Tips on teaching the new A-levels

Saj Devshi

When I’m not teaching psychology, you can find me blogging about education across a number of popular websites. In my spare time, I love to create free revision resource for teachers, students and parents to help make education accessible for all.

Website: https://learndojo.org/ Email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Since the new A-levels have gone linear, it’s taken students and teachers some adjustment to start adapting their teaching to fit into this new format. I think it’s fair to say, it’s been quite a learning curve for myself and others especially with the removal of the January exam window.

With the linear format, students sit all their A-level exams at the end of the second year across all their subjects. Previously you had students learning everything in a more digestible modular format with the option of retakes. The problem with this is they have now not only lost the opportunity to re-sit their exams if they do poorly at college, they are faced with the task of recalling two years worth of learning across at least three different subjects all at once. These new changes place a huge amount of pressure on learners as well as teachers to get it right first time.

I’ve spoken to a number of other teachers who also feel the pressure. Take A-level psychology: students have to sit three exam papers, which are really heavily essay-based. The paper 3 exam, for example, can have up to 30 essays students need to know inside-out just to guarantee they go in fully prepared. That’s not even factoring in the other two exam papers or their other subjects (which can have up to four exam papers each)!

So what can we do? Here are some tips that can be applied across all the different subjects, which myself and other teachers have started to implement.

Show Students the Specification

Every subject has a specification that can be downloaded from the exam board website. The specifications outline exactly what students need to know for their subjects and they are relied on heavily to plan sessions. I consider them a map that shows literally step by step what students need to know for each exam paper.

Students are not always aware they exist or what they are or where to find them, having come from GCSEs. Showing this right from the offset will help them have a point of reference for their subject going forward. This also helps encourage independent learning, so they can simply refer to the spec should they want to learn outside of the classroom.

The four main UK exam boards are AQA, OCR, Edexcel and WJEC. You can find the specifications simply by clicking through and choosing your subjects and qualification, whether that's GCSE or A-level.

Make the most of free resources

I’m currently working with colleagues to create Psychology, Science, English, French and Maths resources at LearnDojo. The site was popular with the old spec but we've wiped all the content as the new 9-1 GCSEs and linear A-levels came in. It's completely free for everyone and the aim is to make it so parents and students don't have to buy expensive textbooks so all can benefit. Keep an eye out for resources coming soon!

Plan and get started early

With the huge amount of content you need to learn and it all coming down to the exams after two years of study, it's incredibly important to plan and start early so you can begin to fit everything in. Students are required to learn a number of topics over 24 months and are then tested on them… which might include something learnt right at the beginning of their studies almost two years ago. By planning and starting early, this means students don't need to be overloaded trying to cram everything in at the tail end as they approach their exams.

One really good method is to leave contingency sessions free to revisit tricky topics. I'll ask students every quarter to identify what they are finding difficult from the topics we've covered so far and then dedicate a session to go over them again.

For example, in the new Psycology A-Level my students have been a little fearful of the newly introduced Maths and Biology content, so we’ve spent the contingency time going over that. This way, you can revisit older topics within those gaps to keep the content fresh in their minds with refreshers.

Offer revision classes

Sometimes an hour or so isn’t quite enough to cover everything you need for your subject and revision classes for students always prove popular. Every subject will have topics which are quite frankly difficult, and you will know which ones these are because as a teacher because you probably find yourself getting confused with them too.

For example, teaching psychology, I know essay writing is something students really struggle with and I’ve run classes where we break down a good essay structure and how assessment objectives work (e.g. AO1, AO2/AO3). The jump from GCSE essay writing to A-level is fairly significant and students often find this a struggle.

Similar issues will apply for other subjects with problem areas and it’s always a good idea to identify and invest some time to tackle them outside of the classroom. This should help students become more confident and raise their grade levels as naturally they would have shy away from things they feel unconfident with.

Practice with Past Papers

A really good way of preparing for a future exam paper is to practice using past ones. What I like to do is:

  • print out all the past papers and break down all the different topics into individual booklets
  • print out all the mark schemes too and separate them into answer booklets

You’ve now created practice booklets you can hand out for all the different topics and students can use them get more confident with the exam style questions too.

Doing this encourages good exam technique from students as it gives them the opportunity to practice answering the questions as they will come up in the exams, but also refer to the answers and correct them using the answer booklets. This will enable them to get into the mindset of examiners and help them understand what they answer incorrectly and how they can fix this going forward.

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