Supporting Year 12 students as they start their A level Physics course

A Level Physics

Each year you begin with your new year 12 students. All have achieved the grades necessary to embark on A level physics but they come with a range of different experiences and levels of confidence. Depending on your intake there will be students who have studied Combined science and others who have studied GCSE Physics. This year they also bring the unique challenge of learning a GCSE during a pandemic and the effect of the Advance Materials on their revision.

How will the Advance Materials affect students’ knowledge and understanding of their GCSE?

The Advance information was issued to schools early in 2022 at which point the majority of the GCSE had been taught. The material outlined the major focus of the content for each exam paper and the content not assessed in any form. It also listed the required practical activities to be examined. This left some content that may be used in low mark questions or in questions that bring together knowledge, skills and understanding from across the specification.

As time is always short when preparing students for their GCSE the majority of valuable contact time will have been spent revising the content outlined as the major focus. Perhaps with some attention given to the possible linking questions. Only a few extremely conscientious students will have revised all the specification and they will have had limited exam practice. This means that the advance materials will have reduced the knowledge and understanding students bring to their A Level. It may also mean you are tackling misconceptions that would have been addressed earlier in their education.

How the advance materials affected the Physics GCSE

To some extent the advance materials have leveled the playing field this year as a number of ‘physics only’ topics were included in the not assessed advice.

Of the additional areas of study for GCSE Physics identified as major focus of content for the exam, nine have links with the AQA A level physics course. However some of these such as Red Shift and Sound waves are linked to two of the optional topics at A level; Option A Astrophysics and Option B Medical Physics. This leaves these five areas where GCSE Physics students will potentially have a better grounding

  • draw and interpret velocity time graphs for objects as they approach terminal velocity and explain in terms of forces. This links to the study of velocity time graphs ( and projectile motion ( in A level Physics.
  • using conservation of momentum in calculations which gives these students an advantage when they study Momentum in A level Physics.
  • use of force is equal to product of mass and acceleration and force is equal to rate of change of momentum which is later studied in Momentum
  • showing how velocity, frequency and wavelength of sound waves in transmission from one medium to another are inter related. This may improve understanding for 3.3.1 Progressive and stationary waves
  • construction of ray diagrams to show reflection at a boundary between two different materials. This may improve understanding for 3.3.1 Progressive and stationary waves

Three topics were identified as potentially assessed and link to the second year of the physics course:

  • static charge and electric fields. Combined science students will have knowledge gaps here when they study 3.7.3 Electric fields
  • understanding how loudspeakers work. This is useful example of the motor effect and will give students an advantage when studying flux density
  •  induced potential, generators and transformers including the equations. When you begin to teach Electromagnetic induction and Operation of a transformer be aware Combined science students have not met these ideas before.

For your interest follow this link to a table showing the Physics GCSE only content, the emphasis based on Advance material and where it links to the AQA A level physics course.

How the Advance materials affected the revision of the common content

Looking at the content common to both students there are some areas to consider when you commence teaching.

Covering electricity will require more foundation work this year.
  • When teaching electricity you will have to do more foundation work. Series and parallel circuits were not assessed on both papers and Physics GCSE the topic Current, potential difference and resistance was not assessed. In fact the Physics GCSE students did not have any electricity component in the assessed required practical activities. This means a topic many students find difficult to understand and model has potentially had even less preparation.
  • Both papers did not examine Permanent and induced magnetism, magnetic forces and fields. Students need a good understanding of magnetic forces and fields before attempting concepts of magnetic flux and magnetic flux linkage.

Combined science students only

  • Although Combined science students focused on the specific heat capacity required practical they were not examined on Internal energy and energy transfers section which includes specific heat capacity and latent heat. Topics which are revisited in Thermal Physics (A level only).
  • Forces and elasticity was not examined and to understand Young modulus students need to a good understanding of Hooke’s law and the spring constant.

Physics GCSE students only

  • Physics GCSE students had no focus on Pressure in gases. A good understanding of particle model is necessary for deriving equations such as average molecular kinetic energy (A level only).
  • Atoms and isotopes was not examined but students potentially have revised this for chemistry
  •  As electromagnetic waves were not examined understanding of the nature and properties of electromagnetic waves necessary for the study of phenomenon such as photoelectric effect or polarization.

Suggested strategies to help students as they start their Physics A level

Four main issues and ideas to tackle each.

  • Filling in the gaps

Where students have knowledge gaps set a flipped learning task based on the GCSE content. As a starter activity you can use an exam question, or a card sort or question and answer loop to check their understanding. Or where there is a large knowledge gap such as when you start electricity divide the class into pairs. Each pair is assigned a topic to research and both create a presentation. One of the pair remains seated and the other circulates around the groups. At each station they present their topic and then listen to the topic of another group. This way all students are responsible for teaching and in answering questions deepen their own understanding.  

  • Retrieving GCSE knowledge
Flashcards are useful for knowledge retrieval practice.

However prepared they are from GCSE it has been at least three months since their last physics lesson. Use of different retrieval activities such as using flashcards, completing practice questions or concept maps. Students can work on activities alone and then compare and add to answers using model answers or the responses of others in their group

  • Increasing confidence

Answering questions in front of your peers is very difficult for all of us. The fear of being wrong stops many people from participating. As a physics teacher you are interested in the ‘wrong’ answers as they help you move the students understanding forward. Make mini whiteboards a part of every lesson. Students can give answers to questions, jot down initial ideas, plans or working out. The low stakes whiteboard makes this easier for students to share. As you walk around the classroom you will have an overview of where everyone is in their understanding and can intervene where it is needed.

  • Tackling misconceptions

Students may have misconceptions or a lack of depth to their GCSE knowledge. Think carefully about your questions and perhaps use concept cartoons or diagnostic questions to provoke useful discussions. To help you develop these you can use the Institute of Physics website

Example diagnostic questions:

StatementsI am sure this is rightI think this is rightI think this is wrongI am sure this is wrong
A battery always has the same current    
The brightness of a bulb depends only on the potential difference across it    

Catherine Jones has taught physics A level for over two decades and is the author of physics books, worksheets and questions for both the UK and international market.

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