How to prepare for studying at A level

The jump from being a GCSE student to an A level student is a big one. The challenges are different, the level of study is different, the expectations are different, your responsibilities are different and how you manage your time is different. I have dealt with hundreds of students over the years, many of whom made the transition to A level with no problems at all, however some did find it a challenge. In this latest blog post, I'll give you some insights into what is expected from you as an A level student, and what you can do to make your time at college a rewarding experience.

Love your subject

At year 9, you would have had the option to drop a few subjects that you weren't took keen on and then you are left with 9 or 10 subjects still. This will fill every hour of every week for the time you are at school. When you come to A level however, you will start to specialise even further, studying 3 or maybe 4 subjects. In the old days of 2016, there was the concept of the AS course, a one year course where you could 'try' a subject to see if you liked it, and if you did you could carry it through to the second year. In most cases though that has now gone, and you will study a subject intensively for two years. If you don't like a subject you will have maybe three weeks to change your mind, depending on the school or college. If you are not sure about a subject, maybe think about a vocational subject that is a little more broad in scope. But if you are passionate about a subject, and want to study it further, then that is what A levels are for.

Manage your time.

At A level you will have a number of Study Periods. Students refer to them as 'frees' or 'free periods'. In actual fact nothing could be further from the truth. There is too much material to cover in lessons, so the expectation will be that you will be using these periods to do assignments, homework, further reading, project work etc. Being able to just turn up to a lesson having done the homework is over. This is getting you ready for University, or for a job, where the degree of independence and self motivation gets even greater. For example, a common technique used now in teaching is the concept of 'flipped learning' where the teacher will get students to read about a topic outside of lesson, then in the following lesson, having assumed the work had been done, questions would be asked, leading to discussions and then onto some practice work. This is quite common practice now as there is just too much material to cover in lesson in the time available. However if you are sensible and use your study periods wisely, you can easily have a couple of them as actual free periods. Remember though - work first, having a coffee with your friends is a distant second.

Get ready for lots of work outside of lessons

At GCSE, you would move from one lesson to the other, so you would have regular homework timetables, but working outside of the lesson was relatively rare. For many GCSE's you could get a good grade by doing your homework, working diligently during the lesson and then revising solidly for your exam. This is not the case at A level. For example, as a Computing teacher, I would set three or four simple programming exercises to be done in the lesson, but then I would have about ten more for you to do at home. I would not mark this work, I would simply assume you had done it. The proof of the pudding would come when I looked at more challenging programming exercises further down the line, or the quality of your project, or a homework that I set. By this time, for some, it was too late. In addition, it will not be uncommon for several subjects to set homework for you on the same day, due in on the same day - that is why you have 'Study Periods'.

Make use of all learning opportunities.

Because of the amount of theory to cover in most subjects, the only way to get through the material is to cover it once, check you understand it and then move on. If you are not quite sure of something, your college or school should run workshops, or revision session and this is your chance to ask your teacher to explain things in a little more detail. You also have your classmates to work with as well as the greatest accumulated resource of information that the Human Race has ever seen - the internet!

Use the Internet wisely

There is so much information out there, it is easy to get lost, or to get sidetracked, or to find yourself reading about things in way too much detail than you actually need. Speak with your teacher, as them for any recommended online study or revision aids. There are plenty out there, you just need to ask which ones are useful. Your teacher should already be aware of most of these and have some idea of the sites and resources that are most useful to you.

You cannot learn your way out of trouble

Most A level papers work on the basis that you understand 'first principles' and then can apply them to a problem. A typical 9 or 10 mark question will start off with a 1 mark 'simple fact' question, that test have you learned something, the rest of it will be testing how well you can apply theory to a problem. It is not possible to learn your way through an A level paper, to get the top marks you will need to demonstrate that you understand the theory to be able to apply it to a new problem or to demonstrate that you have read around the subject in a bit more detail.

The Dangers of 'Reading around your subject'

Ah, this old chestnut. Poorer teachers say that to get high grades you need to 'read around your subject'., but no-one actually tells you what that means. I remember when I was doing my A levels, I spent two days reading a textbook on colloids and making notes for my A level Chemistry, only to be told by the teacher that what I had done was in way too much detail, didn't cover what was on the specification and that it was pretty much useless. So what does 'reading around your subject' actually mean? Well there are a few things you can do:

  1. Has your teacher provided you with any further reading materials? If they have not, ask them for some links to sites and articles that go into what you are studying in a bit more detail.

  2. Be current - look at any websites that show what is happening in your subject today. For computing, I recommend www.theregister.co.uk. This website shows what is going on in the world of computing today. If you are a scientist, you don't need to read research papers, only the abstracts, or to look at a digest journal.

  3. Be focused - only read about stuff that is actually relevant to the topic you are studying. If you are studying Principles of operation of a hard drive, a useful article is about hybrid drives, and the new technology that powers them. Reading about a new CPU architecture is a bit irrelevant.

  4. Keep it simple - you are only doing an A level. At this stage demonstrating an awareness of what's currently going in, or a bit more detail about your subject is absolutely fine.

  5. Ask your teacher for a copy of your syllabus. It's nothing magical, it's a document that will tell you exactly what is going to be covered in your course and it might give you an idea of the level of detail you will be required to go into. This is the 'rulebook' and your teacher ought to be following it to the letter!

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