6 Tips to Pass GCSE Science Exams

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March 20th, 2023Last updated: May 17th, 2024

In this article, experienced Science teacher Gareth, takes us through his top tips to tackle GCSE Science exams. Be sure to check out our other articles in this series including!

Exam technique – Why is it important?

I remember taking my GCSE exams (more years ago than I would like to admit!) and feeling incredibly nervous. I also felt like everyone else, my friends especially, were holding it together and taking the exams in their stride with ease. I had revised for weeks beforehand, whole weekends lost trying to commit as much content to memory as humanly possible. My friends revised only a few days before each exam, or so they said.

Later that summer I managed to achieve GCSE grades that I was pleased with but it was a lot of stress and anxiety to get there. In hindsight my friends were probably as nervous as me, hiding it well, and almost certainly had revised for longer than they had said. They’d mostly achieved better grades than me and I’d wondered how. Perhaps they’d remembered more scientific content than me but one other factor came up over and over as exam season loomed and throughout those weeks of May & June…the skill of exam technique.

This fabled skill was something I essentially ignored. I felt if I had a whole curriculum (or as near as) committed to memory, then whatever the questions thrown at me, I would give the perfect answer. I’d never given enough thought as to how I should answer exam questions effectively to gain maximum marks. While every subject will have slightly different skills required to answer exam questions there are some skills that are transferable across all subjects.  For the purposes of this article we will focus on Science exams.

Exam technique can be just as important as knowing, or at least remembering, the scientific content you’ve been taught. Regardless of the exam board, level (school entrance, GCSE, A-Level) or the science (Biology, Chemistry or Physics) you need to know how to apply what you have learned in an exam. When I was taught the following it completely changed how I approached exams:

1. Practice, Practice, Practice

Ask to practice as many exam questions and whole exam papers as possible.

Know how much time you will have in the exam and devise your own way of dividing the time up so you do not panic in the exam. For example, give yourself more time for the higher mark questions. You cannot plan for every eventuality but having practiced answering 6 mark questions in 5 minutes or 10 minutes might show you how long you need on those questions.

You should use the resources provided by your exam board. You can find a selection here:

AQA Science GCSEs

Edexcel Science GCSEs

OCR Science GCSEs

WJEC Science GCSEs

It’s easy to overlook the importance of Examiners’ Reports but they are a really useful tool! They are reports about previous exams and explain what the examiners think students did well as well as common errors and things to look out for. By reading previous examiners’ reports you can gain more awareness of the sort of things you should steer clear of as well as best practice to follow.

2. Don’t Panic – Take a minute

Simple but essential. Once you’ve been told to start the exam, ignore everyone’s frantic turning of the first page.  Instead take a deep breath in, using your diaphragm, and then slowly exhale out. Stretch your arms out and produce a smile. Collectively, this will, at least for a short time, reduce your stress level within your nervous system, increase endorphins in your body and even lower your heart rate.

Your classmates may think this strange but it will allow you to think more clearly and only needs to take 30 seconds. Then write your name, centre and candidate number and begin the exam.

3. Check your timings

Leave enough time to check your paper, at least 5 minutes 10 minutes if you can. You may need to adjust an answer or come back to a question you skipped initially. You should also have a clear idea before the exam how long each section should take you.

As you progress through the exam be sure to check the time periodically but try to avoid clock-watching too much!

4. Read every question at least twice

This sounds ridiculous, I know. But in an exam when you feel time pressure you can misread a question and go to answer it too quickly.  You may feel glad that you think you understood what it was asking and got a question out the way but on checking your paper at the end you see your error and rush to correct it if there is time. Worse still you never see the error. So always read it twice, read it twice!

5. Look at how many marks it is worth

As you read the question twice, be sure to look at how many marks it is worth. This is as important as knowing what the question is asking and a potential time saver. If a question asks you to

“Describe how to use a quadrat to measure the size of a population of buttercups in a field” for 4 marks. What do you think you should do? Simply, you need to have 4 clear points that can link together :

  1. How you use the quadrat (randomly/systematically),
  2. What you do once you have placed it (count buttercups),
  3. The need to repeat it over a set area and finally…
  4. How you use that data (calculate the average number of buttercups).

Equally, if the question asks for one safety precaution when heating magnesium and it is worth 1 mark, give just one reason not two or three.

If the question asks you to describe the pattern in a table of data and it is worth two marks, just take a moment to look at the data and re-read the context of the experiment. All you need to look for in the data is two elements of the pattern, e.g. does the data increase and then decrease? What is the rate of each over the course of the experiment? Can you quote figures from the table? Don’t get lost in giving a reason for the pattern, it only asks you to describe the pattern.

Is it asking you to describe or explain something?

Knowing the difference between these two words will save you a lot of time. Pupils often mix them up and give much more detailed answers than they need, or more brief answers than they should. Describing something involves stating how to use equipment in an experiment, what is happening in an experiment, on a graph or a table of results. You do not need to say why it is happening.

Explaining is where you would write why something is happening. These are often higher mark questions. For example, consider the question

Explain why sodium chloride conducts electricity when molten but not solid” for 3 marks. Somebody who misunderstood and tried to describe this might just say sodium chloride can conduct electricity when it is a liquid not a solid and not say why, essentially rewording the question. To explain this you need to say that:

  1. Ions need to move freely to conduct electricity
  2. They can do so in a liquid form of sodium chloride
  3. But they cannot move in a solid form of sodium chloride

6. Graphs and Maths questions

There are a lot of marks to be gained from drawing graphs, reading graphs, calculating means from results tables, spotting anomalous results and equation/formulae related questions. Many pupils leave these questions or parts of them which is such a loss!

You will gain marks on a 3 mark equation question by having the right answer but wrong workings or vice versa, so they are always worth attempting. Write down everything you do, it helps you stay on track but also shows the examiner what you were thinking. Use the periodic table (chemistry exams) and formulae sheet (physics exams), they are there to help.

Know how to plot a graph correctly. This means knowing which is the x-axis (along the bottom) and which is the Y-axis (along the side), label them, practice setting an appropriate scale for a graph, choosing line or bar chart to plot your results, plot points accurately with an X not a dot and to then make observations from your creation. A whole blog could be written on how to make graphs, they are a gift in an exam to gain more marks!

Final Thoughts

There’s a lot to take in here and even if you only remember a few techniques during the exam you will definitely improve your overall grade. There may be more techniques to add to this article but the best exam technique to take away with you is to breathe.  Especially if you get stuck at any point. You can always move on from a question you are struggling with and come back to anything you are unsure of or missed. Deep breathing will bring you clarity of thought and refocus you. These are skills and as such require practice to become good at, so be reflective and kind to yourself as you practice it.

Good luck with any upcoming exams and gradually implementing these skills to improve your exam technique!

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