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The GCSE Physics Exam
GCSE Physics is assessed by an exam at the end of the course. There are no practical assessments or coursework. The exam consists of two papers, which for all the major exam boards, with the exception of Eduqas/WJEC, are equally weighted and each contribute 50% to your final mark and grade.
Depending on your exam board, your GCSE Physics specification will organise all of the skills and knowledge that are assessed by the exam into 7–15 main topics. Make sure you know the date for each exam paper and which topics it covers, as this will inform your revision plan.
The links below will take you to the relevant GCSE Physics specification:
- AQA GCSE Physics
- OCR Physics A (Gateway Science)
- OCR Physics B (Twenty First Century Science)
- Edexcel GCSE Physics
- WJEC/Eduqas GCSE Physics
Prioritise Your Revision
It’s a good idea to prioritise your Physics revision. Start by printing a copy of the course specification and going through the subject content line by line. Use three different colours to highlight:
- things that you know
- things that you are uncertain about
- things that you don’t know.
Read through this article in full before you start putting together your revision plan. It goes over concepts and skills that aren’t necessarily listed in the subject content of your GCSE Physics specification but form a very important part of the exam.
Don’t worry about the things that you feel confident with – going over these again is a waste of time. Start with the things you don’t know and schedule in some time to revise these areas first. Read through your existing notes and refer to your text book or revision guide if necessary.
End each revision session with a quick test to check understanding. The exam-style practice questions in our new GCSE Physics: Key Skills pack are perfect for this. They are organised by topic, so you can quickly and easily identify which questions to use.
Once you have revised the problem areas, complete a set of GCSE Physics past papers or practice papers. These will test understanding across all topics and highlight any areas that need further revision, helping you to fine tune your priority list and providing a benchmark against which you can track progress.
Get to Grips with Command Words
Exam questions use different command words that each require a different kind of response. Make sure that you understand what the different command words mean, so that you can answer each question correctly. For example ‘compare and contrast’ requires you to do two things, identify similarities and differences. The marks given for a question are also a clue to the type and length of answer required.
AQA publish a complete list of Science command words on their website, and OCR and Edexcel include a list of the relevant command words in their specifications.
Practise Recalling and Using Formulae
Make sure that you are clear about which Physics formulae you need to learn and which ones will be given to you in the exam. It is a good idea to select past questions and practice questions that require you to recall a formula and apply it. Only with practice will you gain the confidence to recall the correct formula quickly and use it to answer a numerical question.
You will sometimes have to rearrange a formula. It is good practice to recall the formula and write it down before trying to rearrange it. It is also a good idea to put the numerical values in before rearranging the formula.
Do the calculation in stages so that the examiner can clearly see your working. Always make sure that your answer has the correct units and number of significant figures. The key is to work methodically:
- Recall the correct formula (or use a given formula if appropriate).
- Give numerical values to the letters (there will be one letter remaining, representing the value you are looking for).
- Rearrange the formula if necessary.
- Complete the calculation to find the missing value for the remaining letter.
- Make sure all numerical values have the correct units.
- Make sure that the answer is given to the correct number of significant figures.
Re-Familiarise Yourself with Core Practical Work
You need to be familiar with the ‘core practicals’ or ‘required practical activities’, which you will have covered during the course. These are listed separately in the specifications or, for OCR, included within the relevant topic.
For each experiment, you should be able to:
- select or recall the apparatus used
- identify the measurements that you would take and how to record them using the correct units
- plot graphs from the data and make informed conclusions
- identify any precautions that you need to take and any potential hazards
- evaluate the procedure and understand the limitations of the investigation.
Evaluating the procedure might lead to you being asked to suggest improvements in order to make your conclusions more reliable, e.g. collecting a wider range of data and repeating readings, or using an alternative method, such as data logging, in order to improve the accuracy.
Don’t Overlook ‘Working Scientifically’
The ‘working scientifically’ section of the specification can be easily overlooked, but is very important. You need to be aware of how scientific ideas have developed over time and be able to give examples. Models are often used to understand concepts and you need to be able to use them to solve problems and make predictions. These can be tested experimentally and through observations. You need to identify the limitations and any ethical issues that may arise. You should understand why evaluation is important and the role of peer review.
Small Things That Make a Big Difference
Common mistakes that result in marks being lost include:
- not reading the question thoroughly
- not showing working for calculations
- missing off the units for numerical answers
- giving answers to too many significant figures
- lack of detail in answers about practical work
- not writing enough for long-response questions.
Losing marks in these ways can easily be avoided and practising and developing these skills as part of your revision will benefit you enormously in the final exam.
Brush Up on Your Maths
Calculation questions are another place where students often drop marks in the GCSE Physics exams.
The specification gives a list of all the mathematical skills needed in the examination. You should treat every question that requires a calculation in the same way:
- Write down the formula.
- Replace the letters with the values that you have been given (there should only be one letter left in the equation, representing the value that you have to find).
- Rearrange the equation so that all the numbers are on one side and the letter is on the other side.
- Complete the calculation, add the unit and check the number of significant figures.
Practice Testing and Practice Papers
Practice testing is the best way to prepare for your GCSE Physics exams. It is proven to be the most effective way of developing your memory and recall ability, producing better results in the final exam than any other study or revision technique.
Using exam-style practice questions will allow you to practise recalling and applying all the knowledge and skills outlined in this article and provide a good measure of which areas need further revision and practice. Use practice questions at regular intervals throughout your GCSE Physics revision for maximum effect and to track progress.
Our new GCSE Physics: Key Skills pack is designed to be used alongside exam board past papers to provide an excellent, comprehensive programme of exam practice and preparation. It is packed with over 150 higher-tier exam-style practice questions, plus answers, which have been written by subject experts and can be downloaded for use at home immediately after purchase.
We are excited to announce that we will soon be releasing a set of videos to support the GCSE Physics: Key Skills pack. These videos are designed to expand on the information given by the mark scheme, enhancing the feedback that you get and ensuring understanding, so that next time you come across a similar question you will know exactly what to do!
Image source: Wellington College