework units’) prior to the end of their course, however, the new structure means all of their marks will accrue from the papers they sit at the end of their final GCSE year.
This change means students need to develop confidence with their exam skills so that they can produce their best answers to the questions contained in the six exam papers they will take.
10 No more practical exams
Whilst each GCSE science syllabus still requires students to carry out various mandatory practical experiments in the classroom, there are no practical components for the final exams.
The exam boards will, however, base some of the questions in their exam papers upon those mandatory example experiments.
The questions which focus upon these in-class practicals account for approximately 15 percent of the marks available.
In order to score highly in the exam questions related to these practicals it’s important for students to able to use key vocabulary and to understand how to measure results, take data readings and make relevant observations.
In a similar fashion to everything else in GCSE science, structured and regular practice before the exam will ensure everything falls into place more easily during the exams.
11 Increased requirement for strong maths and stats skills
GCSE students are expected to be able to carry out various maths and stats calculations and so it’s important to take into account whether your child is in the Foundation tier or Higher tier for maths in their school.
If you are concerned that their maths skills might hold them back from securing a place in and then a strong pass in GCSE science it would therefore be sensible to discuss this with your child’s school.
We’ve worked with students to ‘top up’ their maths and to bridge the gap between Foundation and Higher maths so we’re sure that if this were to be an issue for your child, it’s something that could be dealt with, providing prompt action were to be taken.
Although each of the three exam boards drafts their exams somewhat differently it’s estimated that around one-fifth of the questions across the full six required papers will have a maths component in them.
There will also be some element of variation between Higher tier and Foundation tier and whether a student takes triple science or combined science, but at the least students need a grasp of:
- Decimal places and significant figures
- Exponents and standard form
- Plotting and interpreting graphs
- Selecting and using standard physics formulas
- Choosing the correct units when describing results
- Calculating the results of chemical equations
So all students need to appreciate that maths IS important to help secure a good pass in GCSE science.
13 Why six and not three GCSE science exam papers?
What can appear confusing to new parents and students is that there are six exams which have to be taken for GCSE Science.
The reason there are two papers per subject is simply because it would be a very, long, complex and challenging paper if the whole of each subject were to be covered in a single sitting.
In a somewhat similar fashion to how maths is split into separate papers, one calculator and one non-calculator, so as to make the examination more accessible to students across two sittings a similar approach results in two papers for each of biology, physics and chemistry.
Depending upon whether a student is taking combined science or separate science there is another difference – the length of the exams.
For combined science students each paper will be slightly shorter than those for the Separate Science award papers. Edexcel and OCR have drafted 70 minute papers for pupils whereas AQA offers everso slightly longer exams at 75 minutes.
In comparison, for pupils taking separate science papers Edexcel, OCR and AQA have identical exam lengths of 105 minutes for each of the required six exams.
14 How are the marks allocated?
As mentioned previously, whether studying Foundation or Higher tier and whether taking combined or triple science, all students will need to take six separate exam papers.
For triple GCSE science exam students, within each subject both papers are worth 50% of the grade, meaning students need to score highly across both papers to secure a good pass mark.
For those students taking the combined GCSE science the six the papers are equally weighted meaning each is worth 16.7% of the grade and each has up to 70 marks available.
The method used to calculate the grade for the combined GCSE science papers is explained in the next section.
The types of question students will need to answer will include a selection of multiple choice, structured, closed, short answer and open response.
As with GCSE maths, the questions become progressively more difficult as the student moves through each exam paper and so good exam technique is essential to achieve a good result.
They will also be required to answer questions upon the mandatory practical experiments they have carried out in class (rather like how for English language students are asked questions upon texts they would have been expected to have already studied).
15 How is GCSE science graded?
For students who take triple award science they will receive three GCSE grades, each based upon the result in the individual pairs of exams.
For those students who sit the double award Science, often called combined science, students sit papers in biology, chemistry and physics, receive two GCSE grades.
These two grades are based upon an average of their grades across the three exams (which are in fact six papers).
The below graphic shows how the grading structure will work and for further information about the calculations here’s a link to the Government’s Ofqual blog which explains the grading in more detail.
16 Should my child take triple science?
We’re biased because we enjoy science – but the benefits for students would include being able to develop a deeper understanding of each subject and possibly identify more clearly their next steps after GCSEs.
Many university courses specify certain GCSEs are required and if students are considering a more academic degree course, securing strong A-levels in science, would be most beneficial as regards UCAS points.
Many students find choosing subjects for their GCSE years is difficult – there’s often the desire to take the same classes that their friends are taking, but it’s important to consider longer term plans (even if they’ve not yet made any!) otherwise they might find those plans are scuppered before they’ve left the harbour.
There’s also the very real challenge in that most schools have tight timetabling requirements and so some subject combinations won’t be available.
That being so, all schools will endeavour to structure their timetables to enable students to take combined science, and for the more capable students they will ensure all three separate science subject will be available too.
If a student is very interested in science – and providing they are capable of handling the maths and stats required – then if their school provides for triple science we would always recommend they elect to go down that study route.
Three high grade GCSE passes in physics, biology and chemistry strongly support their plans if they wish to take A-levels in any science subjects – and the maths they would have had to study alongside would evidence their skills in that area too.
17 What’s the benefit of studying GCSE science?
Hardly a week passes without a news story appearing stating that the UK is facing massive skills shortages in science, technology, engineering and mathematics careers – according to one recent report over 40% of STEM vacancies (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) are open since many companies find them difficult to fill.
This is one of the reasons why the government has been focusing its attention upon what it can do to increase and widen participation in STEM careers and education – it wants a competent and qualified ‘home grown’ cohort of applicants for future vacancies in STEM related careers.
To achieve this it introduced the triple science GCSE qualification. By enabling students to study biology, chemistry and physics as separate subjects this ensures they each develop a solid understanding of those core subjects.
Not all schools, however, provide for triple science in their timetables – sometimes a combination of funding and demographics dictates that only combined science is offered.
This is why it is important for students and parents to review in detail what GCSE subjects are available in any schools they are considering – a wrong decision at this stage could seriously impact upon future study and career plans.
In essence, schools in more deprived areas may be less likely to offer triple science, because less students either wish to study for the three GCSEs, or that they don’t have a strong enough grasp of the maths and stats required to underpin their studies. Again, it’s important to review what any proposed state school includes in their GCSE programme of courses.
18 Is the triple science syllabus hard?
Yes it is, but only in the way that studying maths is hard in that precision and accuracy in words and procedures are very important.
This does mean, however, that students who are capable of studying and achieving top grades in triple science can feel confident they are progressing well towards their possible goals of strong A-levels and then making an application to a top university.
19 Do many girls study STEM subjects?
It’s an unfortunate fact that in many schools there are fewer girls who study AS or A-level STEM subjects, however, girls are very capable at achieving strong passes in this area.
We’ve worked with girls who, once they developed their own self-confidence, that they were comfortable and positive about taking (and subsequently passing) A-levels in STEM subjects.
There are also some very useful STEM support groups for girls who arrange both internet events and in person events. If your daughter is interested in a STEM related career then they should speak to their STEM department heads or head of sixth form to find out what is available in their area – or you can drop us a line and we can check this out for you.
20 Should I take separate science GCSEs if I want to take A-level science?
Taking sciences separately at GCSE level ensure students cover a wider range of content and if studied in the Higher tier rather than Foundation, at a higher level too.
This means someone who achieves strong passes in Higher tier triple science would be well prepared to progress onto science A-levels.
But if a student doesn’t go progress through the three science GCSEs route they wouldn’t automatically be restricted from taking science at A-level as this could be discussed with the sixth-form head of science on a case-by-case basis.
21 What if my child is finding GCSE science difficult?
Some students become disheartened when they hit ‘the wall’ in their studies, however, GCSE science, especially in its Higher tier triple flavour, can be a stretch for pupils.
It’s for reasons like this that their school may have additional support options they can put in place to assist them over any current study issues.
Most will also provide the option to switch tiers from Higher to Foundation if they are finding it too difficult – but we’d always suggest that as a last course of action. We’ve heard from some parents that where their child had been finding it hard to keep up with their triple science studies that they were moved down to combined science.
Since triple science can ‘open more doors’ as regards A-level, university and career options we’d recommend that before you agree to any ‘adjusting’ of your child’s study stream that you speak to a competent and supportive science tutor to see if they can help to keep them on track.
The long-term benefits of a short-term additional spend now could be repaid many times over during your child’s future career path.
We, along with other good science tutors, have many ways to support students who are finding their science studies a challenge. Learning science is somewhat similar to studying maths – there is a ‘staircasing’ structure with each new section building upon those that have already been studied.
This can mean that missed lessons, or misinterpretations, can cause a student’s studies to stall – but with a structured review of their understanding along with clarification where required, we’re sure we can get them back ‘on track’.
There are many videos and lessons online however time spent one-to-one with a tutor, either online or in-person in invaluable since it can help to quickly resolve misinterpretations and help a student to get back on-track with their studies.
22 Private school scholarship opportunities for top candidates
Approximately ninety-three percent of school age children attend state schools and therefore it’s natural to plan, post GCSE, for those students to progress into state sixth form education.
What’s less well known, however, is the private schools who provide education for the other seven percent of children are always interested to hear from top candidates from the state school system.
This can mean that your child’s strong GCSE results might mean they could be eligible for a scholarship place at a top private school.
These includes top day and boarding schools and both single sex and co-educational schools.
Ever mindful of the fee rates that these schools are forced to charge to provide for their facilities they have two mechanisms to reduce those fees for parents of top state school candidates.
Firstly, if a child secures a scholarship place that will usually provide a discount on the fee amount due and the amount a family may be required to pay could be further reduced by a bursary.
With a bursary the school would take a family’s financial situation into account and offer to reduce the fee to a more manageable amount. In some circumstances the fee could be waived in total, and they may be able to provide help with purchasing uniform and other necessary pieces of kit.
We’ve helped parents secure scholarship and bursary places with a variety of private schools and would be pleased to discuss this with you if that is something you may wish to consider.
23 Exam confidence and practice
Some students find that however well they have revised their GCSE subjects, during their exams they are unable to construct answers to the level they felt they were capable.
This can be caused by a mixture of poor exam practice along with poor revision but both can be overcome. We’ve also worked with students to overcome this problem by helping them to understand what’s being asked in a question and how best to structure their answers.
It’s really a case of getting sufficient practice in before the actual exams so there’s time to assess and revise how they are progressing towards those final six exam dates.
Steady progress to secure a strong GCSE science pass
I’m sure that the science teachers at your child’s school will do their very best to guide them in their studies. By working steadily and faithfully with the specification they should be ready in time for their GCSE exams.
If however, they are feeling that they’re lacking in one or more of the sciences, or perhaps that they’re finding the maths a struggle and are concerned that they may have switch levels of from triple to combined, then perhaps it’s appropriate for us to speak.
We could discuss where they are in their studies and then perhaps we might suggest some ways to get them back on track.
I hope this has been useful for you to understand more about what the new GCSE science course entails
If you’d like to find out more about what scholarship places might be available for your child then this post will be helpful.