The UK curriculum approach is somewhat of an outlier in the world of education in how it specialises at such an early stage, with students narrowing from maybe nine or ten subjects to just three or four as they transition from International GCSE to International A-level. There are no mandatory subjects so student choice is limited only by the subjects their schools can offer them.
Looking back (many years, I’m sad to say!) to my own schooldays, I found this specialisation exciting and empowering. Free to pursue the subjects I really enjoyed, I revelled in the depth of study and the new ‘grown-up’ feel to lessons. As a teacher, I also loved teaching A-levels: the excitement of students who really want to be in your classroom, who have ideas of their own and want to challenge and be challenged, it’s what drew many of us to the profession in the first place.
But both of these memories come with a strong sense of rose tinting and it’s easy to forget the difficulties – both for students and teachers – of making that transition.
As an International GCSE teacher, there is a lot you can do to handhold students. The course content is more limited, you tend to get more contact time, you can help them understand the rubric of the exam and train them in what a good answer looks like. When students transition to International A-level, they are required to do much more of this for themselves: course reading is something they do in their own time rather than as a class, complex ideas and concepts need to be understood, and the assessment is significantly more challenging. It feels more like the first year or so at university in many other educational systems.
There are significant advantages to this approach. Students who have studied International A-levels are very well prepared for the rigour and independence of university study, indeed many students I have spoken to regard this stage as one of the most satisfying periods in their educational journey. But we mustn’t forget or underestimate the challenge it presents.
So, what can teachers do to help students make the step up?
1 – Start early
Embedding A-level skills doesn’t have to wait until students the beginning of the International A-level course. A lot of the groundwork can be laid while students are taking their International GCSEs or even earlier. Independent project-based learning (like OxfordAQA’s International GCSE Plus) help develop independence, critical thinking, analytical skills and academic writing – the foundations of a successful transition from International GCSE to International A-level.
Some schools provide advanced study lessons as part of their curriculum offer lower down the school. These lessons cover skills like effective note taking, revision strategies, timetabling and time management. The beauty of this approach is that it’s entirely subject-agnostic, making it useful regardless of what International A-levels students ultimately take.
2 – Prioritise wellbeing
Alongside the academic preparation for International A-levels, schools should also consider the additional pressure and anxieties many students will encounter. With university placements – or lifelong dreams of a particular career – resting on a handful of exam results, many students start to feel the emotional strain. Not only does this present a mental health risk that all schools will recognise, it will ultimately be detrimental to their academic success. With that in mind, wellbeing can be made an integral part of a school curriculum, with lessons on things like mindfulness, managing stress, and how to maintain a balance between school work, extra-curricular activities and downtime. These are lessons that will reap academic rewards but also equip them for life after school.
3 – Explore cognitive science and learning skills
Discussions around mental health and wellbeing lead very naturally into conversations about how the brain works and how learning takes place. For many years, teachers assumed that knowledge just ‘goes in’ to students’ heads, to be recalled later as required, and revision just meant looking back over your notes as the exam approached.
As we discover more about neuroscience, the more we realise how prehistoric this thinking was. The rate at which new information is forgotten and how we must take active steps to transfer knowledge from short-term to long-term memory is now an accepted part of teaching and learning policy and curriculum design in many schools. Sharing this understanding with students and helping them discover strategies that work for them is a fantastic metacognitive skill and will help them retain vital knowledge as they build towards their A-level exams.
Again, these metacognitive lessons can sit alongside International A-levels or take place earlier on in students’ school career, to enable a smoother transition.
4 – Focus on formative assessment at the start of the course
When students transition from International GCSE to International A-level, they naturally gravitate towards choosing subjects they enjoy and where they have been successful in the past. It can be very difficult for those same students to suddenly feel out of their depth in an environment where they have previously only experienced confidence and success. Whilst there is often pressure on teachers – from school leadership, from parents, from the students themselves – to report on what grades a student is currently operating at, I would encourage teachers to prioritise formative feedback in these early stages. Students need to understand the new skills they need to be successful at this elevated level, what A-level standard work looks and feels like, the depth of knowledge they are expected to demonstrate. This takes time and benchmarking them against the standard expected of them by the end of the course is unfair and can be incredibly discouraging.
There are many methods of formative assessment and feedback that can be useful at this developmental phase. Skills trackers that visually depict the aptitudes students are already demonstrating and those that they need to develop are a highly effective way of helping students understand their strengths and weaknesses without the finality of a mark or grade. Alternatively, teachers can identify specific elements of a task – perhaps linked to the Assessment Objectives? – that students have done particularly well and ask them to find examples of that in their work. This will reinforce the things they are already doing well, building confidence and resilience, making them more amenable to hearing where they need to make improvements.
5 – Use self- and peer-assessment to embed skills
The benefits of formative assessment can be reinforced by asking students to review their own work and that of their peers. It isn’t necessary to ask students to provide grades or marks, merely to identify strengths and weaknesses. To ensure this is a focused activity, teachers can provide success criteria or spend time deconstructing the official mark scheme in real detail, so that students are absolutely clear about the skills they are looking for.
6 – Model success (and failure)
One of the biggest problems students have as they transition from International GCSE to International A-level is having to recalibrate their expectations of their own work. They know what ‘good’ looks like at GCSE but don’t have the same frame of reference for A-level, especially if they are taking a subject that they haven’t previously studied. Models of successful answers can be a really useful tool to help students understand what they are aiming towards. Exemplar answers from previous exam cohorts are an excellent resource, so think about holding onto copies of good student work from the year before (make sure you anonymise the work first and ask the student’s permission). Alternatively, exam boards nearly always provide exemplars on their website, often along with examiner commentaries, detailing how and why that piece of work was so successful.
Conversely, it can also be helpful to look at examples of less successful responses. What mistakes do students make that lose them marks? What should they have done instead? How can you make sure you don’t make the same mistakes in your own work? These kind of conversations give students an understanding of how to avoid common pitfalls and give them confidence that they are on the right track.
Empower your students with skills that will last a lifetime
Nobody would ever claim International A-levels are not challenging, indeed it is part of their appeal and why they are considered such a gold standard qualification the world over. Our job as educators is to empower students, to equip them with the academic skills and resilience to be successful in their transition from International GCSE to International A-level. The rewards are plentiful: a profound sense of expertise and achievement, the incredible satisfaction of understanding a subject in real depth, a growing sense of maturity and independence. These are skills and attributes that will last them a lifetime. As is so often the case with teaching, our job is to help them take those first steps.
By Jamie Kirkaldy, Head of Teaching and Learning Support for OxfordAQA
Looking for subject specific-guidance to support your students’ transition from International GCSE to International A-level? Sign-up for our upcoming teacher Toolkit webinar series: Teacher Toolkit – OxfordAQA (oxfordaqaexams.org.uk)