A common problem that I see at school level is going from GCSE to A-level. A very common scenario is that a student will get an A or even an A* at GCSE then spectacularly make a mess of their AS exams. They did so well at GCSE and now they are getting C’s, D’s or even U’s. Why?
GCSE Versus A-Level
The skills you need for GCSE and A-level are very different. GCSEs often require factual short answers worth 1 and 2 marks that can largely be learnt from a book. There is not much variation from year to year either so it can be very obvious what they will test you on.
An A at GCSE means you have done well at that level and that you are good enough to get a good grade at A-level too. The ability is there but they are very different qualifications and require a few adjustments.
An A at GCSE does not mean that you will automatically get an A at A-level. And this is the mistake a lot of people make. They often don’t even realise this until after their first A-level exams and by that point the pressure and work load mounts especially as they often re-sit exams.
With A-levels, you are faced with an intellectual jump, the material is more difficult, there is a lot more of it and the exams are different.
Manage Your Expectations
The first thing to do is accept that it is going to be harder. Do not expect to understand everything immediately. Yes, you may have “got it” quickly at GCSE but A-level concepts are will take longer to understand.
You have to realise this and not to worry or panic if it takes you days or weeks to get there. This is what someone might call managing your expectations. Please do not think that you are stupid or not good enough if you do not understand everything within 10 minutes. In fact, you may not even be struggling as much as you think you are; you are just comparing it to what you did and felt at GCSE but they are two different things and not really comparable.
You will also, given time, become used to the higher standard that you are faced with. After a few months you will become more comfortable with the level that you are working at. It’s a steep learning curve but it will level out. Just be patient.
A Different Approach
Next you simply have to work harder. Put in a bit more effort, put in some extra hours, especially if you think that you are struggling initially.
Aim to understand concepts. If you feel that you are still struggling after a few weeks ask for help. Do not sit on it and become stressed. Asking for help is fine. I’ve lost track of the number of times I had to ask for help at University. Asking for help does not mean that you are stupid. In fact, it shows that you are smart. You will save yourself time and a lot of stress.
Your aim is to understand things, it really doesn’t matter how you get there.
If you don’t want to ask in class, then ask the person sitting next to you. Ask someone reliable and clever. They may even explain it to you better or simpler than the teacher. Also, utilise several resources.
At GCSE you may have stuck to one book, at A-level you should start to use several books and websites but not too many. You should have your own notes from class and one book that are your first port of call. Your own notes straight from class should be good enough to sit and pass the exam with.
Ideally you should have a comprehensive book that covers everything in detail and a summary guide that gives you the essentials. You can go between them and fill in details when needed. If you start to have 4 or 5 books it becomes a bit over the top and unnecessary.
There is a further jump in going from AS to A2 level but it won’t be as severe. Then going from school to University the jump is gigantic.
The material is again more difficult but you are now in unfamiliar surroundings, you will have several lecturers some of whom aren’t great at teaching and don’t even want to teach and their styles will vary massively, there are distractions all over the place and the pace is fast.
I sat through many lectures having no idea what they were talking about. I accepted this and made sure that I copied everything down on paper to go over later in my own time. But this all relies upon someone not panicking and realising that this is just the way it is, it doesn’t mean that they are stupid or not good enough.
About the Author
Kevin Boyle is a full-time A-level Chemistry Tutor with 15 years experience and a proven track record with students of all abilities. As an online chemistry tutor, he works with students across the UK, equipping them with the skills they need to excel in their exams.