Kevin Grainey is the head of chemistry at Regents Park Community College in Southampton. In 2021, he carried out a project with the support of Elevating Chemistry in order to support year 10 and year 11 GCSE students during the pandemic

Tell us about the project you carried out with the support of the Royal Society of Chemistry.

We purchased chemistry revision guides and used them to support year 10 and year 11 students to develop their learning at home as well as in the classroom, so they could make more progress and get the best outcomes in terms of examination.

This was our second attempt at doing early entry in year 10. It was an idea we brought in to try and improve results in the long run and reduce exam stress in year 11. 2020 would have been the first year of doing it, but due to Covid-19 we withdrew the students before exams were cancelled. So this year was the first year of maintaining that early entry in year 10, along with two thirds of year 11.

As things turned out, we didn’t do external exams but those resources did help the students to continue to work and learn from home and prepare for internal assessments that contributed towards their grading.

How did you use the books in class?

Students were expected to bring the revision guides with them to every lesson. They were given different tasks to do at home with them and then during revision sessions for chemistry GCSE they would use the guides as core material and a complete set of notes where they may not have had that content due to gaps in learning in their own books. The notes were used in order to support the questions we were doing in class. We also created some resources, such as challenge grids, which were a set of differentiated questions and then the students used the revision guide as the source of notes.

And how did you use them at home?

We would never have had that as an activity to do at home before. The only thing we do at home is an online programme. We have an issue where, although lots of students do engage, there are some who don’t. By setting at-home tasks that used the revision guides we found that, because it was a physical thing and we’d made a big point of informing the parents, parents found it much easier to identify whether students were doing revision. If it’s on a computer, parents can find it hard to identify if students are doing work. With the revision guides, the ability of parents to support definitely increased. There were a lot of the revision tasks set from that guide that students were doing and meeting the deadlines for.

So that parental engagement was really important to the success?

Definitely. It’s always important to get parents on board, but giving them the mechanism to do so can be a challenge.

What were the challenges during the initiative?

Again, not all students engaged as much as we’d like. The vast majority did take the books home and bring them back, but there was a small number across the two year groups who didn’t and so didn’t engage with them. So that was our biggest challenge.

What were the effects on your students?

Overall, 54% of year 10 and 32% of year 11 achieved 9–4 grades in their chemistry GCSE. Based on previous results, this is really good. Year 10 did outperform year 11 and I believe that is because they engaged better with the resources as they knew they would still be in the same school next year and that the impact of their grades would influence sets they would be in. Our year 10 are on track as year 11 to have the best exam results in science for the school in years.

The revision guides also helped us to secure impressive results in the 9–7 range, with 11% of year 10 and 16% of year 11 achieving 9–7 grades. I feel this represents the students that engaged with the resources and made the most progress.

Did having access to the books have any effect on the students’ confidence?

It’s difficult to get real data on confidence. But definitely once we got into the habit of using the books, the students were much better at getting their heads down and using the books to try and find the answers for more challenging tasks. Whereas without the books, what would have happened based on prior experience is that that students would have either left the more challenging tasks until last and tried to do other things, or it would have been the very traditional response of ‘I don’t get it, what do I need to do?’ By engaging with that revision guide they gained the confidence to try and engage with more of the work.

So do you think it helped them with developing their independent study skills?

I would say that the students who are good at independent study were able to make better progress by having the revision guide to use during that time. So it might not have improved how much independent study they did, but having the books rather than looking stuff up on the internet allowed them to learn more in that time.

What was the effect of the intervention on you as a teacher?

It gave me the confidence to know that each student at least had a complete set of notes. Year 10 missed time in year 9 and again in year 10. And not all students engaged with online learning. So there were gaps in the knowledge. And knowing that they had that complete set of notes meant that I knew they had the ability to access the content. Also, due to Covid interruptions, there’s a limited number of exam papers and practice questions out there for this specification. So having the bank of questions and answers in the book that gave immediate feedback meant I had the confidence that they could prepare as best they could, and had access to all of the tools to help them succeed.

While I know that not every student made the most of them, there’s the confidence that every student had that access which really helps. Because you know you can direct them to more support material or more challenge material if they need it.

Did this make a difference to how you used time in class?

We were able to spend less time on note taking, and have a greater focus on going through questions to develop knowledge, understanding and recall. So there was a heavier emphasis on questions and application rather than the note taking.

Also, for the students who missed bits of online learning, there was less of an issue going through ‘who’s got this bit?’, ‘who’s got that bit?’. Because they had the complete set in front of them, the responsibility grew on the students to question the teacher and identify where their challenges were.

What were the effects on the other teachers in your department?

They were happy to have another resource to use, so that was positive. I’m the only chemistry specialist, so having that bank of questions alleviated the pressure of planning for some of that, and that really alleviated the pressure on the teachers teaching the year 10 exam classes (I took all the year 11 exam classes). It’s enabled them to have more resources for questioning strategies. Over the year, the department’s use of materials has increased along with the confidence in using them to help students engage.

We’ve now collected in the books from the year 10 and year 11 students and have reissued them to year 9. Already the teachers have been using them, and I’ve been developing some challenge grid material that maps to the revision guides, in order to get the best use out of them next year.

What was the most beneficial thing about taking part in this project?

It took stress off me and the team. That was the big benefit. It alleviated my worries and stress about what information the students had access to. The students had missed out on so much that having something we could give them to support their learning was a benefit.

What advice would you give to other teachers looking to do something similar in their own school?

If you’re using revision guides, make them integral to the learning in school as well as having an expectation they are used at home. By developing students’ abilities to use the resources effectively during class time it lowered the barriers to students using them at home.

Elevating Chemistry

Applications are now open for Elevating Chemistry funding, giving schools in the UK and Ireland the opportunity to apply for either £2000 (€2200) for a one-year project or for £3000 (€3300) for a two-year project to help young scientists thrive in the post-lockdown classroom.

Find out more