Parents, do you find your child striving yet stumbling in their GCSE Computer Science studies? Like many others, they likely need to harness the power of these four simple steps. Many schools need help to secure experienced Computer Science specialists, leaving gaps in students’ learning. There is no fail-safe way of achieving a 9 in Computer Science, but these simple four steps may help you get one secure that elusive grade 9. In this post, I call them the Smart CS Study Cycle to ensure success.
The Smart CS Study Cycle:
- Identify the gap in the content
- Fill the gaps
- Validate your understanding
- Evaluate your progress
Identify the gaps in the content
Students often practise the concepts they love, sidelining those they find challenging. This selective approach hurts their grades, especially in synoptic questions which test multiple topics. Students run a few risks here; if the assessment is not focussed on the topics that they like (prepared for), then they will fail to get a good grade; further, if less familiar topics are needed to unlock other parts of the question, then the student will be disadvantaged in answering the question.
Studying the favourite topics is like traversing an unfamiliar city without a map. The traveller will stick to the familiar route and miss other exciting city features. Having an overall picture of the entire specification and a realistic checklist of your understanding of each specification point.
Your child must confront and categorise their understanding of each topic. Just as a map guides you through a city, this identification step is pivotal.
- Use Red, Amber, and Green (RAGing) for topics.
- Highlight topics with notes or past questions.
- Confirm understanding with targeted questions.
Visit the shop and download the pupil speak RAGing sheet for your specification.
Fill the gap
Neglecting any part of the specification is detrimental, reducing exam confidence.
Imagine taking a driving test unprepared for certain manoeuvres. Your child must ensure comprehensive understanding to apply their knowledge and experience to the context.
The Fill step is one of the most critical steps. This is where good quality resources, extensive practice and background knowledge are developed. While filling the gap, here are some specific approaches you should take.
Use good quality resources tailored to the specific specification you are studying. All exam boards will publish endorsed material and guides to help teachers and students. As a student, you must ensure that your learning material is simple and the material’s quality caters to your needs. I suggest combining text, video and practice exercises for programming concepts.
At this stage, it is imperative to use the guides provided by the specific exam board so that you can focus on a deep understanding of the concept. Here is an example of an OCR past paper question with a possible correct answer written using the OCR Reference language and the same program written in the AQA pseudocode guide.
A program creates usernames for a school. The first design of the program is shown in the flowchart in Fig. 2.
For example, using the process in Fig. 2, Tom Ward’s username would be TomWa.
The program design is updated to create usernames as follows:
- If the person is a teacher, their username is the last 3 letters of their surname and then the first 2 letters of their first name.
- If the person is a student, their username is the first 3 letters of their first name and then the first 2 letters of their surname.
Write an algorithm for the updated program design shown in (i)
Possible OCR Solution
Possible AQA Example
Whereas both programs achieve the same objective, a student studying and learning the concept should stick to the guide for their board so that they can focus on the concept rather than the syntax of the language at this stage.
Mastering the Fill:
- Address the ‘Red’ topics from identification with summary notes.
- Diligently study and test understanding.
- Practice with exam-oriented questions.
Validate your understanding
Reliance solely on classroom materials is not enough. Authentic exam questions help familiarise with the actual exam scenario, the language used and the specific examination board jargon.
It’s like learning to drive in a simulator versus real-world practice. Whereas using a simulator might be an excellent tool to get you going, eventually, you want to operate in the real world. You want to ensure that you are doing past paper questions and those that might appear on the examination.
When you do past paper questions, use the mark scheme to first mark your response to see how well you measure up with what the exam board expects. After marking your work to get a numeric value, your next step is reading the additional information accompanying the mark scheme. The examination report can also give a good indication of how other students approached the same question. A key learning point to get from the mark scheme is to read the top-level descriptors (especially for the long answer questions, ensure that you understand the keywords used in the descriptors and use them to hone in on your other attempts at similar questions.
Example 1: AQA Free response question and mark descriptor
Here is an example taken from the AQA sample material for paper 2.
“In recent years, there has been a large growth in the use of cloud storage.
Discuss the advantages and disadvantages of using cloud storage.
In your answer you should include an explanation of the reasons for the large growth in recent years and consider any legal, ethical and environmental issues related to the use of cloud storage.”
There are a total of 9 marks that a student can score on this question. By practising these questions (specific to the exam board), you are developing a field for the kind of questions that can appear on the paper.
This is the top-level mark descriptor from the mark scheme.
Level 3 (7–9 marks):
Answer demonstrates a sustained line of reasoning with a substantiated explanation for the recent large growth in the use of cloud storage that includes both technological and social reasons.
There is a logically structured consideration of the advantages and the disadvantages associated with the use of cloud storage – including relevant points covering at least two of legal, ethical and environmental issues.
This kind of descriptor is similar to all of the free responses questions on the examination paper; as you can see, there are some non-negotiables that the examiner will look for in your response; I’ll explain the key phrases and their meaning below.
Sustained line of reasoning – by this, the examiner means:
- Smooth progression from one point to another
- Avoid digressions, gaps and jumps in logic
- Lead naturally to your conclusion
- “Thread of the argument runs smoothly from beginning to end.”
- To substantiate a claim is to make it solid or believable. If the evidence in support of an argument is weak and unconvincing, that evidence can be described as insubstantial.
The conclusion is the natural result of the arguments. For example
- Earth is a planet. All planets revolve around the sun.
- Therefore, the earth must revolve around the
Relevant (not general) points
Each point should be put in the context of the question
- e.g. an advantage of cloud storage is that it reduces the cost of computing devices for users as there is no longer a need for as much built-in secondary storage;
Understanding these terms are essential to the approach that you will take to answering the question.
Example 2: AQA Algorithm question
Develop an algorithm, using either pseudo-code or a flowchart, that helps an ice cream seller in a hot country calculate how many ice creams they are likely to sell on a particular day. Your algorithm should:
• get the user to enter whether it is the weekend or a weekday
• get the user to enter the temperature forecast in degrees Celsius (they should enter a number between 20 and 45 inclusive; if the number falls outside of this range then they should be made to re-enter another number until they enter a valid temperature)
• calculate the number of ice creams that are likely to be sold using the following information:
○ 100 ice creams are likely to be sold if the temperature is between 20 and 30 degrees inclusive,
○ 150 ice creams are likely to be sold if the temperature is between 31 and 38 degrees inclusive,
○ and 120 ice creams are likely to be sold if the temperature is higher than 38 degrees
• double the estimate if it is a weekend
• output the estimated number of ice creams that are likely to be sold.
There are a total of 9 marks that students can get for this question. Here is a breakdown of the marking points from the mark scheme.
9 marks for AO3 (program)
Mark A for assigning user input to a variable (weekend or weekday);
Mark B for assigning user input to a variable (temperature);
Mark C for using indefinite iteration to repeatedly input the temperature;
Mark D for a Boolean condition used to check the temperature between 20 and 45 inclusive;
Mark E for using selection to set ice creams to be 100 if the temp is between 20 and 30 inclusive;
Mark F for using selection to set ice creams to be 150 if the temp is between 31 and 38 inclusive;
Mark G for using selection to set ice creams to be 120 if the temp is higher than 38;
Mark H for doubling the quantity if it is a weekend (mark A is not required);
Mark I for always outputting the estimated number of ice creams;
Max 8 marks if solution contains any errors.
Here are a few takeaways from this mark scheme:
- A student can still get some marks without knowing the complete solution to this question. Therefore, if students know this, they are more likely to “have a go” without knowing the complete solution.
- The mark is written from the question; therefore, a student is better positioned to do well on the paper by practising these and mapping the question to the mark scheme. In this example, the first bullet point in the question states that “get the user to enter whether it is the weekend or a weekday”, and the first mark point is “Mark A for assigning user input to a variable (weekend or weekday);”. This observation holds true for the other bullet points in the question and the marking point in the mark scheme.
- By having enough practice with the question and mark scheme, students’ confidence with skyrocket.
- Use questions from the specific exam board.
- Tackle all varieties of questions.
- Seek questions that challenge deeper comprehension.
Evaluation is vital. Students must revisit their strategies to refine their techniques and cover overlooked topics. This cyclical approach of the Smart CS Study Cycle ensures continual growth.
The cyclic approach taken in the Smart CS Study cycle ensures that progress is made; the RAGing of the specification points done in step 1 is revisited and updated after each iteration, and then the process is repeated.
A part of the evaluation process can involve completing a question-by-topic set of questions or a full past paper and assessing what you can do now and contrasting it with what you could have done earlier; this will show actual measured progress.
- Revisit the initial topic list.
- Contrast the now-solved questions with previous attempts.
- Reassess the topic ratings based on progress.
Your Next Step
Seeing your child grapple with GCSE Computer Science can be heart-wrenching. But, by reading this blog post, you’re already on the path to making a difference. Though this post provides a foundation, it isn’t a panacea.
Thus, I offer a ‘Student Success Session’, a tailored plan for your child. This 15-minute chat will outline the roadmap to ensure your child is confident, stress-free, and motivated. Ready to see your child thrive in Computer Science? Book a video call, and let’s have a chat!