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GCSE to A-Level – Making the Jump

Are you/your child in the first year of A level (sixth form) studies? Maybe you have just sat the first A level (AS) module exams?

If your grades are not as expected, then you’re not alone. The jump between GCSE and A Level is, in most subjects, enormous. Most students struggle to adapt in the first few months, especially if they don’t get the right support. AS levels are, for most subjects, more technical and involve a greater volume of work than GCSEs. They are, in general, far more demanding, both in terms of the difficulty of the subjects studied and the approach students are expected to take.

As you may know, students take one set of qualifications in Year 12 (AS levels) and another in Year 13 (A2). A2s “top up” the marks achieved in AS Levels, meaning that you have to do an AS Level in a particular subject before you can progress to the A2. A typical student might choose four or five AS Levels and then take three or four of them on to A2. However, the term “A Level” is still also used in a general sense to encompass both AS and A2 qualifications.

AS Levels and A2s are still ‘modular’ courses in most subject areas, though re-structuring is expected in the next couple of years, but for this years year 12 intake modules can only be sat in June.  For now, module retakes are possible at both AS and A2. However, most A2s involve a synoptic element – in which students are tested on aspects of the whole course in what is usually a more general way. At GCSE the content of a module can effectively be ‘forgotten’ once the exam has passed. This is not true at A level.

Subject difficulty
Obviously, A Levels are harder than GCSEs, though the gap is slightly less than it used to be – one of the reasons the AS/A2 structure was introduced was to give students a stepping stone (in the form of AS Levels) between GCSE standards of difficulty and A2, which is supposed to be comparable in difficulty to the old A Level.

The intellectual “jump” between GCSE and A Level is generally huge, and some subjects cause students more difficulty than others. Chemistry AS level is a good example; GCSE, necessarily, oversimplifies some aspects (otherwise it would be too advanced for the GCSE student!) and at AS level, Chemistry students often have difficulty relating key concepts that appear almost irrelevant to them initially but are in fact vital building blocks to understanding Chemistry as a whole.

Other major subjects where there are quite big leaps are English and Modern Languages. Students of AS Level English will often have to deal with much more difficult texts than they encountered at GCSE, often with mature themes and difficult language. (When teachers talk about “English A Level” they are often referring to English Literature, which is more demanding than English Language A Level and often preferred by universities for that reason.)

There is a big difference in the expectations from A Level students from both a learning and exam perspective. A Level students have their hands held far less than GCSE students, and to a large extent are expected to organise themselves and their learning, read around their subjects to make sure they understand a topic and exercise more self-discipline. As already mentioned, the volume of knowledge required is so much greater, but accuracy and precision is also much more important.

A level exams usually require much more ‘precise’ answers than GCSEs and many of our students moan that their teachers are being very ‘picky’ about details. But, it’s a fact – A level exams require much more precision and this can be difficult for the student to accept at first.

Again, chemistry is a good example. Chemistry students – we hope – quickly become aware of the importance of dots and arrows in mechanisms. But when they are first told where to put dots and arrows and that they must be in precisely the right place, they often think their teachers are barking mad. The fact is that a missing pair of dots or an arrow heading to the wrong place can mean lost marks. In Biology, it’s no longer OK to say an enzyme just fits into a substrate – we must say that the shapes are complementary. The use of such precise language, and key words, is essential.

Another difference with A level exams is that marks can be deducted for wrong answers – especially if a student contradicts a correct answer and in the process demonstrates confusion and/or lack of understanding.

So be prepared for a bit of a culture shock with the transition from #GCSE! If you’re already experiencing this and have not done as well as expected in the first set of modules, don’t be afraid to ask for help – our tutors across #Manchester and Cheshire can help you with your AS and A2 #Alevel studies. Call us on 01625 531 360 or email us:

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2 Responses to “GCSE to A-Level – Making the Jump”

  1. Alison says:

    This post in The Guardian also provides advice on how to jump the gap GCSE to A level

  2. Alison says:

    A more recent version from The Guardian

    A couple of good points:
    At A level you’ve chosen subjects you enjoy and also there are fewer subjects.
    At GCSE, learning content is enough but at A level you need to understand it for the top grades