This is a very long note. I think you should read it all. But just in case you don’t, here’s a summary of what I’m going to say.
(a) The students who get the highest grades are the ones who do the most work. Ultimately it is their job to do the work. If you have to make them do it, or if you try to get me to make them do it, then we all need to sit down and have a chat.
(b) But you can get a B grade in Physics with only about 50% of the marks. You’ll need 70% for a B grade in Maths, but the easy modules count equally with the harder ones, so it’s possible to get a B grade overall, despite getting an E in the hardest module. It’s very hard to fail to get into any university at all, and I’m not persuaded that which university it is matters as much as people seem to think.
(c) It’s all about using past exam papers and mark schemes. It is not cheating to use a mark scheme.
In my 26 years experience as a school teacher and tutor, the biggest single predictor of the final grade a student ends up with is how much work they did. My job as a tutor is to help my students understand the material, but ultimate responsibility lies with the student in doing the necessary work.
I’m pretty old school about these things. As we approach April, when I hear stories of students going on holiday, going on nights out, still doing their part-time job, and so on, I roll my eyes. Although I’ll soften this statement a little later, A levels are hard, and you don’t get high grades and get into good universities unless you make sacrifices.
To the parents who are reading this I send a contradictory message. On the one hand, if your son or daughter is still going out every Saturday night and is going skiing at Easter I am going to ask myself “what the hell are these people thinking?” On the other hand, your son or daughter is either 18 or nearly 18 — they need to take some responsibility for themselves.
My old school side is actually pretty comfortable with people failing exams. If they have to be dragged, kicking and screaming, to a desk every day then you have to ask what the point is. Maybe they’ll get into university, but what then? It’s not going to get any easier and you’ve got to let go eventually. At some point they have to decide what they want and understand what this will take. Failing to get into university may well be the right thing. And, if it isn’t, there are plenty of options to turn things round. I’ve seen this happen. More than once. So stop worrying so much.
All this being said, it is actually a lot easier to get into university than many people fear. Universities are motivated by money, and each student is a big old walking bag of cash. Someone will take your kid. And I’m not persuaded that if this someone is not a Russell Group university then the whole thing is a disaster. Many people live happy, productive — and even wealthy, if that’s important to you — lives despite not going to a RG university. Indeed, RG universities are not even necessarily the best ones. And they may not be the best ones for your kid.
I often use the example of my friend Robin. He did poorly in his A levels and went to a university you’ve never even heard of. I did superbly in my A levels and went to Cambridge. He’s now got a PhD in Physics, a high-paying job that involves endless travel around the world with stays in luxury hotels, a happy marriage to his childhood sweetheart, five kids (one of whom is now at Oxford), and a lovely house in the country with an orchard. I live on my own with a dog on a council estate and cry myself to sleep every night wondering where it all went wrong.
What does “work” mean? Is there a strategy? I believe there is — and here’s what I suggest.
Professional musicians will tell you that they do not practice for concerts by playing entire pieces over and over again — they focus on individual elements, perfecting each by endless repetition. To an extent this approach may be better employed during the first year and a half of an A level course. But it may still be necessary for some topics during the final revision period.
Whether a student wants to take a topic-based or entire paper-based approach, the key is to use actual past exam questions. I do not at all recommend textbooks or even revision guides. Students will be tested on the type of questions the exam board sets. Only past examples of these provide the most reliable guide to what they’re going to face.
There are two basic issues: what to revise and how to revise.
WHAT TO REVISE
A mistake I think a lot of students (and their teachers) make is to aim to get 100% in the exam. By which I mean, they cover all the topics and try to perfect all of them. For students aiming for an A* this is essential: they will require an average of 90% in (some of) the papers.
But, for the rest, aiming for 100% is not only unnecessary, it may be undesirable. Some topics are harder than others. Some topics are almost guaranteed money in the bank. Others are conceptually very challenging. My belief is that there is an argument that some students may need to identify topics to give up on. Let me try to justify this.
I'll start with Physics. The new Physics A level is clearly harder than the old modular one. But the grade boundaries are surprisingly low. Here are the figures for June 2017
You'll see that in Paper 3 Section BD, which includes tricky material like special relativity, a B grade can be gained with a mark as low as 43%. Even an A grade only requires 55%. That's barely more than half the marks. You can get an A grade in Paper 3 Section A with under half the marks.
Maths is slightly more complicated. A candidate’s actual mark (known as the raw mark), which is out of 72 or 75 (depending on the exam board) is converted into a uniform mark, which is out of 100. The conversion is fiddled each year to give the grade distribution the exam board considers fair compared with previous years. In Edexcel C3, for example, an A grade typically requires a raw mark of around 60 out of 75. But in June 2013 the paper was vastly harder than it had ever been before (the candidates filled the internet with Hitler videos in response) and this dropped to 50 out of 75. Both of these raw marks were translated into 80 uniform marks, which is the fixed boundary for an A grade.
An additional complication arises with Maths. The final overall grade is simply based on the total of the uniform marks obtained in the six modules. The easiest module, C1, counts equally with the hardest ones, like C3 and C4. It is possible to get, say, a B grade overall, despite getting an E grade in one of the hard modules. (I’ve had students who’ve done this.) By now, most students should be aiming for at least 90 in C1 — which is “too many” marks for even an A grade. So their score in C3 or C4 can be commensurately lower.
In other words, a student who wants a B grade overall can, in Physics, do so by getting an average of about 50% across the three papers. Putting it another way, they can get nearly half of the questions wrong — or not even attempt them at all — and they’ll still end up with a B. In Maths, they’ll need 70%, but this can be achieved with very high marks in the easy modules, and much lower marks in the harder ones.
So it seems to me that it is entirely legitimate to focus most of the energy on the topics a student already feels most confident with, and perhaps abandon those topics that they just can’t seem to understand. Perfection is not required — and it is soul-destroying and wasteful of time to pursue it.
HOW TO REVISE
The broad strategy is what I call the “three sheets” approach. The student should have (a) the exam paper (b) a blank sheet of paper and (c) the mark scheme.
They should look at question 1 and ask, “Do I know how to do this?”
If the answer is “yes”, they should do it, and then check (and mark) their answer using the mark scheme.
If the answer is “not sure”, they should look at the mark scheme to see if that gives them enough of a hint to get started. If it does, they should do it, and then check (and mark) their answer using the mark scheme. This is not cheating. Unlike other subjects, it is possible to read a maths or physics question and not be able to write anything at all. This can waste a lot of time, and can be very dispiriting. The mark scheme can provide the spark that allows a student to get started. Without this approach, they may just end up with a whole lot of blank answers, which is of no use to anyone, having sat staring at the wall for an hour and a half not knowing what to do.
If the answer is “no”, they should highlight the question for discussion with me during the next lesson. If the problem is something quick, they should send me a message there and then so that I can deal with the problem as soon as possible, rather than them having to wait a week.
For Physics students, I would add one extra step. Every time they come across a question asking for a factual answer (“What are the two postulates of Special Relativity?”) they should copy down the answer given in the mark scheme word-for-word in a special notebook and learn it off by heart.
Oh, and if my students taking Maths don’t learn the formulas on my website at https://www.profmatt.com/cribsheets/ then I am likely to become violent. There’s just no excuse for it. Ask your kid now what the sine of 30 degrees is. If they don't immediately say “a half”, then they’re just bone idle and I’m not taking the blame when they fail. Which they will. They learnt the alphabet and their times tables when they were younger and sweeter, so they can learn the maths formulas now. It’s not beyond the wit of man.
While I’m addressing the parents, I want to repeat something. Using mark schemes is not only not cheating, it is an essential part of the preparation. Students need to know how papers are marked. They need to understand what the examiners are looking for. If you’re worried that your son or daughter is just going to sit there copying out answers from the mark scheme then, yes, that’s cheating, though it’s not an entirely worthless exercise — I got through A level Physics by copying Andrew Pilbeam’s homework for two years. (It worked out OK. I got the Physics prize for my work on the Helmholtz coils, which I did all by myself, and I got an A grade in the actual A level without copying from him.) But, frankly, if that’s what they’re doing then you’ve got bigger worries. If three months before their A levels they’re still trying to con themselves and you into thinking everything’s OK, then you need to have a long conversation with them.
My final remarks address what happens during the exam itself.
I have a few rules for exams.
First, if you don’t know what to do, do something. You don’t lose marks for things that are wrong. And no-one reading your answer knows who you are, so there’s no need to be embarrassed if you think you’re writing nonsense. Besides, you can actually get marks for things that are wrong. True story.
Second, if you don’t know what that something is, ask yourself, “what kinds of things do I normally do in this situation?” What’s the topic the question is about? In Maths, the material is split into modules. You should know what topics are in each module. So you must have some idea what’s going on. They’ve given you a “y =” formula? Differentiate it. Factorise it. Shove a number into it. Just do something.
Third, never give up on a question half-way through. If you can’t do part (a) it doesn’t mean you can’t do part (b). Either part (a) is irrelevant to part (b). Or they’ve told you the answer to part (a) so you can use it in part (b). Or (honestly) you can make up an answer for part (a) and use it in part (b).
But do give up on a question if it’s just taking too much time. It’s not worth it. If you’ve written more than about four lines of algebra, you’re probably doing the wrong thing. Give it up. Move on. Remember: you don’t need 100%. Or even close.
There is very rarely an excuse for writing nothing at all. This is especially true in Physics for the wordy questions. Often some of the marks are for stating things which are incredibly obvious. And there are usually more things to say than there are marks awarded — in other words, you can give an incomplete answer and still get full marks. You’ll often see in the mark scheme four or five points you could make, yet you only need to have made three of them to get 100% in the question.
If you have any questions about any of this, I’ll be very happy to discuss it with you.