by Graeme Matthews

March 14, 2019

As you begin the final revision stage for your A-level chemistry course you may be considering using mark schemes as part of your revision strategy. You may have noticed that you understood the question on the unit exam but that you didn't put down what was in the mark scheme so the teacher marked it wrong. Or you may think that you don't get the concept so you will "just memorise the mark scheme" and hope that a similar question comes up on the exam.

Are you concerned about how to use mark schemes as part of your revision strategy? Are you concerned that you seem to be completing a seemingly endless amount of past paper questions and not improving your grade in the course? Are you confused as to what value mark schemes have in your revision for your upcoming exams?

Effective Study Techniques Used By A* Students

A* students regardless of the subject that they are studying have a strategy when it comes to studying for an end of unit test or their final exams in the course. Although they may not know it their study strategies are based on principles of neuroscience. And they have been proven to be effective by countless numbers of students before them and will be used by countless numbers of students after them. While this blog post is not a complete discussion of the study cycle used by A* students, it highlights three key areas of the study cycle: note taking, homework completion and revision. Read the blog post "Revision Plan: How A* Students Plan To Effectively Revise For A-Level Chemistry",  to learn how A* students plan their revision time.

The first part of the study cycle is to have a good set of colour coded notes. While there are many note taking systems that can be used, A* students use a note taking system such as Cornell Notes or mind mapping, or a combination of both systems. They use colour because they know that using a system of different colours helps them recall information more easily on their exams. Before completing their homework set, A* students generate a quality set of notes on the topic that they are studying so which summarises the content of the lessons and their weekly reading assignments.

The second part of the study cycle is to complete the homework set by the teacher. At this point, A* students differentiate themselves from other students because they complete their homework sets for understanding rather than for completion. They are organised enough to be able to meet homework due dates and are working a couple of days ahead of schedule. So rather than just completing the homework so that it isn't marked late or putting something down on the paper so that they can show their teacher that they have attempted the question, they have time to understand the concept being tested in the question.

The third part of the study cycle is to revise for the upcoming end of unit exams, UCAS prediction exams or end of course exams. Armed with the course specification, a well organised set of handouts and other resources given to them by their teacher, marked homework sets and sample past paper questions, A* students are ready to effectively revise for their upcoming exams. The difference between A* students and other students in that A* students know how to effectively use A-level mark schemes in their revision.

Effective Study Strategies Used By A* Students

  • Use a note taking system such as Cornell Notes or mind mapping, or a combination of both systems 
  • Generate a quality set of notes on the topic which summarises the content of the lessons and the weekly reading assignments
  • Complete the homework set for understanding rather than for completion
  •  Be organised enough to be able to meet homework due dates and work a couple of days ahead of schedule
  •  Revise for the upcoming end of unit exams, UCAS prediction exams or end of course exams
  •  Know how to effectively use A-level mark schemes when revising for test and exams

A-Level Chemistry Mark Schemes: How To Use Them Effectively

A-Level Mark Schemes

The use of mark schemes can increase your grade on your end of unit exams, UCAS prediction exams and final exams in the course if used properly in your revision cycle. This is because if used effectively they provide insight into three key areas: quality of language, point distribution and synoptic links. To be used effectively, mark schemes must be referred to after you have completed a set of questions because this allows you to know which questions you got correct on the practice papers. If you got the question incorrect, you can update your notes on the topic after completing more revision on the topic.

This is preferred over you referring to them as they complete a set of questions and lulling yourselves into a false sense of security because "this is what you intended to write down" when answering the question. If you do the latter rather than the former, when you take an exam you may find that you don't have the recall of the information that you need to answer the question and gain all of the points for the question.

Now you understand how you can use mark schemes properly in your revision it is time to discuss three key areas where mark schemes can be used to help you earn an A* in A-level chemistry: quality of language, point distribution and synoptic links.

Quality of Language

Quality of language is a hot topic issues in any A-level course. And its what you mean when you say that you got the concept correct but you didn't say it like the mark scheme said it. A-level examiners require that the answer to a question be answered using certain keywords. For example, in A-level chemistry a dative covalent bond is the donation of "a pair of electrons" rather than "electrons." So, if you write that a dative bond is the donation of "electrons" rather than "a pair of electrons", although the concept is generally correct, your teacher will mark your answer as wrong and write QOL (Quality Of Language) in the margin.

How you overcome this issue is to make a note of any keywords or phrases that are underlined in the answer to the question in the mark scheme. A* students then write down the keywords or phrases on a piece of paper in a separate section of their folder under a topic subheading. This degree of organisation allows them to build a glossary containing keywords and phrases to be used when answering specific questions on their exams. As part of their revision strategy they review this glossary daily so that when they see the question on the exam they know what keywords to use when answering the question.

Point Distribution

Point distribution is another hot topic issue in an A-level chemistry course. Has you ever noticed that you "answered the question correctly on the exam but the mark scheme wanted something extra?" If this sounds familiar to you its because you answered the question correctly but didn't go into enough depth in your answer to the question. When you get your marked exam back from your teacher you may notice that your teacher has circled the number of points that the question is worth or written "and ...." in the margin.

How you overcomes this issue involves two steps which are the same steps followed by A* students to overcome the quality of language issue when answering questions. The first step is to make a note of the number of marks each question is worth when you are answering the question and understand that the number of marks each question is worth indicates the number of points or steps that they should include in your answer. For example, if a question about a definition is worth three marks then their answer should contain three distinct points. A* students tend to circle the number of marks in larger mark value questions to make sure that they have included all of the points needed to gain all of the marks in the question.

The second step is to check your answer to the question against the answer given in the mark scheme. If they lost marks on the question then A* students determine why they lost the points. Was it because their definition did not contain enough detail? Did they lose marks because they didn't show working out? Or was it because they didn't write their answer to the correct number of significant figures or include units?

Synoptic Links

Synoptic links is a term used by educators which means to tie two or more concepts together in a question on the exam. A* students understand about synoptic links and are extremely aware of them because they know that if they understand the concept of synoptic links then they will revise in a certain way that will allow them get all of the marks on the question that contains synoptic links. This will allow them to earn an A* on the exam. Although you may not use the phrase "synoptic links" if you did OK on the exam but there was one question about a previous topic that you didn't know you had to revise for on the exam, then you are talking about synoptic links.

Although a detailed explanation about how to revise for synoptic link questions is outside of the scope of this post, A* students know how to use A-level mark schemes to effectively revise for these type of questions.  They use a similar strategy to the one used  previously when revising for quality of point distribution on the exam.

The first step is to make a note of when synoptic link questions arise on the exam. This is an example of "signposting", which means that you are looking for a signpost that guides you down a certain path. For example, if they are revising the topic on thermodynamics and notice that the topic on energetics is also included in the question, then they make a note of this and search out and complete more questions that contain the topic of thermodynamics and energetics in the same question. They do this because they know the signpost is indicating that there is a synoptic link between thermodynamics and energetics and that it will probably come up in a future exam.

The second step is to review the answer in the mark scheme and to analyse how the question was answered in terms of keywords and phrases, how the points were distributed in terms of points for working out, units and significant figures. And most importantly, how the two concepts were linked together in the question. For example, was the equilibria of weak acids and bases linked to the use of PH indicators?

A* students tend to spend time mapping out the question and recording their findings in a section in their folder so that they start to think like an examiner which guides their revision strategy. When they see this type of question on the exam again they have a strategy in place that allows them to answer the question in such a way that they earn as many marks as possible for the question.

How To Use Mark Schemes Effectively In Your Revision

  • Improve the quality of your languge used in answering a question by making a note of any keywords or phrases that are underlined in the answer to the question in the mark scheme
  • Increase the number of points you earn by answering each question by making a note of the number of marks each question is worth when you are answering the question
  •  Understand that the number of marks each question is worth indicates the number of points or steps that should be included in your answer
  • Check your answer to the question against the answer given in the mark scheme
  • Make a note of when synoptic link question arise on the exam
  • Review the answer in the mark scheme and to analyse how the question was answered in terms of keywords and phrases, how the points were distributed in terms of points for working out, units and significant figures

A-Level Chemistry Mark Schemes: How Not To Use Them Effectively

You may have noticed that A* students don't have mark schemes open when they are completing past paper questions and they don't memorise mark schemes. Rather they complete past paper questions on a topic under timed exam conditions, and then mark their work using mark schemes.

This is because they understand that completing past paper questions with the mark schemes open gives them a false sense of security because they will think that they know the material when they don't know the material. And this technique will not help them recall the information on the exam.

And they know that memorising mark schemes is a waste of time because the chance of them seeing the same question on the exam and recalling the exact answer to the question under the pressure of exam conditions is remote.

How Not To Use Mark Schemes Effectively In Your Revision

  • Have the mark schemes open when you are completing past paper questions
  •  Memorise mark schemes
  • Hope that you seei the same question on the exam and recall the exact answer to the question under the pressure of exam conditions

How Mark Schemes Are Used By A* Students

Mark schemes are used by A* students in the following way:

Strategy 1

Use them as part of a well structured revision cycle


Strategy 4

After they have marked their work they update their glossary for quality of language issues.

Strategy 2

Refer to them after they have completed past paper questions under exam conditions

Strategy 5

They use mark schemes to map out how to answer synoptic link questions.

Strategy 3

Use them to understand quality of language, point distribution and synoptic links in questions.

If you follow the steps in this blog post on how to effectively use mark schemes you will be well on your way to earning an A* in A-level chemistry.

About the author 

Graeme Matthews

Graeme Matthews has a B.Sc and an M.Sc in Chemistry and a PhD in Adult Education. He has been teaching a combination of university level, college and A-level chemistry for over 23 years. He has taught over 10,000 chemistry students in his teaching career. He has a proven track record of helping students earn an A* on their A-level chemistry exams so they can attend the university of their choice.

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