Insights from the 2019 AQA GCSE Combined Science Trilogy exams


Examiners’ reports are a wealth of information, giving data about how many students tried each question as well as breaking down misconceptions for every section.  Are there any key messages that we can draw from the examiners reports to improve the performance of our students? 

Sam Holyman has looked through the reports to give you an overview of the 2019 AQA Trilogy exams and top tips for moving forward.

Insights from GCSE Science Examiners reports
Examiners’ reports are really useful, but it can be time-consuming to read them and find key messages.

Anatomy of the papers

For the Combined AQA Trilogy course, there are six papers, each of which is 1 hour and 15 minutes long.  On the Foundation tier paper, the initial questions are targeted grades 1‒3 (low demand).  The last two questions on the Foundation tier paper are the first two questions on the Higher tier paper and are targeted at grades 4-5, which is classified as standard demand.

Each exam paper is designed to increase in difficulty and this was illustrated well in the Chemistry papers where most questions were attempted in the early stages of the paper.  However, a greater proportion of students did not attempt the later questions: this was because the demand rose, rather than because they ran out of time.  It’s also worth noting that although the concepts in atomic structure, bonding and quantitative chemistry can also be tested in Chemistry Paper 2, candidates did not seem to use this knowledge.  This has been made more explicit as part of the clarification document for the AQA Science suite of qualifications, published by AQA earlier this term. 

The 2019 exams showed that most students could access all the questions in the time given and suggests that fewer students are now being incorrectly entered for the Higher tier.  Incorrect tier of entry was of course a big issued in the 2018 exam series, as the Foundation entry caps students at a grade 5-5 and the Higher tier does not award lower than a grade 4-4.  This led to Ofqual stepping in to open up lower grades for candidates that were incorrectly sitting the Higher tier.

The Required Practical questions (RPAs) showed an improvement from 2018 with most students showing understanding of methods, variables and validity.  The candidate answers suggested that many students had a good experience of the Required Practicals, with youngsters being able to apply their knowledge to different investigations.

Insights from GCSE Science Examiners reports
There was lots of evidence that candidates are having a good experience of the required practicals. e.g. Required Practical Activity 1 – using a light microscope.

Learning facts

We cannot move away from the fact that the Science GCSEs have to include some questions to test recall. Questions of this type make up 40% of the Science GCSE as AO1 and are easy if the student has learnt the facts, but impossible to answer by application or deduction. It is therefore important that students learn key pieces of information.

Insights from GCSE Science Examiners reports
Use the specification to make lists of facts that MUST be learnt.

Students can find it helpful to refer frequently to the specification throughout the course and during revision.  At the start of a new topic, issue the specification excerpt and encourage students to BUG the spec by boxing any command words, underlining key science vocabulary and glancing back through the question and their answer to ensure they have tackled all parts.  This flips the learning and prepares the students for the topic they are about to learn.  Once the topic has been taught, re-visit the specification and ensure that students make a note of the key facts that they must learn for their exams.  For example, the Chemistry exams showed that many students could not recall simple laboratory tests.

Students also need to learn carefully the conventions of how scientists write key information.  For example, if an incorrect formula is given, such as O2, O or 02, the mark cannot be awarded. However, if the question only asked the student to name the substance and they incorrectly spelt oxygen, they would still get the mark.  Therefore, it is important that students read the question and put the desired answer rather than trying to show more than they know and penalising themselves in the process.

Key scientific language

Science is full of jargon: words can sound similar like antigen and antibody, they can be spelt similarly like alkane and alkene, or they can be closely related processes like diffusion and osmosis.  It’s a minefield for learners trying to pick the correct word.

The 2019 exams showed there was a lot of confusion between key science terms, as well as a lack of familiarity in general with common scientific terms, leading to misinterpretations of questions.  Students are strongly encouraged to use scientific terminology, but they need to be specific with its use, e.g. move away from ‘amount of magnesium’― what is the ‘amount’? Mass? Volume? Surface area? So, a better description would be ‘mass of magnesium’.  (It is worth noting that phonetic spellings were allowed.)

It is important that candidates can understand the question and accurately use key science vocabulary in their answers.

Encourage students to develop a topic-specific glossary of their own.  They could then make these into flash cards to learn the key words and the definitions or a matching card game where the key word is matched with the definition.  Once students have got a command of the key scientific vocabulary, they should practise using it to describe unfamiliar situations.  As the Biology paper showed, even if students understood that species were being added and removed from the garden, they did not relate this to the definition of a stable community given in the specification. They need to be able to make these links.

If you’re looking for more ideas for building literacy skills in the Science classroom, take a look at these Closing the Word Gap resources.

Maths skills

Overall, maths skills seem to have improved from the previous year, especially in the Higher tier.  Graph skills were a significant strength noted in the Biology Foundation tier, but Higher tier candidates did struggle to correctly draw lines of best fit. 

Interestingly, the Physics examiners noted that in calculations there was an increase in the number of students who, unsure of the correct equation to use, decided to multiply two numbers together, divide the first number by the second, divide the second number by the first, and then choose which answer seemed to them to be the best one. There is a clear cross-over from the Mathematics GCSE to the Science GCSEs.  However, students often compartmentalise their learning and do not use the skills learnt in Maths in their Science exams.  This was seen in the significant number of students did not know how to calculate surface area and volume, round numbers or substitute correctly into formula, despite these skills being part of the Key Stage 2 Mathematics SATs assessment.

Insights from GCSE Science Examiners reports
Use problem solving techniques such as group work to draw out maths skills to be applied in a science context.

It might be useful to provide some Science exam questions to the Maths department to use as part of their teaching. This will hopefully help students make links between the subjects and ensure that the maths skills are taught in a similar way, independent of the subject.

Exam technique

Examiners need to be able to read the responses that students write.  There were a number of students whose scripts were difficult to read, either due to poor handwriting or the use of pens in colours other than black. Even though these papers were referred to the senior examiners, some students were clearly disadvantaged by spelling or handwriting that examiners just could not decipher.  So, do consider requesting special arrangements such as scribes for students if necessary.

It is important that students understand what the question is asking.  Command words are again the key to this, and many students did not appreciate the difference between the command words, especially ‘Explain’ and ‘Describe’.  It is also worth noting that when a conclusion is asked for there should be some value added in the response, not just a description of the results.

Again, encourage students to BUG the question.  Often a question would state that calculations were needed as well as an explanation and many students failed to include calculations.  Many students also use ‘it’ or ‘they’ without any clear indication of what it is or they are referring to, so encourage students to neatly cross out and swap ‘it’ or ‘they’ for more scientific vocabulary when they glance back through their answers.

Knowledge and understanding in familiar and in unfamiliar situations, including in the laboratory, are tested throughout the exams. Students must read, analyse and use the information in the stem of the question. The stem contains important information to set the scene of the question. Although there is no credit for repeating the stem of the question, students who used the information provided in the stem often demonstrated a better level of understanding. 

For the longer response questions, many answers were deemed too broad or vague and, although they showed that students were on the right pathway, they lacked scientific detail and therefore no credit could be given. Also, just because there are lines or space to write in, they do not always need to be filled! A few students used up a lot of space by repeating the question, and this does not gain any credit and in some cases lead to contradictions in the answers.

Insights from GCSE Science Examiners reports
Encourage students to plan their answers, use diagrams if they can and always read back their response.  Check that they have answered EVERY part of the exam question.

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 has recently been awarded a CPD Quality mark.

Additional resources

Activity ideas for closing the Word Gap in science can be downloaded here.

For additional maths skills support, take a look at Maths Skills for GCSE Science.

If you subscribe to Kerboodle for AQA GCSE Sciences, look out for our Exam Pulse update in January, which will include additional exam support, based on the latest exam feedback.