Laura Scoular shares how teachers and students will navigate the reintroduction, and challenges, of assignments in Scotland

A cartoon of school students wearing lab coats carrying pieces of a jigsaw showing the elements of a practical chemistry investigation

Source: Composite image, both © Shutterstock

It will require a collective effort to help students get ahead with the new assignments for Scotland’s chemistry qualifications

As part of the curriculum in Scotland all pupils sitting National 5, Higher and Advanced higher chemistry are required to complete an assignment. The assignment is carried out in two parts: researching and reporting. The researching part involves pupils completing a piece of practical work, manipulating data, using online sources and finding some background chemistry to support their topic. The reporting part involves them presenting this information in writing under exam conditions. The finished reports are then sent away to be marked externally. The assignment is worth 20% of the final mark.

Young people are generally very resilient and excellent at adapting to change

As a teacher with a few years of teaching behind me, I previously facilitated the assignments when they were introduced, and have been involved in interpreting the changes made to them as the Curriculum for Excellence courses have developed. During Covid, all the assignments were stopped. This gave us more time to ensure we had completed all course content and meant that a learner’s final grade was completely dependent on the exam.

Meeting the challenges

Now that we are moving past Covid, the assignments have been reintroduced. For most teachers, this should be fairly stress-free, but there will be a small group of teachers who will find this more of a challenge. I am concerned that newly qualified teachers who must teach these assignments for the first time, or those who have come into teaching over the past few years, also teaching them for the first time, will find it really challenging. This can have a major impact on teacher workload. New teachers will need to take time to look over the course support notes, have ideas for experiments, and practise these experiments so they are familiar with what the results should be.

The starting point for the reintroduction of assignments is to find the course support notes. Thankfully, the SQA page for chemistry is well organised and the information is easily accessible. Next, most chemistry departments have meetings to discuss topics and potential experiments. One difficulty is making sure you have a variety of experiments for pupils to do. This is where selecting the correct topics is vital. It’s also important to select topics with available online or literature data pupils can use for comparison.

Expert help on hand

In most schools there will be teachers, like me, who have already taught the assignments. With a little refresher, it should be easy enough to recap and remember what must be done. Schools will depend on these experts to help buoy up less experienced staff. SQA has organised events to support understanding of the standards for chemistry in various locations across Scotland, but these are limited to one teacher per school. This means schools will depend on staff to cascade information to department members. However, there may be some scope to have extra members attending. 

Currently, the reintroduction of assignments feels like a mammoth task. But it will become easier

Teachers are all fairly used to adapting to change and, after reading the course support material, choosing the topic and then explaining it to pupils, I know that the process should be fairly straightforward. In future years this will only get easier. But this year and possibly over the next few, I think pupils will take a while to get used to doing the assignments again, particularly those sitting Higher and Advanced higher chemistry. The skills the students require are usually taught while they are doing their National 5 assignments and then levelled up when they get to Higher and beyond. Young people are generally very resilient and excellent at adapting to change, and their teachers are experts at ensuring students have as much support as needed and allowed.

Currently, the reintroduction of assignments feels like a mammoth task and is causing much stress. But it will become easier, as teachers remember strategies used in the past and pupils gain the required skills. We just need to take up the challenge and see what works, find out what the SQA expects from us and take it one period at a time. Ultimately, I believe the assignments have some benefit for our learners and give teachers a way to assess both their practical and investigative skills.

Laura Scoular, science teacher of 20 years, has supported many student teachers and probationers over the years