By Sean Chua
Many parents often asked us: “Is there still time for my child to do well in ‘O’ Levels?” Every June holidays, we receive many phone calls from anxious parents seeking help for their children who didn’t performed well for their mid-year examinations.
We understand their concern. After all, it’s just 4 months before their child sits for the national examination, GCE ‘O’ Levels. Doing well for the O-Level examination gives their child more options to choose from for schools and courses to further their education.
From now till the ‘O’ Levels, students must stay focused and adopt the correct strategies so as to prepare themselves confidently for the examination. For Chemistry, we suggest the following:
1) Build up Strong Foundation of Basic Concepts
Based on our decades of teaching experience, the root problem we noticed in students underperforming in examination is their lack of understanding of the fundamentals in Chemistry. The level of understanding in the basic concepts is way below par.
Building a strong foundation is the key when students prepare for the ‘O’ Level, following a topic-by-topic approach. For each topic, students must revise and understand the underlying key concepts or formula, before moving to the next topic.
In Chemistry, it is important to know and master the topics taught in Secondary 3 first. For example, students must have very clear understanding of Secondary 3 basic essential topics such as Chemical Bonding, Writing Balanced Chemical & Ionic Equations, Acids & Bases as well as Mole Calculations. Chemistry is a much more abstract science subject compared to Physics and Biology because almost every topic is interrelated to another topic, especially those covered earlier in Secondary 3.
2) Pay Attention to the Usage of Keywords in Structured Questions
How many of you have your children telling you that they really pay attention in class and can understand what their teachers are teaching?
However, their examination results are dismay and they do not understand why.
This is because just knowing the key concepts i.e. “stories” is not sufficient.They will be marked by the examiners based on the correct keywords or key phrases written.
One of the main challenges that many Chemistry students faced is answering structured questions with the appropriate, specific, complete set of keywords.
For example, the correct keyword for a question could be “Graphite conducts electricity due to mobile electrons” but the common mistake that many students made is “Graphite conducts electricity due to mobile ions”. The reason for such mistake is often rote memorisation without truly understanding the structural properties of graphite and in examination they tend to write the wrong keywords. ‘A’ grade students are able to write the correct keywords as they have their basic concepts to back up their choice of keywords.
Mastery of Chemistry involves strong foundation of basic concepts coupled with clear usage of keywords on top of their application skills.
3) Attempt Ten-Years Series Questions
Next, to put their understanding of each topic to the test, students are advised to start work immediately on the ‘O’ Level questions as it will provide a reasonable gauge for their level of understanding on key concepts, their level of application skills and build up their confidence at the same time.
Since strong foundation is built on a topic-by-topic approach, the use of the Ten-Years Series (TYS) topical books is strongly recommended, preferably one that provides step-by-step detailed solutions. This allows students to check on the answers at their own convenience.
4) Keep Clarifying
Building a strong foundation consists of understanding the key concepts for each topic, testing the student’s understanding by working on the questions, and most importantly, clarifying any doubts and correcting any mistakes made.
Many students accumulate so many doubts over the years that it has reached a critical stage that these doubts, if remained unresolved will cripple their chance of performing well in the ‘O’ Level examinations. They must start asking questions to clear their doubts in order to feel confident and prepared!
If your child is afraid of embarrassment, get him to ask someone who has the most up-to-date knowledge in Chemistry concepts and someone he is comfortable with, for example, his friends, his siblings, his teachers or tutors. With technology, he can even email or message his questions to someone he trusts.
Some TYS books even highlight mistakes that are commonly made, and this feature helps students learn how to avoid them during the examination.
5) Examination Strategies
“Know thy self, know thy enemy. A thousand battles, a thousand victories.”
– Sun Tzu, The Art of War
Taking examination is just like a game. Your child plays to win within a given time frame, and to win this game, your child must be prepared and aware of the rules of the game. The real opponent is himself.
Once your child has mastered all the key concepts for all the topics, the next step is to learn how to manage his time during the examination. He can attempt a full set of examination papers, under timed condition, to simulate the actual ‘O’ Level examination. In fact, we put our students through such timed trial exercises in our weekly teachings so that they can understand and appreciate the importance of time management during examination. Through these timed exercises, they can also gain more exposure to a wide variety of questions which will future enhance and challenge their understanding.
Here are some commonly-asked questions from parents:
Question: My child has not completed his Ten-Years Series questions. On top of that he has many sets of prelim papers of other schools. Should he complete all the papers before his ‘O’ Levels?
Answer: Many students have come to us seeking advice as they felt very stressed out when they could not keep up with the number of prelim papers given by their school teachers. As a result, their confidence dipped and they felt that they were not sufficiently prepared since they did not have the time to complete those prelim papers.
Don’t get us wrong. We do agree to a certain extent that doing the other schools’ prelim papers are good for exposure and building analytical skills, but this is only for students who already have a satisfactory understanding of the concepts for the subject i.e. it will only benefit those students who are scoring B3 grade (65%) or more.
Imagine a student who has never passed Chemistry before, does practicing these prelim papers in which the questions are often set at a much more challenging level, benefit him? As Albert Einstein once said, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”
It is more important for the student to master the key concepts first i.e. complete the TYS questions and clarify any doubts before attempting such prelim papers.
Question: My child can answer most of the questions in the Ten-Years Series book. Does it mean that he is well-prepared to score an ‘A’ for the ‘O’ Level?
Answer: While your child is strong in his fundamentals, his performance is ultimately determined by his state of mind on the actual day of examination. Before that, he should try to work under examination conditions to sharpen his thinking and time management skills. He can also get more exposure by working on other schools’ prelim papers that may consist of higher order thinking questions.
Question: Will memorising the questions and the model answers in the Ten-Years Series confirm that he will score an ‘A’?
As reported in the paper in the newspapers recently1, 2, many experienced educators and Ten-Years Series books authors have commented that in the past five to seven years, questions from past years tend not to be repeated, particularly for Chemistry, Physics and Mathematics. There is no way of assuring that the student will perform well if he memorises the questions and model answers. In fact, examiners have recently introduced questions that cannot be answered by regurgitating from Ten-Years Series books, thereby testing students’ true understanding of the subjects.
Question: Does memorising the contents of each topic in the school notes and textbooks help to build strong foundation of concepts?
Answer: In Chemistry, only 10 % – 20 % of the syllabus requires memorising. It is a major misconception of many parents and students who perceive Chemistry as a memory – intensive subject. In ‘O’ Level, students are tested more on their application ability to apply the basic concepts instead of rote memorisation.
Question: Are crash course programmes beneficial for my child if he has very poor results in the subject?
Answer: Educators from specialised learning centres do play an important role when they guide students with the right set of questions that are carefully structured to get them thinking and questioning, even leading them to answer their own questions.
However, parents must find out more details of such programme. After all, the effectiveness of the programme should be your main consideration if you want to help prepare your child for the ‘O’ Levels.
If some programmes are too good to be true, they are likely to be! For example, any programme that claims to cover two years of content in just 10 hours is totally unreliable! How can a student understand everything in 10 hours if he can’t even do that in his two years in school?
Time is a crucial factor in exam preparation. You should choose a specialised learning centre with a proven track record to assist your child in his final leap towards success. Do start any revision crash course programme early! June holiday is perhaps the best time for your child to re-learn his concepts.
We wish your child the best in his preparation for the GCE ‘O’ Level Examination!
1: The Straits Times Newspaper “Memorising answers won’t score you the As”, 25 February 2015
2: My Paper Newspaper “Memorising 10-year-series falls short now”, 25 February 2015