Exam Insights: GCSE Physical Education

We have taken a detailed look at the examiner reports for the first GCSE PE 9–1 exams in order to understand the issues that students struggled with the most. The reports reveal the following common issues:


  1. Understanding the question
  2. Using technical terms
  3. Mastering ‘forgotten’ topics
  4. Data analysis



A high proportion of students get the wrong end of the stick right from the start, failing to answer the precise question that is asked; it seems to happen most years.  A trawl through the examiner reports from all the specifications provides an insight into the main reasons why it happened this year:


Failure to spot the command words: When reading the question, students should make absolutely sure they spot and understand command words, such as ‘assess’, ‘explain’ and ‘discuss’. ‘Justify’ was one command word that caused particular problems. If students are asked to ‘justify’ the importance given to, for example, mastering the art of balance for dancers, it is not enough to simply supply a definition of the word ‘balance’. To get good marks students need to go further, by explaining how and why balance is important to the named activity or performer and supplying relevant examples. Similarly, if asked to justify the importance of reaction time in a particular sport, it is not enough to give only a definition of what reaction time is; students need to explain why reaction time is important, and give examples showing how it is important.


Failure to take note of the bold type: Students should pay particular attention to anything in the question shown in bold type. It is there to give specific instruction or further guidance about the question, which a candidate ignores at their peril. So if, for example, a student is asked to supply two different methods that could be used to reduce the risk of injury during a boxing match, giving an example for each, it is not be sufficient to answer ‘1. Gum shield, and 2. Boxing gloves’. That candidate would miss out on marks because they had provided two examples but they are about the same method (wearing protective clothing).


Failure to take a little time to work out exactly what the question wants you to do: Students should make sure that any knowledge they supply in their answer is applied to the specific question in front of them; context is essential to access higher marks. So if, for example, they are asked to ‘explain why platelets are important to athletes in contact sports such as boxing’, it would not be enough to simply describe how platelets clot the blood. Students need to go on to explain why this is relevant to boxing (because it stops blood flowing from wounds, allowing the boxer to continue to fight).



Students are struggling to use subject-specific technical vocabulary. All students should make sure they:


Learn all the anatomically correct technical terms for muscles, bones, and joints: If asked to name a muscle, for example, it isn’t enough to write ‘calf’, it must be ‘gastrocnemius’. Students should also be aware that if they attempt to use the proper technical name but spell it wrong, as long as their spelling is at least phonetically recognisable they are likely to still get a mark.


Understand and know how to use a wide vocabulary of relevant terms: Not knowing the difference between words such as ‘gamesmanship’ and ‘sportsmanship’, ‘self-esteem’ and ‘sedentary’, ‘risk’ and ‘hazard’, or ‘agonist’ and ‘antagonist’, for example, caused some candidates to lose marks.



The reports revealed that students need to pay particular attention to revising a number of topics that they consistently struggled with. They didn’t do especially well with levers, which is a new (and difficult) topic that appears in all the new specifications; students need to spend more time on this, and make sure they fully understand the terms ‘fulcrum’, ‘effort’, and ‘load’ in context.


Edexcel students also need to be sure to master muscle fibre types: understanding the difference between slow twitch type I, fast twitch type IIa and fast twitch type IIx muscle fibres. These topics may have been taught early on in the course, which mean that months (or even years) have passed before they are examined, highlighting the need for students to be given opportunities to recap these topics areas, and encouraged to revise thoroughly.



An area of difficulty identified across all boards is data analysis. This proved problematic for many students, who simply skipped the data analysis questions. Of those that did attempt them, many got only a single mark because they could only state what the main trend shown by the data was, instead of attempting to assess what the trends reveal. For example, if looking at data on participation in sport, weaker candidates might simply state that making more facilities available would make a difference.


In summary

The overall impression is that students and teachers have mostly adapted well to the new exams. Some of the issues highlighted, such as a failure to read questions properly, are perennial and crop up year after year. Where problems do appear to be connected with the new exams – students struggling with new topics such as levers, or with the need for greater justification and contextualisation of answers, for example – the fact that these issues have been identified now offers both teachers and students the opportunity to dedicate time to really understanding these.