Improving ISA Scores (Ethically)

Many teachers struggle with the boundaries for ISA preparation, both at GCSE and AS/A2. ISAs, if you don’t teach science, are a bizarre crossbreed between coursework and a practical exam. As professionals we recognise the importance of students being adequately prepared, and we have experience (or advance sight of) the paper they will sit. This is a dangerous combination, even without deliberate intent to provide an unfair advantage. (Arguably, senior colleagues might sugest, it can’t be unfair if it happens everywhere else.)

However, there are ways to let students improve their own scores, which are within the rules. You could argue – as I did to my class – that in ‘real’ science research you would never be expected to remember all the facts between measurement and analysis. I answered a question from a student, my answer developed into a homework, and I’ve adapted their ideas to produce the document available below. It’s intended for AS/A2 Physics, but they’ve already told me they intend to use the ideas in their other science subjects, and I’m thinking about how I can adapt it to use ith my younger students. Ideas on this welcome, as always, in the comments.

The ISA has a standard structure:

  1. Preparation of appropriate theory (in class).
  2. Students use a task sheet to produce a results table, do a practical and draw an appropriate graph, all under exam conditions. All work is collected in.
  3. At next opportunity, they sit a written exam, using their results and graph to answer questions in two sections. The first focuses on their experimental data and methods, the second on a similar situation or real world context.

The main issue is that it’s easy to forget details of what they have done and how they did it in between practical and exam. They may have been able to answer the questions (for example about acuracy and precision) while doing the practical, but they’ve been asleep since then. In a lesson with me they designed their own practical and wrote their own ISA paper. We discussed how the questions are often similar, and therefore predictable. I suggested we add a stage 2.5. What if, as soon as their work was handed in, they wrote down everything they could think of about the practical? What if they used their (entirely legal) knowledge of likely questions to make sure they had the facts they needed in a form they could revise and check? Even better, what if they wrote a set of prompts for themselves to use so nothing got forgotten?

And so that’s what they did.

All this does is formalise the recall that otherwise would have been patchy. I’m providing no feedback, or advance knowledge of the exam paper. They can discuss their ideas with each other, but that’s within the rules. It’s a way for students to manage and reflect on their own learning, as well as provide an insight into effective exam technique. What this does is allow students who are prepared to put in extra time and effort to have a better chance of achieving well in the exam, based on their own understanding. I like it. I hope you do too.

Printable: isa postprac as pdf.