Kristy Turner asks one of her pupils to share his experience of A-level chemistry

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I recently took some time out of the teaching scheme to play with the recent Chemistry World interactive on public attitudes to chemistry with my classes. Afterwards, I wanted to find out more about what my older students think about A-level chemistry. 

More than ten years of teaching the course means I have my own ideas about why students choose to continue to take chemistry to A-level, and perhaps a few misconceptions. 

So, I asked one of my students to write about their experience of A-level chemistry. I could have produced a survey, but, as many of us know, they have a tendency to close down responses and are often quite useless when it comes to deciding on potential action points. 

I asked Nick his take on A-level chemistry so far. I chose Nick because the mix of subjects he takes gives him a useful perspective on how chemistry compares with others. I taught Nick for GCSE chemistry, where he achieved an A*. He was a good GCSE student, did his homework, worked hard in class, played football. He seemed to have a spark for the subject and I encouraged him to take A-level chemistry despite his reservations that he might find it difficult. 

Needless to say I was worried I had given him bad advice when he struggled massively with the transition to A-level and bombed his mock exam. But enough from me.

‘Quite different to other subjects’

Explosive. Intriguing. Unpredictable. These are the reasons I opted for A-level chemistry. Unlike many of the other subjects, chemistry carries an aura of mystery for me. Almost anything can happen, especially when it’s me carrying out the practical! Chemistry is an essential choice for lots of students – for a while I thought I may like to be a vet, though my plans are constantly changing. 

Throughout GCSE I found chemistry uncomplicated and within my comfort zone. I achieved my target grade without too many calamities. 

But this year has been very different. At first it was difficult to comprehend and adapt to the requirements of A-level standards. I’m finding the course strenuous, demanding and complex. A constant stream of new material is being hurled at me, meaning I’ve found myself working more outside the classroom than in it. 

Nevertheless, following a sting in my mock exam, I’ve found a new resolve. Realising something drastic had to change, I embraced a new work ethic. Now, actively making notes and pre-assimilating topics has worked wonders for my development – I’ve been able to grasp concepts more quickly. 

Chemistry is quite different to my other subjects. It requires a hands on approach, and most things you learn about are tested and put into action. The balance between practical and theoretical elements of learning is what makes chemistry really enjoyable. Despite being more complex than my other subjects and having a significantly larger workload, it makes a monotonous school day more vibrant.

Ready for reflection

Despite seeing Nick five times a fortnight for two years, I had no idea just how much he had coasted through his GCSE, and therefore what a shock A-level would be. Reading Nick’s thoughts has given me a deeper level of reflection than I would have found through a survey or any kind of school monitoring card. Quite often we ask students to bullet point for themselves some SMART targets in order to improve their achievement. Perhaps we would do better to encourage a more open ended activity for reflection? 

Have you used open responses for student and teacher reflection?

Kristy Turner is a teacher and school teacher fellow, splitting her time between teaching chemistry at Bolton School Boys’ Division and the University of Manchester. The student's name has been changed.