Assessment objectives and GCSE Science

Assessment objectives

As we head towards Mock season for our GCSE groups, we are still unsure of the importance of this set of exams. In the past, Mocks gave students a little bit of the experience of what to expect in the real exam season, but this time, they could contribute to their actual GCSE grade if the examinations get cancelled for the third year running due to the Covid-19 global Pandemic. So, Mocks are more important than ever but how do we prepare our students best?

It is important to understand what is being assessed in the GCSE examinations. Assessment objectives are common across all examination boards because they have been set by OFQUAL. 

There are three objectives that are assessed in GCSE papers. They broadly link with Bloom’s taxonomy.

GCSE Science Assessment objectives


This assessment objective is defined as being able to demonstrate knowledge and understanding of: scientific ideas; scientific techniques and procedures. In the AQA GCSE suite of subjects, the assessment has about 40% AO1 marks.

Arguably, AO1 marks are the easiest to access in the GCSE assessment as this is learning information from the specification and reproducing this in the examination. This is usually tested with command words such as: State, Describe, Define, Give, Label. 

So, with a good memory and being able to decode the examination, AO1 are marks that candidates can obtain without really understanding the information.  This is where low stakes testing to embed key information and the use of Knowledge Organisers can be really useful.


Apply knowledge and understanding of: scientific ideas; scientific enquiry, techniques and procedures is what is being assessed AO2.  This too forms about 40% of the GCSE assessment. 

AO2 is considered to be more challenging as students have to use their knowledge and skills to apply it to a given situation.  So, it is a step up on the Bloom’s taxonomy, compared to AO1.

It is interesting to look at the context of AO2 assessment in the different tiers. Often, in the foundation tier, familiar situations are used such as potato osmosis, but for higher tier it tends to be unfamiliar situations such as osmosis in carrots. These questions featured in the 2018 examination series. 

This Assessment Objective is usually tested with command words such as: Compare, Explain, Estimate, Use. By supporting students with applying what they have learnt or experienced in a lesson to an unfamiliar situation by modelling how to approach these questions can be really helpful. Share the decoding of the question, showing the students the information, the examiner has given them in the rubric and connect it to the information in the spec and show ho to synthesis this into an answer.


This assessment objective is widely considered to be the most challenging and makes up just 20% of the AQA GCSE assessment. It is defined as analyse information and ideas to: interpret and evaluate; make judgments and draw conclusions; develop and improve experimental procedures.

AO3 is usually assessed using command words such as:  Evaluate, Justify, Predict. To help students approach these questions, it can be useful to encourage small groups of students to collaborate. They can work together to brainstorm what they know and plan the answer together before writing their own personal answer. Then show students the mark scheme so they can reflect on their own answer and encourage them to annotate improvements. This is an exercise in critical thinking, with practice, confidence will grow and technique will become more refined and students will become increasingly successful at achieving marks for this learning objective.

2022 Examination Series

As we started this academic year, the government announced the intention of returning to examinations this summer, following the disruption experienced over the last two years due to the Covid-19 pandemic.  But in late November new guidance was issued to modify the examinations and also prepare for if the examinations were cancelled once again. The current plan is that each examination board will provide advance information on the focus of the content of summer 2022 exams to help students complete targeted revision and teachers to adapt the focus of their teaching in the second half of the spring term.[1] AQA are aiming to release this no later than 7th February for the GCSEs.

AQA have confirmed that a revised equation list with all the equations they will need in the examination given to them. This means that candidates do not need to learn any equations for the 2022 examinations. [2]

Therefore, it is reasonable that any Mock exams that we:

  • Give students a list of topics to revise and include helpful links such as BBC Bitesize to aid with revision
  • Have targeted revision lessons with low stakes tests to help students remember the key information
  • Modelling of answering examination questions
  • Give students a modified equation sheet for their Physics Mocks

Remember that these assessments could be used as evidence for the candidate’s grades. So, although they can be used as a learning resources afterwards, the school must retain them.




Sam Holyman discusses Assessment objectives and GCSE Science

Sam Holyman 
is Second in Science at Aylesford School in Warwick, and formerly West Midlands ASE President. She is also the author of a number of best-selling science textbooks for KS3 and GCSE (including the AQA GCSE Foundation: Combined Science Trilogy and Entry Level Certificate Student Book), and a keen advocate of innovative teaching and learning.

Sam was nominated in the Teacher Scientist category for the Science Council’s 100 leading practising scientists, is a Chartered Science Teacher, and holds a CPD Quality mark.

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