My approach to teaching and expectations of students

(AS and A-level Chemistry)

Many students encounter difficulties in AS and A-level Chemistry. This is often down to their having made a very ‘relaxed’ start to Year 12: a high grade at GCSE can result in complacency, with the student failing to appreciate the magnitude of the step up to AS/A-level and the pace at which the material will be taught. Other students work very hard from Day 1 and feel they are coping, only to have their confidence shattered by a poor mark in the first mock or practice examination (usually around Christmas). A different set of difficulties sometimes arises in Year 13: the student may have underperformed in one of the AS papers (necessitating a re-sit) and is struggling to understand the current material (‘A2’), which represents a significant step up in difficulty.

At the time of writing (August 2015), major changes are underway. Students about to begin Year 12 will study for either the AS or the ‘full’ A-level, which are now to be treated as stand-alone qualifications. Those about to enter Year 13 will still be following the ‘old’ system, in which their AS results will be combined with the results of the A2 examinations they will sit in June 2016, to form a full A-level. Having all the A-level examinations at the end of the two-year course removes the immediate pressure on those studying for the A-level, but students opting to study only as far as AS level will of course still be sitting their examinations next May. For such reasons, the general principles I set out below need to be considered within the context of your own particular circumstances.

Each year, I am contacted by a relatively small number of students or parents very late in the day, in the hope that a few tutoring sessions on ‘examination technique’ will be enough to bring up a poor grade. However, this can help only in situations where the student really is lacking only in examination technique: in most cases, the underperformance is due to serious gaps in subject knowledge and understanding, for which there are no quick fixes.

Some tutors teach primarily from past examination questions, but I prefer to begin by ensuring the student gains a thorough understanding of the underlying material. In the schools, students often receive rushed, superficial explanations; they are taught bite-size facts, parrot fashion, without the depth needed to really understand the material. Given the pressures under which teachers must work these days, this is to some extent understandable. Rather than spoon-feeding facts to students, I explain phenomena in detail, slowly and from the ‘ground up’. In chemistry, there are some key, fundamental principles which arise throughout the subject; once these are understood, they can be applied to a wide range of topics. These principles – rather, the skills associated with their application – represent the student’s ‘toolbox’. Indeed, it has been said that much of GCSE Chemistry can be tackled with a good working knowledge of the Periodic table. Add to that Coulomb’s Law and you are well on your way to being properly equipped for A-level (a fact rarely mentioned in the schools).

I prefer to begin tutoring a student as early as possible in the academic year – to allow sufficient time to review in depth the topics being covered in the classroom, thereby ensuring nothing slips through the net. Initially, I set basic exercises for homework. These are not at the level of examination questions, but it is essential students complete this work if they are to build competence in the subject: There can be no substitute for the gradual assimilation and consolidation of skills across the whole of the academic year. All too often, I encounter students who have left this too late. After Christmas, and certainly by Easter, it is simply too late to catch up: by now, the school will be setting examination questions which, without the groundwork in place, will be beyond the student’s ability.

It is common practice in schools to set end-of-topic tests, consisting of past examination questions. Although I always review these thoroughly with my students, it is later in the course where past papers become the main focus of my sessions. In the final few weeks, I focus entirely on past papers and examination technique. It always strikes me as unsatisfactory the way some schools rush through the teaching, only to then to send students home on study leave and expect them to ‘revise’. Examination technique is an incredibly important component of examination preparation, yet most schools offer very little in the way of help. Although past papers and mark schemes are readily available from the examination boards, students do not have the necessary experience and skills to navigate and appreciate the subtleties of examination marking. Without this appreciation, a student can achieve very low marks, even though they may have an excellent understanding of the material.

As an examiner, it often saddens me not to be able to award a mark where it is clear the student knows the answer, but has not used the highly specific – often bordering on prescriptive – language required by the mark scheme. Indeed, there is a ‘library’ of stock phrases that come up time and time again in the examinations. In the final weeks before the examinations, I drill this terminology into my students. There is, for example, an ordered sequence of statements you must make when explaining the shapes of molecules and ions; there is a set definition of ‘empirical formula’, which must be word perfect; you must also know when to use the word ‘atom’ and when to use ‘element’. The list goes on and on. Students rarely get the necessary training in this area.

Having a private tutor is, in itself, no guarantee of success: I cannot do it for you. I do, however, have certain expectations of students, which also apply to those not being tutored:

These recommendations are neither sophisticated nor onerous, just common sense. The students who fulfil these recommendations achieve the highest grades – not the students who are ‘going to get around to it’. You must get all this in place from Day 1, so you can ‘hit the ground running’. It is not rocket science.

For further information, please use the following links:


Return to Tuition Main Page