The best way to get ahead? Take time to look back

As we adjust to whatever our current ‘new normal’ is, a lot of people are looking for ways to make the most of a longer period of time at home than we might be used to this year. I’m impressed with the number of my students who are taking on extended project qualifications or Crest Awards, even if it does mean that the time involved in supporting them leaves me a little behind on my own ridiculous backlog of online courses.

As both a tutor and a teacher, I am also being called upon (usually by parents) to help make sure that students are making the most of this ‘learning opportunity’. While some of the queries or requests I get are about helping students catch up with missed work, or to go back over a problem topic, I would say that more than half of what I’m being asked is how to get students ‘ahead’. How can a Year 11 pupil make a head start on their A Level courses? How can a Year 12 student get started on Year 13 work before everyone else? Surely that is the best way to ensure success in their A Levels?

More does not equal better

The problem is, the rush to get ahead isn’t the most efficient way to work. If you are a student returning to school (hopefully) in September, your teachers will be planning how best to teach whatever new content you have in store. If you already decided to try and teach yourself a topic on your own, you will still have to sit in the lesson and go through it again. This leaves you with three potential scenarios: 

  1. You did an okay job teaching yourself, and have a slight advantage.
  2. You did a great job teaching yourself, and you end up bored and switching off when you go through it again.
  3. You did a bad job teaching yourself, realise you never really understood the topic and have to unpick a lot of wrong ideas and misconceptions you taught yourself.

Whichever situation you find yourself in, it hardly seems worth the effort of trying to spend hours teaching yourself new material.

So, what is worth the effort? 

In my opinion and experience, one of the number one things holding students back in chemistry is an insecure knowledge and recall of what they should have learned before. I’m happy to stand corrected on this, but I can’t think of another subject that is so interconnected and synoptic in its nature. There is a lot of recall, and there is a lot of application. To develop either of these skills to a really proficient level, you are going to need a lot of practice. 

My advice to either a GCSE student about to start A Levels, or an A Level student about to enter their second year, is to go over the stuff you think you already know. And by ‘go over’, I mean three specific types of activity.

Retrieval Practice

Rightly or wrongly, studying chemistry at school requires a lot of random knowledge. There are colour changes, reaction conditions and equations, chemical tests and observations. Then there are the mathematical formulae, the definitions, the names for organic compounds and the mechanisms by which they react. 

You won’t learn these well without regular testing – and testing means testing! Whether you use flashcards, online quizzes and apps or just the good old-fashioned tactic of writing it all down from memory – the memory part is key. You need to make your brain work hard to recall information during retrieval practice – if it’s not taking any effort, you are wasting your time. For this reason, you should also make sure you mix the questions up rather than only testing yourself on one topic at a time. 

Practice Questions

Most students know they are supposed to complete practice questions to improve their exam technique. However, it does tend to be something that is left until the threat of an exam – mock or real – is looming. Like retrieval practice, it can be all too easy to cheat during this exercise – either by not timing yourself, or by looking up the answers just to ‘make sure’. But exam practice should be effortful – it is the effort that is strengthening connections within the brain.

Another mistake that students make is to be too easy on themselves when looking at mark schemes. They aren’t the easiest documents to interpret on your own, but pay attention to any boxes that say ‘reject’ or ‘ignore’ to see where your inappropriate vocabulary may be holding you back. Even if you got the mark, use the mark scheme to see where you could have phrased it better and which parts of your answer were none-essential. 

Synoptic Learning

Synoptic learning means to link together concepts from different parts of the course. This is where the really challenging questions lie in chemistry and most exam boards now specifically assess synoptic understanding in a separate paper. 

How can you practice synoptic learning? The more inventive you can be, the better! 

  • Try making a concept map that links words from several topics. You can be obvious about it when you’re starting out (linking atomic structure with bonding) but then get creative as your confidence builds.
  • Index lottery – pick two random words from the index or contents page of your textbook or revision guide. Produce a sentence, paragraph, diagram or other example to show how they relate to each other.
  • Make up your own questions – making up questions is one of the best ways to test your understanding on a topic. It’s such a good activity, in fact, that I’m going to devote the whole of my next blog article on different ways you can make it fun and relevant. In the meantime, just try to make up questions that link to different areas of the course.

Foundations are really important, and you won’t be able to learn new content effectively in chemistry without really getting to grips with what you already know. So to get ahead in the autumn, spend your time now on some good old-fashioned revision.

Want some help with structuring your revision and getting motivated? Sign up for my free online A Level Chemistry boot camp starting June 21st – more information here. 

Claire Costello-Kelly

Claire Costello-Kelly

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