What can a Year 9 or Year 10 do to achieve success in GCSE / IGCSE Physics?

It doesn’t really matter whether your child is studying:

AQA GCSE Trilogy/Combined Science GCSE (9 – 1) Physics

Edexcel Combined Science/Separate IGCSE (9 – 1) Physics

Edexcel Combined Science GCSE (9 – 1) Physics

Edexcel Level 1/Level 2 GCSE (9 – 1) Physics

Eduqas Combined Science GCSE (9-1)/Physics

OCR GCSE Gateway Science Combined Science A GCSE (9-1)/ Physics

This isn’t a comprehensive list of all the different versions of the science/ physics specifications in the UK and I think it is important that parents don’t get too bogged by this as the principles of what you must do to achieve success in physics at GCSE or IGCSE (9-1) doesn’t really change regardless of the specification or exam board.

I would suggest five main areas of focus in order of importance are:

  • Learn the equations.

All the exam boards for physics require the memorization of over 20 equations. A small number of equations are given as an insert in the exam. It is vitally important that students learn the equations and make a concerted effort to learn the symbols and units.

It is important that students learn any alternative names for concepts such as Potential difference can also be known as Voltage. It is also important to learn the units for each concept.

e.g. Resistance is measured in ohms with abbreviation Ω.

I have published a set of equations for IGCSE Edexcel on my website that can be downloaded here and also published an article on techniques that can be used to learn electricity equations here.

Please find equations for AQA Physics here and CIE Physics here

In the past my students have used memrise, quizlet and an app called 23 equations

The key is little and often and repetition over time. If you keep revisiting then they will stick eventually. This can’t be left until the last minute!

  • Learn the keywords.

A common misconception if you know the equations and are good at maths is that physics will be really straightforward. This is not the case as the exam is normally roughly less than half calculation-based questions. A small percentage of the questions will be based on what is pure recall of facts but a more significant part of the paper is either; descriptive questions, applying the physics concepts to situations, or questions linked to describing experiments or analysing data.

It is important in a 4-6 mark question to break the response up into single short sentences and possibly even use bullet points.

Each subtopic will contain a handful of keywords that need to be included to maximise the marks on that question. For example nearly all questions about the subtopics convection and conduction would need to include some or all of the following words in the answer:

density, particles, kinetic energy, melting, transfer, denser, less dense, rises, falls, expands, displaces, hotter/warmer, colder, convection current, repeats and possibly conduction.

An Example of a 4-6 mark descriptive question:

Explain how an ice cube cools a glass of water?

Energy is transferred from the water to the ice cube by conduction.

The molecules in the ice cube gain kinetic energy and move further apart breaking the bonds. The water melts.

The colder cold water near the ice cube is denser than the warmer water around it so it sinks below it to the bottom of the glass.

The warmer water at the bottom of the glass is displaced and because it is less dense than the water around it it rises.

This process will repeat as a convection current in the glass until the ice has all melted.

It is much easier for our brain to learn keywords than whole definitions. If the student first learns the keywords and then applies them to questions it will be much easier to cement the underlying physics principles.

Most schools will provide the students with a lot of exam practice questions. For further practice I would recommend the Scholastic Series of both Exam practice question book and extra exam practice papers. These are available across the 3 sciences.

The following example from the Scholastic Series provides an opportunity to test your recall of the keywords from the life cycle of stars topic. The student must be familiar with keywords like protostar, main-sequence star, red giant, red super giant, black hole and neutron star to be able to access these marks.

The subsequent example provides an opportunity to answer a more open-ended descriptive question.  It builds on the recall from the first question and offers students the opportunity to apply the keywords to a more open-ended 6-mark question.

A sensible response with highlighted keywords would look like this:

The early universe was composed mainly of hydrogen and a small amount of helium. Once a star reaches the main sequence stage it fuses lighter hydrogen into heavier element helium. This process is called fusion and occurs at high temperature and pressure. The process continues and heavier elements are formed by the fusion process. A star can fuse elements as heavy as iron. Elements heavier than iron are formed when a star with a (much) larger mass than ours collapses and there is a supernova. A supernova is an explosion that spreads these heavier elements throughtout the universe.

  • Make sure you are comfortable interpreting or drawing graphs.

In the GCSE and IGCSE syllabus across all the sciences there are many marks available for either taking data from graphs or being given data and drawing a graph. There could be potentially up to two grades gained in an exam if you are confident in interpreting graphs and drawing them. When drawing graphs use sensible scales such as multiples of 1, 2, 5, 10, 100 etc. Remember to plot points with a pencil and then draw a line of best fit.

The line will be either a straight line or a curve depending on the data. The graph below would be a classic example of a curve. If you have a lot of anomalies make sure you have the same number (roughly) above and below the line of best fit.

  • Practice hundreds of exam practice questions.

I would suggest students don’t attempt practice questions unless they have access to the mark scheme. This way they can monitor their performance on the question with immediacy. It is important to mark in a different colour and add to the solution any missing obvious keywords or key-points that would have led to easy marks.

The following question from the Scholastic Series is a more challenging question that in part (a) requires the recall of the kinetic energy equation:

The next 4 marks (b and c) in the question are for correctly calculating the kinetic energy values for the cat and the dog.

The mark (d) requires the kinetic energy to be rearranged making speed the subject. Changing the subject of an equation is also a key skill that must be rehearsed and practiced.

The final mark is for being able to recognize the speed of the dog relative to the cat. and use this speed to calculate what time is required to reach cat. This requires knowledge of the speed equation (as seen below) and the ability to rearrange it making time the subject.

The key idea here is that without confident knowledge of the equations and keywords and the ability to apply them to the questions then accessing any of the marks will be impossible. In a question of this type with a high mark quota this could very easily mean not knowing the equation will lead to dropping a grade just for this question!

To summarise: Learn equations, learn keywords, practice drawing graphs then finally apply these skills to practice questions to check that this key-learning can be applied to questions.

Where possible use questions that start with fast recall then gradually build to more complex challenging questions.

For calculations this will be multi-step problems like the dog and cat question and for keywords a descriptive question like the life cycle of stars problem.

The Scholastic Series has a revision guide, exam practice book and additional practice papers. All are published with detailed mark-schemes and start with less challenging questions that gradually build in complexity.

If physics seems inpenetrable at the moment to your child and they are suffering from a crisis of confidence consider using a physics tutor. I have many years of success stories inside the classroom of great UK schools in both the independent and maintained sector and as a private face to face and online tutor. I have around 50 reviews on my Facebook page this is a testament to the positive relationship I forge with my students and the tools I give them to not only pass but excel in physics.

If you would like to get in touch for a chat or free trial-lesson click here to go to my contacts page.