5 Things you need to know when starting A Level chemistry

It’s GCSE results day today – congratulations if you just got your results and are about to move on to the next stage.

Even bigger congratulations if you’re just about to start chemistry A Level. It’s going to be a challenging but rewarding journey, and to help prepare I’ve put together five little pieces of advice that might help to dispell some of the common myths around this subject.

1. You NEED to practice in your own time

Everyone should know that A Levels are a big step up from GCSE, and chemistry is definitely no exception. One of the main differences you will find is that the content is covered much faster and with less time in lesson available to go back over topics. At GCSE you probably had much more time in lessons to cover different examples before moving on to a new concept, but at A Level there’s more to learn, meaning your private study time is vital to success.

By ‘private study time’ I don’t just mean homework – if you’re aiming for a good grade you need to do more than homework. Retrieval practice, questions from the textbook, going back over your notes – all of these activities are important to stop you forgetting everything.

2. The things we told you at GCSE weren’t ‘lies’

I once had a class that used to call out ‘GCSE lies’ every time I taught them something that appeared to contradict what they already knew. It was good banter, but it wasn’t really true. At GCSE, we often gave you a more simple model than we do at A Level. It’s impossible to teach everything in the highest level of detail, and it may be that you’ve learned some shortcuts or rules of thumb that were useful in the past (formula triangles, all elements react to form 8 electrons in the outer shell etc.) but might now need thinking about more carefully.

You don’t need to feel like you were somehow betrayed by your GCSE teacher though – and neither do you need to disregard your ‘old’ knowledge. In fact, chemistry is one of those subjects where you’re going to need nearly every bit of learning from GCSE, so don’t throw those notes away. For a recap on some of the most important bits, download my ‘Head Start to A Level Chemistry’ guide to help you through the first half term:

3. Details really matter

Do you ever remember arguing with your teacher over a mark in a GCSE test or mock exam? Maybe you said something like ‘that is what I wrote’ or ‘it was only a small error’? It probably didn’t work for you then, and it definitely won’t work now. You need to know your language and use it accurately – you can’t get away with guesswork when it comes to definitions and you can’t make up your own rules when it comes to compound names and formulae.

There are a lot more calculations at A Level, and you will find it even more important to pay attention to details like signs, units, decimal places and signficant figures.

4. You can’t hide in an A Level class – and nor should you

If you’re one of those students who kept their heads down and tried to avoid class interactions at GCSE, you might have gotten away with it. This is not a good strategy for A Level though. One of my first indicators in a new A Level class of the students that will be most successful are those that aren’t afraid to ask questions.

If you don’t understand something – ask. You probably won’t be the only one. If you find everything easy, ask where you can find extra or more challenging work. If this seems very far outside your comfort zone, set yourself small goals. For example, you could make yourself ask one question per week at first, and wait until the end of the lesson to approach the teacher if you’re too shy to do it in front of the class.

5. You don’t need to be a genius, but you do need to put the work in

There’s a lot of perception around A Level science subjects being ‘hard’ and only for ‘boffins’. You may have already heard older students complaining about their subjects and telling you horror stories, or you might hear more subtle negative feedback from family members – ‘I could never do science at school’.

Yes, it is a challenge, but do not underestimate the impact that you can have on your own progress. The biggest thing that’s going to determine your success is not your GCSE knowledge, or how ‘clever’ you are, or even your teacher or the school you go to. YOU and the work you put in are what’s going to make the biggest difference. Start with small and regular effort – quick quizzes, flashcards, practice questions, mind maps – and keep it up.

Want some extra support to keep you motivated? Sign up to my email list to find out about new revision materials and resources for A Level chemistry, including a free study/revision club starting in September:

Claire Costello-Kelly

Claire Costello-Kelly

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