Doing an ISA with AQA

I’ve managed not to blog about GCSE ‘reform’ – despite great temptation. If you’ve not seen them, then I suggest comparing three very different viewpoints (in style as well as opinion) from LKMCo, Tom Bennett and NAHT. When I have time I might update my previous post, from the last time Gove announced a major policy by leaking the details to the Daily Mail.

For now, a quick ‘ideas’ post about using ISAs for good science teaching, and hopefully enabling kids to achieve. This is partly in response to questions from @NQT_diary, as it’s spurred me to turn the draft into an actual readable item.

Teachers’ Notes

  • the ISA involves lots of paper – maybe your department will be organised, but double check
  • make sure you practise the actual experiment, if for no other reason than to generate the ‘sample data’ needed
  • remember that the markscheme is now ‘best fit’; compare with colleagues if needed to make sure you are consistent as a centre, as this is arguably the most important aspect come moderation day
  • you can share more than you think with the students


Perhaps somewhat idealistically, I try to use ISA teaching as a way to bring together lots of ‘bits’ of investigative science. Ideally, of course, you will have used all of the skills and language in regular lessons; that after all is the point. Make sure that KS3 pupils are familiar with at least some of the terminology. The practicals are straightforward (sometimes insultingly so) which means students can focus on their explanations and analysis. Make sure you are using the updated language; I have sometimes had pupils create their own version of this using a range of examples.

My Structure

  1. Introduction
  2. Research 1
  3. Research 2
  4. Preparation for planning exam (Section 1)
  5. Section 1 exam inc table
  6. Practical 1
  7. Practical 2 inc graph/chart
  8. Preparation for analysis exam (Section 2)
  9. Section 2 exam

There are lots of issues with the ISA, as I blogged a little while back. It is possible to use it effectively, but in some ways I feel the exam works against good teaching; this wouldn’t be a problem if it didn’t take so long!

Students will need to complete the ‘research notes’ pro forma to take into their Section 1 exam; I had them do a ‘rough’ version which meant they had lots of material to annotate while revising/preparing. How much you direct them to particular sites is frustratingly vague, but in my setting we provided a range of sourses, some deliberately not well-suited, to make sure they had to think critically. Once the table is marked you can provide a replacemetn if that suits the practical better, without penalty. This means they aren’t penalised if a poor table would stop them collecting useful data. After the practical, the data and graph/chart must be collected, and returned for the Section 2 exam. Along with a set of ‘sample data’ (you produce), the ‘Case Studies’ (supplied by AQA) and their Research notes. They need a big table.

While teaching I used GRR principles (skills development from literacy, more info coming soon) which focuses on productive collaborative work. This adds an explicit stage in the teaching of skills (rather than content):

  1. I do, thinking out loud
  2. We do together
  3. You do collaboratively
  4. You do individually

The same structure can be used for the preparation lessons for both exams, and this brings us to the most surprising part of the ISA. We can share the specimen papers with students, and the exams are very defined in style so that in many cases they are effectively identical to the specimen. So they can attempt the specimen questions, go through the markscheme with teacher support, then sit what they know will be a very similar exam about their own research and experiment.

This still seems weird to me.

The preparation for the planning and analysis exams can be done in similar ways:

  • Talk through the specimen context and model a possible question for them, linking to key definitions (5min)
  • Have them predict and write down 2/3 questions that could be asked about experiment or data (5/10min)
  • In small groups, give them part of the specimen paper and have them discuss main points (10min)
  • Write their answers individually to improve accountability (10min)
  • Go through markscheme, comparing good/intermediate answers, having them mark/annotate their answers (15min) If time, they could compare answers from students who had time to discuss with those who answered ‘cold’

This gives them the practice they need, as well as building the skills. Of course ideally we would use all these bits individually in other lessons! I’d love to hear from anyone with thoughts or comments about what I’ve suggested.

9 thoughts on “Doing an ISA with AQA”

  1. I did the AQA biology ISA practical today, after a panic that involved my head of dept going out to buy pond weed during his free this morning!

    First time I’ve done ISAs, so have been very cautious at how much help to give, but students seemed confident with section 1 after their research and have laboured evaluation points for the section 2 paper next week.

    Have also laboured the point about language – some students are going to lose marks for sloppy terminology.

  2. Glad to read that the approach we’re using is similar to others (well, yours at least). We have 100min lessons, so our general model for ISAs is:

    1. Introduction, Research and Preliminaries
    2. Table; Preparation for and sitting of Section 1 exam
    3. Practical (and graph, if time)
    3. Preparation for and sitting of Section 2 exam

    As you say, they all have the same structure, so using the specimens (and exemplar materials), and letting students know they’re always very similar, helps them feel confident and prepared.

    We also use one of the specimen ISAs as a practice run with Y9 students, taking longer over each step than we do in Y10 or Y11.

    P.S. How do you find time to blog about everything, as well as doing it all?!

  3. With havin so much content do you ever run into any problems of
    plagorism or copyright infringement? My website has
    a lot of exclusive content I’ve either authored myself or outsourced but it appears a lot of it is popping it up all over the internet without my agreement. Do you know any solutions to help prevent content from being stolen? I’d truly appreciate it.

    1. Everything I have put up is creative commons licensed, so I’m not worried about it appearing elsewhere – but I don’t think it’s a major issue. I don’t make a profit out of the site, so I won’t ‘lose’ anything. I really don’t think there is a way to share it without it being copied; that’s kind of the point!

    1. Sorry for the delay getting back to you, first of all!

      I’d say the format in the above post lends itself quite well to one lesson (an hour-ish) per activity, so about eight hours overall. This can be trimmed a bit if students can do some of the research independently, but you’ll know if that’s realistic with the class. If you’re doing it under pressure – as I suspect many schools were in the lead-up to the deadline – then you could do one in a day, if you were happy to, ahem, guide their research and planning.

      1. Thanks. I’m a parent and my son recently had to resit his Physics and Chemistry ISAs (having got Bs last year). The school has had a whole academic year to arrange these resits but chose to do them at the last minute. The Physics in particular was taken over a lunchtime and an after school session on deadline day, spending about an hour and a quarter in total. My son feels he has done badly as it was so rushed and I am obviously concerned that his chances of doing well have been severely jeopardised. I really appreciate your response, thank you again.

    1. You can usually find a link to health & safety, or to making/saving money. Check the markscheme to the specimen paper. Obviously the actual context will be different, but you can still prepare a relevant answer.

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