Preparing for synoptic content in chemistry

In this post I’m looking at why it’s very difficult to ‘remove’ content from chemistry exams, and how you can change your revision strategies to prepare for synoptic content.

Advanced information for chemistry – has it helped?

For many students, the advanced notices issued by exam boards for Chemistry A Level at the beginning of last week were disappointing. Although there was a good idea of the main content that would be covered in each paper, there didn’t seem to be anywhere near the volume of ‘cut content’ seen in other subjects.

Even for those exam boards which did appear to cut recognisable sections of course content, reading between the lines shows that in reality, students should be prepared to cover the whole course:

Excerpt from AQA advanced notice - topics may still be assessed in multiple choice or synoptic content.
Excerpt from the AQA advanced notice – most exam boards used similar wording

There is also an excellent summary here as to why, particularly for candidates aiming at higher grades, should still be focusing their revision on the entire syllabus.

For teachers, while this still may have been a disappointing announcement, it probably wasn’t all that surprising. The truth is, chemistry is probably one of the most ‘synoptic’ subjects there is. Learning how to link different topics together and to spot related ideas between one part of the course is a far more effective way of obtaining high marks than trying to learn individual pieces of content from a list. 

The problems with revising ‘by topic’

One thing I see students struggle with consistently is the difference between their marks in end of topic tests or assignments, compared with their performance in longer end of year or mock exams. They revise every topic on that checklist, going over practice questions for the topic, but then seem to find that they feel really unprepared for the bigger assessment. They often come out of the exam saying things like ‘that was nothing like any of the questions I practised’.

Seem familiar? Funnily enough, it’s not normally because the questions are actually like ‘nothing you’ve ever practised’. What’s really happening is that you didn’t revise for an exam – you revised for a series of topic tests, neatly packaged. You didn’t prepare for opening an exam to find a question that asked you about five different topics in the space of one page.

Hopefully, if you’re having this problem now, there is time to learn from the experience. Every year, in every examiner’s report for every chemistry paper, the main thing that divides the high attaining, stronger candidates from the rest is the ability to:

  • Apply understanding to unfamiliar contexts or unfamiliar compounds
  • Make and justify predictions based on their understanding.

Chemistry does not package itself neatly into discrete topic areas. Important organic molecules rarely have only one functional group. Every part of chemistry is linked to every other part. If you don’t prepare for this in revision, you’ll be at a great disadvantage. However, the more often and the earlier you train yourself to think synoptically, the more secure your understanding will be.

How to revise synoptically

Revising for synoptic content can seem a bit overwhelming, and will quickly take you out of your comfort zone. There’s no point diving straight from topic based or end of chapter questions into a full synoptic style A Level assessment as you’re likely to quickly enter panic mode. Instead, build up your revision with a few simple methods to make sure you start thinking about connections.

1. Combine sets of flashcards

Whether you use home made flashcards or an app like Quizlet, there’s no doubt they’re an excellent way to recap key ideas and definitions. Don’t always revise from them in separate blocks of topic content, however – physical flashcards can easily be shuffled, and most flashcard apps allow you to combine and mix sets together.

2. Practice mixed multiple choice questions

Multiple choice questions are a great way to encourage your brain to think about more than one topic, without being quite as nerve-wracking as full exam papers. The Cram Now website has an excellent option to select a random quiz for Year 12 or Year 13 content – or you can look at my Multiple Choice Monday questions to dip into topics you might have forgotten about!

Whether you use flashcards, written notes or mind maps – include a section that summarises how this topic links with others on the syllabus. Sometimes this information is obvious – of course the chemistry of alkenes will be linked to introductory organic chemistry. Other, less obvious links might be included in revision guides or textbooks. You can also look at past paper questions to see what sort of synoptic questions they may ask.

4. Be brave with mind maps

Mind maps might be something you already use for revision – if so, great. There are two big uses for mind maps though, and I suspect that most students focus on producing neat mind maps that cover a set topic on one page. While these are okay for revision, try making a ‘brain dump’ mind map to really force your brain to make new connections between ideas. There are two ways you can do this:

  1. Start with a blank piece of paper. Write a chemistry term or topic title in the middle. Then just see how many topics you can think of that link to it – and keep going! This works really well with an electronic mind map where you can zoom out. The picture below shows an example of this.
  2. Start with a blank piece of paper, but choose a list of 10-20 key terms and space them equally across the page. A good way to do this is to open a textbook in random places, or you can use the index. Now try to draw as many connecting lines between the phrases as you can – make sure for each connecting line you can write a brief word or explanation to show how they are connected.

Both of these techniques might result in things getting messy. This is okay – the point is not to produce a neat picture, but to strengthen and build connections in your brain. Once you’ve done this a few times it will start to get easier, and you’ll feel much more ready for those past papers.

mind map linking different ideas in chemistry
Links between chemistry content – I could have carried on drawing this all afternoon…
Claire Costello-Kelly

Claire Costello-Kelly

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