Chemguide: Support for CIE A level Chemistry

Thoughts for teachers

Writing this section of Chemguide for the CIE A level chemistry syllabus has forced me to take a very close look at the syllabus, the support material, and the question papers, and I think it would be a good idea to share my impressions while everything is still fresh in my mind. Think of what follows as a (fairly critical) blog.

Any reference to CIE in what follows applies only to CIE A level Chemistry. I am not qualified to comment on other subjects or other levels.

The syllabus

Syllabus content

I am perfectly happy with what is in the new syllabus for exams from 2016 onwards.

The exam papers

Absurd grade boundaries

The standard of too many of CIE's papers is ridiculously difficult. I simply don't see the logic for this.

Obviously, if you have a difficult paper, the grade boundaries are lowered in order to take account of that, but we aren't talking here about an odd rogue paper, but consistently over-difficult papers year after year. This is most noticeable in papers 4 and 5.

In order to gain a grade A in paper 4 over the exam sessions from June 2007 to November 2012, candidates needed to score more than the following percentages. Where more than one figure is quoted, those are for parallel papers - paper 41, paper 42, etc.

Exam session% for a grade A% for a grade A% for a grade A
June 200764
November 200765
June 200865
November 200867
June 200965
November 20096264
June 2010665454
November 2010595959
June 2011615959
November 2011676769
June 2012556055
November 2012656568

The mean score needed to get a grade A on these papers was 62.1%.

If you do the same analysis of paper 5 over the same period, you will find that the mean score on paper 5 for a grade A was 63.1%.

Looked at another way for paper 4, it means that even on a comparatively "easy" exam, a candidate thought worthy of a grade A can't do a third of the questions on the paper. On a bad year, they can come out of the exam not being able to do almost half of the questions on the paper, and yet still get a grade A.

On average, a grade A candidate can't do almost 40% of the questions.

Is there a logic to this? If so, I'm afraid I can't see it.

If you have the time, it is interesting to compare the CIE exams with the equivalent ones run by AQA or Edexcel - two of the major Exam Boards in the UK. Edexcel is also available for international students.

The more straightforward questions are, of course, accompanied by much higher grade boundaries.

Does it matter?

You might say that the relative difficulty of CIE exams doesn't matter because the grade boundary movements take account of it. There are two difficulties with this.

The first problem is the demoralisation of students preparing for the exam. There is a risk here of undermining students' confidence by constant exposure to questions which they can't do.

Secondly, it is a truism, of course, that being taught by a good, experienced teacher gives any student a major advantage. This advantage is increased in this case because a good teacher can make use of these low grade boundaries. If a teacher uses all the resources available (mark schemes, Examiner's Reports and lists of grade boundaries) it shouldn't be too difficult to give their students enough insight to be able to gain a few extra marks to push themselves over a low barrier.

That's not true for students working under difficult conditions with less experienced teachers who don't know how to work the system. There is little the students can do here to help themselves, because the material they need is deliberately hidden from them by CIE.

The lack of availability to students of exam papers, etc

Throughout Chemguide, I have constantly made the point that students should refer to past papers, mark schemes and Examiner's Reports. But these aren't available to them with CIE - or at least not in sufficient quantity. At the time of writing (July 2015), there were question papers and mark schemes for only one exam session available on the public part of the CIE site, plus specimen papers for the new 2016 syllabus.

I can see the logic of withholding perhaps the latest two exam sessions so that schools can use them for mock exams and the like, but I can't see the justification of withholding more than that just because teachers might want to use the odd question for homework. You are gaining a small amount of convenience for a teacher at the loss of a major learning opportunity for students.

I know some of you will disagree with me about this. Personally, if I had given a student a homework question, and they had taken the trouble to research the mark scheme and Examiner's Report in order to produce a good answer, I would see that as a much better learning experience than producing a poor bit of work because they didn't understand what the question was getting at. If you want to test a topic, set the question in class under exam conditions.

Please give this some thought. Even if CIE won't release more material for student use, there is no reason why you shouldn't do it. In my experience, the more control you can give a student over their learning, and the more you trust them, the better.

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© Jim Clark 2011 (last modified July 2015)