A-levels can be a big step up from GCSE. There are more details, more depth and often some satisfying answers to questions left over from earlier lessons. For this reason, A-level subjects can feel like they make more sense than GCSE courses, while being more challenging.
Students sometimes wonder how to prepare for this leap. Parents often ask how they can best support their child in moving from GCSE to A-level, especially in subjects they themselves didn’t study at school. Don’t worry!
The transition to A-level doesn’t need to be scary, and what happens at home can be a big help – you may even have fun doing it.
Keep the end in sight when moving from GCSE to A-level
The good news is that, like GCSE, each A-level exam course has a clear path – its specification. Often, students are aware each exam board (AQA, Edexcel, OCR etc.) provides a course specification but often they don’t make use of it. It’s there for you to download. Treat it like a reference guide – it might not be bedtime reading, but it shows you where you are and what’s coming up. It also has some tips for what the exam questions will look like.
(As an example, here is a link to the AQA A-level biology specification)
Have a homework routine, then break it
Fitting a homework routine around school or college can be a tricky balance. Sometimes students set routines that are massively ambitious, thinking that this will be rewarded with high marks. Others struggle to have any routine at all, allowing other commitments to take priority. I believe the best homework routine involves giving yourself time and space. Find a comfortable, quiet space. Find a decent chunk of time that allows you to approach your work in a relaxed way. A working routine should feel natural – not like too much of a chore, or too difficult to commit to. And the golden rule – allow yourself to break the routine every now and then. Keep your routine flexible to your life – balance is key to your wellbeing, and ultimately to getting the grades you want.
Fill your time with meaningful activities
Setting aside the time to work is one thing, but quality beats quantity – make sure you are making good use of your time. For example, bringing together your class notes – perhaps consolidating them with the teachers’ notes or textbook – is a great way to revisit the information outside of the busy school environment, and often leaves students feeling their homework time is worthwhile. This is essential to dealing with the extra work when moving from GCSE to A-level.
Be honest with yourself early about problem topics
Ask yourself (or your child) a simple question at the end of the week – “Specifically which topics were challenging this week?” Maybe write a list. It’s important to start this as early as possible in the A-level course. Many later topics rely on earlier knowledge, so gaps or misunderstandings can accumulate. Show your topic to-do list to your teacher, or your tutor (😊), and they will be able to help you find new ways to approach these areas.
The student becomes the teacher
Often parents wonder how they can support their children in subjects like maths or biology if they themselves didn’t take them at school (or if they did, it was a long time ago). You don’t need to be an expert – your child already is! Or they will be soon. But you can still be a great help. Albert Einstein said “If you can’t explain it to a six-year-old, then you don’t understand it yourself”. Students might find this is the same with parents. When moving from GCSE to A-level, the best way to practise and explore your understanding is to try to explain a topic to a parent who doesn’t know the subject as well as you. Can you get it across to them? Do you understand it fully?
Use multiple sources of information, but not too many
When facing new topics, or new questions, it’s tempting to turn to the huge amount of information of the internet to help with A-level studies. There is a certainly a lot of it – books, websites, YouTube videos, TikToks. Lots of people expressing opinions. It can be difficult to know which information to trust. I suggest keeping it simple – your teacher (or tutor) will recommend particular textbooks or websites. Stick with those. Sometimes it’s great to look at topics from different angles, but be careful about going “down a rabbit hole” that leads you away from the specification (remember – it’s like a map) to interesting, but potentially irrelevant details.
Look after yourself. Ask for help.
Sometimes A-level class tests and exams bring stress and anxiety. It’s important to remember that this is natural, and very common. Sometimes taking a break from your routine can be enough to see things differently – your wellbeing is ALWAYS more important than your exam grades.
Parents – If you feel your child needs some extra one-to-one support at A-level, tutoring is an option. I specialise in online A-level biology tutoring, (and academic coaching). If we don’t offer your child’s subject, I may be able to recommend someone specializing in other subjects too.
If you’d like to ask for some extra advice on moving from GCSE to A-level, or some support for your child, please get in touch.
Dr John Ankers is a specialist online A-level biology tutor and academic coach based in Woolton Village, Liverpool, UK. https://wooltontutors.co.uk