5 top tips for success with SQA assignments | Ideas


With the reintroduction of assignments and projects into senior phase chemistry in Scotland, many practitioners are in a panic – be they newly or recently qualified teachers or very experienced, their concern is palpable. However, help is at hand. In this article, I lean on my experience of 16 years in the classroom, as well as many years of marking assignments at National 5 and Higher for SQA (Scottish Qualifications Authority), to hopefully calm your nerves.

I have always looked at assignments as a way to level the playing field a bit, taking some of the all-or-nothing nature of the final exam out of the equation. Many young people who struggle with exams find the assignment a great way of increasing their final grade. These five simple tips can help you to support your learners in this endeavour.

1. Does it meet the criteria?

The first point of call for any planning should be the assessment support documents produced by SQA. Use these to check what is required at each level, as there are significant differences between National 5 and Higher. You need to ensure that suggested assignments give learners the opportunity to access all marks. For example, at Higher the experiments need to produce data that can be used to perform a chemical calculation, such as an enthalpy of combustion, while at National 5 learners only need to perform an average calculation.

2. Keep it simple

I can’t stress this one enough. When assignments were first introduced, many centres made life far too difficult for themselves. Just keep it simple.

Best-case scenario? Pick something that has many possible variables to allow the widest choice for the young people. It is important they do not all do the exact same assignment; giving them many options limits the chances of this happening. Simple experiments, like reacting metal carbonates with acids, allow a massive number of possible variables, while being relatively easy (and cheap) to generate data from.

3. Check and check again

Chemistry doesn’t always play ball. We can probably all quote examples of chemistry playing ball from our school and university days. Even something as set in stone as the electrochemical series can misbehave, especially under assignment conditions. Before doing the National 5 assignments, I always check that the metals being used in the electrochemical cell experiment produce the expected results but, in many cases, they don’t. Be it corrosion on metals, duff wires or overly sensitive multimeters – there is always something that gives dodgy results. My advice? Check, check and check again, and remove rogue variables that will mess up the data.

4. Time, and how to manage it

You have eight hours in which to complete a National 5 assignment, 90 minutes of which is for the write-up. This leaves 6.5 hours for background research and experimental work. In theory, this is plenty of time. In reality, it can sometimes be tough. I always plan on getting the experimental work done over two periods, leaving lots of time for research. There are myriad reasons why pupils are absent, from music lessons to dental appointments. My approach gives them time to catch up. Be organised as a department team, work closely with your technicians and it should be smooth sailing.

5. You are not on your own

There is a lot of support out there. Take advantage of all the opportunities to learn more directly from SQA with its Understanding standards website and events. Attend any of the magnificent courses run by SSERC on assignments, either in person or online. SSERC’s assignment ideas have all been tested to ensure they produce data. Be prepared to use other people for support, whether that’s in your own school, local authority or further afield (through things like the Strontium email group). People are usually happy to help.

The bottom line is that assignments are back so assign yourself some time to try out the tips above and see how they can make a positive difference to your students.

5. You are not on your own

There is a lot of support out there. Take advantage of all the opportunities to learn more directly from SQA with its Understanding standards website (bit.ly/3G0VlYZ) and events. Attend any of the magnificent courses run by SSERC on assignments (bit.ly/3R25Ly5), either in person or online. SSERC’s assignment ideas have all been tested to ensure they produce data. Be prepared to use other people for support, whether that’s in your own school, local authority or further afield (through things like the Strontium email group). People are usually happy to help.

The bottom line is that assignments are back so assign yourself some time to try out the tips above and see how they can make a positive difference to your students.

John Cochrane

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