Patterns in Graphs

This activity is intended to help with ISA preparation, language and graph skills. I’ve deliberately modelled it on the last part of the second paper (on the AQA specification) but it should still be useful in other situations. The patterns in graphs lesson outline follows the 7Es model, and is matched with a powerpoint and student worksheet.

The powerpoint refers to desk signs; these are a good way to define pairs of students, check names if working with an unfamiliar class and also give students some vocabulary that might be useful; this can work as a good starter activity.

There – my shortest even blog post! Please feel free to leave long and detailed comments, though…




Doing an ISA – Pre-Practical

There will be a second post in a few days, if I can fit it in between coughing, marking and spending time with my family. Please excuse the brevity, but it seems highly unlikely that my broadband connection – thank you Talk Talk – will last long enough for my usual wittering.

This is intended for those of us who teach GCSE Science with AQA, to help with the joy of an ISA. Of course we’ve no idea what format this will take once Gove’s messed around with it, but I can be fairly confident that even he couldn’t make it any worse. I’ve blogged before about the weaknesses I see with the current model, and what I’ve done to address them. Here’s the resources I’m currently using to try and help my classes. They should work, with tweaking of course, for any variant of the AQA Science courses. Click on the image for the presentation:

ISA preprac

I found that my students, despite having been shown the sample exam papers while they researched, struggled to include all relevant information on their Research Notes sheets. My solution was to produce an extra sheet with more detailed prompts, similar to those in the presentation above, which they could fill in. I had them keep the exam paper and markscheme open in an extra tab, and annotate their sheet with the linked question numbers for each fact. They then transferred their messy information to the official sheets, which of course acts as another rehearsal before the exam.

ISA preprac as .pdf

Please let me know what you think, good and bad. The ‘post-prac’ equivalents should be up by the end of halfterm, subject to the usual caveats.

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.

Performance Related Pay as an ISA

I’ve just been reading that the government (in the form of the Education Select Committee) is recommending a return to the idea of performance-related pay for teachers. Now, this is interesting, to say the least – and more than a little political. Because, of course we all know how well a bonus-led culture worked in banking. So I’m going to sublimate my anger and approach this from a scientific point of view. Not just by looking at the data, but by treating it like a GCSE science problem in experimental design.

Background Research

You can find news reports at the Guardian and the Telegraph, among others. It might be an ineresting Politics/Media lesson to compare the reporting of this story in different publications, perhaps? The news stories I’ve seen completely fail to mention that this will presumably only apply to schools governed by national agreements, so academies and free schools may not even care. I’m still checking out research (the actual data that governments like to claim backs up their case) but this from the famous Ted Wragg is interesting.

Confounding Factors

It’s not that long ago that the government stopped collecting what we call ‘contextual value-added‘ data – where the students’ circumstances, social background etc are taken into account. So if we don’t know about all of these things, how can we account for them? An abvious example is that in some schools and areas it’s much more likely that students will access a tutor. And what about kids whose parents help them out, talk them through homework, share study techniques? Who’s responsible for any improvement?

Subjects overlap too. If I teach a student who’s doing badly in Maths, and this affects their Physics scores, who gets the blame? I’m imagining wars between Maths and Science, between English and Humanities, as teachers accuse each other of causing them problems. Not a pretty image. How are we supposed to work together when we’re also competing? Nobody wants to be at the bottom. Will teachers in one department stop sharing resources with each other?

Measuring the Dependant Variable

Is this going to be based solely on exam results? What about subjects which don’t do an external exam, such as PSHE? The equality or otherwise of subjects is always a huge issue, especially when different types of qualifications are considered. Will it apply to all key stages – what about teachers who only or mainly teach at Key Stage 3, for example?

What happens if one class does ‘well’ (although I’m still not sure how we’ll be able to tell) and another doesn’t? What about when a class is shared between two or more teachers? Or when a teacher is ill or on maternity leave? Do good A-level results matter more or less than good GCSEs? Should absolute scores or percentages matter? For example, if I have 14 students at A2 Physics, 7 of whom achieve an A grade, is this better or worse than, say, Spanish, who have 4 students and 3 A grades?


Many courses rely to at least some extent on teacher-assessed work. Will the existing pressure on teachers to give students the ‘best possible chance’ be increased? Should only externally-assessed work be used for the judgements? In theory this could lead to ethical teachers being penalised when those colleagues who are more ‘supportive’ – and yes, that was sarcastic – benefit personally from the better results of their students.

What about those students who happen to be taught by their Head of Year? How will their level of support vary compared to others? Or the students mentored by members of SMT, who so often seem to get extra chances or have the rules ‘stretched’ for them? Teaching the children of other staff members may suddenlt be a bigger perk than before.

And who chooses which teachers get the more promising students? It’s already true in many schools that timetabling causes problems when particular teachers are perceived to get ‘easier’ classes. Sometimes this is unavoidable – imagine two A-level Physics classes, who due to timetabling are split depending on whether they aso study Further Maths. I know which one I’d rather have.


It’s so easy to forget with the rhetoric from politicians, but at a school level the sample sizes are small. Too small, really, for any such judgements to be made on a class by class basis. If we drew error bars on the results to account for the confounding factors – many of which we don’t know about, let alone have the ability to control – they would be huge. Yes, we can look at the effects of various interventions on students, and many of us are trying to use this data (see the fantastic work by Geoff Petty for example, the What Works Clearing House, and Dr Mark Evans’ Teachitso website). Linking research to educators working in the classroom is surprisingly difficult, though see #SciTeachJC for one such effort.

But the useful data comes from large studies, reviews of many classrooms and many teachers. If I have a class of twenty-five (chance would be a fine thing) then every child’s results make up 4% of the total. How many students in the average classroom will lose a relative during exam season? How many will have health problems? You don’t need many to affect the class results hugely, and these factors are unpredictable. Like decaying atoms, we can measure how many of these events will happen – probably with high accuracy – in any particular cohort. But in any one class it will vary hugely.


Our results aren’t even very detailed. Grade boundaries change, and we can often break it down into more detail than to an A or a B. Will it matter if students meet a decimalised target, or does just the grade matter? How many subjects will we need to look at? If it’s just about meeting a boundary, those who get over it will be ignored even more than we’ve already seen with the wonderfully-named ‘C-chasing’ strategy.


Sadly, it seems to me that performance related pay fails the test according to what we teach our students. It seems a shame that the MPs haven’t done an ISA recently…

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.