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  • Writer's pictureRuth Ashbee

Teaching beyond the test

I’ve never had a problem with “teaching to the test” as long as the test asked good things and had a good markscheme. With a few notable exceptions, this has largely been the case in science.

I was never comfortable with covering material that was not on the specification, unless it was A-level stuff that would help my students in the next stage. There were two reasons for this. The first was time- we never had enough of it for the specification, let alone “extras”. The second was that I conceived of the brain as a vessel with a finite capacity, and that if it was filled with extras there would be less room for the stuff that would be on the exam.

We have moved to a 3 year KS4 now so my first objection has gone. What’s more, I have come to understand that there are cognitive reasons that learning more content than is needed gives students a better chance in the exam: a schema acts like a framework of ideas on which we can hang facts and find them easily. Physics has several very counter-intuitive areas where significant misconceptions arise, and better schema will help students to better understand and recall. Below are some points in the physics strand where I will be going beyond the specification in order to provide better schemata. We are doing AQA Trilogy but I think most of the points are transferable.

Newton’s third law: Students find it hard to believe and then remember that if you push on a surface then the surface pushes back on you. This misconception is related to ideas about agency and the fact that friction goes unnoticed most of the time, but it is much easier to understand and then remember if you know that this is because of the electrostatic repulsion between the electrons of the atoms in your hand and in the surface. A similar reductionist explanation applies to friction, air resistance and upthrust. Strain is explained by electrostatic attraction between atoms in a material. If students learn this additional information then all these examples become more intuitive and also just special cases of a single force: the electrostatic force. Greater intuitiveness leads to greater fluency and ability to apply the idea in unfamiliar contexts. Seeing all the different forces as special cases of a single force is “chunking” and makes it easier to remember.

Potential difference: Students have been using the term “voltage” in KS3, and I believe the new term is baffling enough to exert a considerable strain on their working memory. What’s more, students are expected to recall the behaviour of current, pd and resistance in series and parallel circuits, and recall and apply three formula using V. I believe an explanation of electrical potential, while challenging, will support students with these curriculum points by increasing intuitiveness and allowing chunking.

Internal energy: Students are required to recall that internal energy is the sum of particles’ kinetic and potential energy. Kinetic energy is related to temperature, but potential energy is left without explanation or relation to other, better understood concepts. I plan to teach how potential energy is a property of “having had work done” and relate this to the points on latent heat and state changes. Indeed, this definition of potential energy serves as a schema for potential difference, GPE, and elastic energy stores.

Particle motion in gases: I’m going to teach all three gas laws here instead of just the one required, with graphs (not required), since I think they complement each other and a better understanding will be reached by studying all three.

Electromagnetic waves: There is no mention in the specification of oscillations in the electromagnetic field but I think I’m going to include it so that students can see where em waves fit in as waves. Without this explanation I fear working memory will be consumed trying to figure out what it is that “waves” and limit students’ processing power.

Ionising radiation: I’m going to teach how, not just that, some radiation causes ionisation so that ionisation is not just a fact to remember but a logical consequence of radiation hitting an atom.

Would you add anything?

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