Pauline Winn, OCR A Level Chemistry Lead Monitor
In this blog, I’ve highlighted how schools have managed teaching A Level science practical endorsement at a time when restrictions have made it incredibly difficult. What approaches and challenges have been experienced, and what were the successes and lessons learned from this year?
We are so grateful to all those who have welcomed us virtually and, as ever, have been willing to work with us to complete the task. You have been wonderfully patient as we’ve attempted to do virtually what we would do in a ‘normal’ visit.
We found a huge variation in how and when the assessment of practical skills was carried out across centres this year. For some, it was business as usual, and one would hardly believe there was a pandemic. In others, through no fault of the teachers, practical work was impossible for much of the year. Despite this, the vast majority of centres made provision for their Year 13 students to achieve each of the required 1.2.1 practical skills at least once and could award these students the practical endorsement.
All the technical issues of planning and running virtual monitoring visits gave us all a challenge, but this was nothing compared to all the uncertainties, disruption and changes you have had to endure. We are genuinely amazed at having been able, with your co-operation, to conduct a normal quota of monitoring visits within the constraints of the pandemic.
We witnessed some truly astounding problem-solving on the part of teachers. As well as the suggestions that we and the monitoring team made, many centres used their own innovative approaches to make sure that the endorsement criteria could be met remotely. Teacher and technician demonstrations, use of visualisers, videos, simulations and a host of other resources all helped to keep practical work in the consciousness of your A Level students.
We saw one quite remarkable example where a teacher carried out a live practical in the school laboratory at the instruction of a student at home in Nigeria, all courtesy of the internet! Such examples were fantastic attempts to make practical work feel real, even if nothing replaces the ‘hands-on’ approach in a real laboratory.
For geology, though the mandatory requirement for fieldwork was lifted, some centres did manage to offer some local fieldwork. Most used lab-based or internet resources to teach fieldwork skills, using photographs, videos and online resources to simulate fieldwork and assess drawing skills. The seismic database activity PAG 2.1 was extended by some centres and used to teach and assess systematic sampling, software use and data processing.
Don’t forget our practical activity support guides for biology, chemistry, geology and physics are there to help you adapt activities to suit your situation and your students.
From the perspective of the endorsement, one positive has been regarding the usual stumbling block over the independent achievement of skills.
Even if students work in groups, teachers must be certain that each student has achieved each skill independently. We saw lots of interesting ways of ensuring this in real-time practicals, but in aspects of CPAC/1.2.1(a) it was sometimes difficult for us to grasp how an individual had been assessed in real-time. Remote assessment of skills made this easier in many respects!
As in previous years, we have found the biggest issue in centres was not applying the criteria in Appendix 3 of the Practical Skills Handbook when assessing practical skills. Even when student work had been annotated as lacking units or dates, the tracker was often left indicating the ‘achieved’ status for the relevant skills.
We continue to persuade teachers to use the criteria carefully and give feedback to learners on how to improve. You must demonstrate you are assessing work correctly and that your records are accurate. Development of the skills can also be supported through the use of learner checklists.
Common culprits in quantitative chemistry work were the reading and recording of titres, which must be to 0.05 cm3, and temperatures, which should be read and recorded to one decimal place. Across all sciences, the appropriate number of decimal places to which to record data should always be considered. When recording data, you should encourage students to use meaningful headings in tables and to record using accurate language.
In biology, biological drawings often did not meet all the standards expected and outlined in the drawing skills handbook which includes annotations and scale bars. Another issue common to all sciences was a lack of detail in the recording of qualitative observations.
For CPAC 5, some students had not referenced their work using an appropriate style, and as a result could not be said to have achieved skill 1.2.1(i). The use of spreadsheets for processing data is also expected, and where this is assessed students may need instruction on the use of Excel before attempting practical work.
CPAC 2 (1.2.1(a)) involves a lot of higher order skills beyond simply finding a plan for an investigation on Google. You can support students to achieve these skills by encouraging them to record their choices and any changes made during a practical, with justification, as evidence of achievement.
You should be clear about which skills you want to assess in a practical and ensure the students all have the opportunity to achieve these. If your tracker says a student has achieved a skill, there must be evidence in the student work to support this. So, if the evidence is missing, it is either the case that this skill is ‘not achieved’, or, if the skill wasn’t assessed in the practical, the practical mapping should be amended to show this.
If you have been monitored this year, we hope you found the process helpful and supportive. We look forward to continuing to support you in carrying out practical work next year, hopefully in more normal circumstances! More detail on 2021/22 monitoring will be published at the beginning of the academic year.
If you have any further questions, you can email us at firstname.lastname@example.org, call on 01223 553998 or tweet us @OCR_Science. You can also sign up to subject updates to receive information about resources and support.
Pauline is enjoying semi-retirement after teaching A Level in a variety of settings from an independent school to an inner city sixth form college. She has also marked, moderated and monitored in chemistry for OCR over the years. Practical work has always been high on her agenda, and she knows that understanding follows and associations are created when chemistry practical work is done well.