Chemguide: Support for CIE A level Chemistry

Information for students

CIE A level chemistry exams can be very hard!

This is true of all of the CIE A level chemistry exams, but is especially noticeable in the second half of the course in papers 4 and 5. But you mustn't be too worried about it.

Don't panic!

It is only a problem if you are the only person to find an exam hard. If everyone finds it hard, the examiners adjust the grade boundaries to allow for it.

So, for example, up to November 2012, the average score you needed on paper 4 in order to get a grade A was 62.1%. In other words, you could get over a third of the questions wrong and still get a grade A. The scores needed varied from 69% to 54%. The situation was similar on paper 5. The average score needed for a grade A on paper 5 up to November 2012 was 63.1%

In some cases, then, you could have come out of an exam getting almost half of the paper wrong, and yet still have got an A on it. That is completely ridiculous, of course, but it isn't really your problem. The people setting the questions simply have no idea how to set questions of a sensible standard.

June 2011 is quite interesting. To get a grade A on paper 4, you needed only about 60% (a hard paper); on paper 5, you needed a more reasonable 70%. Overall, 30.6% of CIE A level chemistry candidates got a final grade of A or A*.

Despite the fact that CIE often set hard papers, you can still get a good grade.

The syllabus change for exams from 2016 onwards

There are major problems in preparing for an exam when a syllabus undergoes major changes - as this one has. Until a few exam sessions have passed, there aren't enough questions set on the new parts of the syllabus to give you a good idea what the examiners expect from you. But you have to remember that everyone sitting the exam is experiencing the same problem.

Be very careful when you are preparing for the exam not to worry about pre-2016 questions which cover bits of the old syllabus that have been removed - a lot of syllabus has been removed, and several bits added. (Actually more has been removed than has been added - the new syllabus is much more friendly than the old one!)

Don't get discouraged while you are preparing for the exams

This seems to me to be the greatest danger in this. If you are doing practice papers and keep getting questions wrong, you can end up thinking that you are really stupid, whereas what may really be happening is that you are being asked to do impossible things.

The only way that you can know whether it is your fault or the examiners' fault is to look at the list of grade boundaries for the paper you are doing.

Unfortunately these aren't freely available to students. This information is only available from the teachers' part of the CIE website - and this is password protected. All CIE teachers should be able to get to this part of the site, and so you need to ask your teacher if they could download the Grade Threshold file for the exam session for the paper you are working on - for example, for June 2011, or November 2009, or whatever. That will give you the grade boundaries for all the papers in that exam session.

How to improve your chances

You need to be sure that you know exactly what the examiners want you to say in response to the questions they ask. Much of that is just about knowing the chemistry. Obviously, you have to get that sorted out first.

But an important bit of it is about not wasting marks. Some of CIE's questions can be very vague, and it is quite difficult to know what they want you to say. In fact, the answer they want is often fairly trivial. You need to look at mark schemes for the questions, but (equally importantly) you need to look at the Examiner's Reports.

These will usually give you really useful information about exactly what they were looking for, and why some answers weren't acceptable. They will also tell you whether students found the question easy or not. That's good for your confidence if you find that it isn't just you who couldn't do it!

Unfortunately, Examiner's Reports are currently only available from the password-protected teachers' part of the CIE website. Talk nicely to your teacher!

. . . and, of course, in the early years of the syllabus, there will be little or nothing available for you to refer to for the new items on the syllabus.

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© Jim Clark 2011 (last modified July 2015)