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''…if I had wanted to write essays I would have done History…”

When the A Level Chemistry exam changed in 2015, students had to adapt. Terminal exams and practical endorsements were brought in.
Ollie found his students’ ‘greatest headaches’ was the new extended response questions, the dreaded “6 markers”.

Here he outlines how to help students conquer these answers instead of seeing them as a hurdle.

Knowledge Telling vs Knowledge Transforming
“As teachers of science, … we are, primarily, raconteurs of science, knowledge intermediaries between the scientific canon and its new acolytes. Such an emphasis means that we must give prominence to the means and modes of representing scientific ideas, and explicitly to the teaching of how to read, how to write and how to talk science.” (Wellington & Osborne, 2001)p.138

With introduction of the new reformed A Level Chemistry courses in 2015 came a change in the way that the students are examined. Gone were the modular exams and coursework of the previous iteration and in came terminal exams and practical endorsements. One aspect of the new style A level exams that has been causing some of my students the greatest headaches is the new extended response questions, the dreaded “6 markers”. My students will often avoid these questions like the plague and respond with comments such as: “…if I had wanted to write essays I would have done History…”   

An extended response question is hardly an essay, but as the main form of assessment in Chemistry education at all levels is the written examination it is important that as teachers of chemistry we help our students to see writing as a valuable and vital part of the learning process. I am not suggesting that we all become English teachers and teach our students how to write beautiful flowing prose and poems, but as chemistry teachers we need to help them use their chemical knowledge and the language of chemistry “Chemish” (Markic & Childs, 2016) to help them to “write to learn” chemistry (Bangert-Drowns, Hurley, & Wilkinson, 2004).

Here I want to outline two models which can be used to explain process by which students can generate written content, both of which will potentially produce an answer that will satisfy the examiner, but only one will help the student with their learning. These two processes are described as knowledge telling and knowledge transforming.

In the knowledge telling model the generation of written content is viewed as a natural extension of the ability to produce oral content in a conversation. We all have students who are able to give excellent verbal answers in class, however when faced with task that requires a written answer the same students can be completely lost for words. These students often have no difficulty with written English and in most cases no problems with the chemistry of the question. The problem seems to lie in the generation of the content of the written answer.

When a teacher poses a verbal question in class, a social exchange of ideas between teacher, pupil and peers follows. This provides an immediate audience which gives a constant stream of feedback (including facial expression, gesture, tone of voice etc). It is these conversational partners and the social interaction between them that provides a space in which both chemical and rhetorical knowledge can be expressed, evaluated and reconstructed, all of which helps to support the generation of the oral content. The students’ difficulty in the generation of the content in written answers especially under exam conditions may stem from a lack of this immediate external audience to support the generation of written content.

In any exam question the student will first students have to search the question to find clues and cues to generate a mental representation of the what is require in order to answer the question. The content and context of the question will provide the student with clues as to which chemistry content knowledge to use and cues as how to generate the written content to answer the question.

In the knowledge telling process the generation of written content is assumed to be natural and relatively unproblematic as it makes use of readily available content and discourse knowledge and requires no significant planning or goal setting. And just like an ordinary conversation it takes place without the need for significant conscious monitoring for coherence (this is limited to it whether it feels or sounds right). The appropriateness of the retrieved chemical and or discourse knowledge will of course depend upon the student’s interpretation of the clues and cues and the availability of the correct chemical content in the memory. Any misinterpretation or missing content knowledge will result in a mismatch between the task and the written content.

It is of course possible to produce very good written answers with this knowledge telling process especially if the student has a pre-prepared response readily available in the memory. It is difficult to tell from a good piece of writing which process was used to construct the content, however, a poor written answer will often contain a stream of consciousness where the student has simply given as much related content as they can dressed-up in what the student thinks is an academic style of writing. In an extended calculation question this may result in the student bashing numbers about in their calculator in the vain hope that the correct answer will magically appear. These types of answers are certainly the product of a knowledge telling process and will often lack purpose, a plan or any real consideration for the aim question or the reader. The student is not writing “Chemish”(Markic & Childs, 2016) but is writing “Chemfish” where they throw out as much bloated content as they can in the hope of catching marks a few marks.

What we want as teachers is for our students to move beyond this knowledge telling process to one in which the production of written process results in knowledge transformation and one which therefore provides them with a way of writing to learn. A knowledge transformation model views the production of written content as not necessarily problematic, but one that involves going beyond the natural knowledge telling process in order to produce alone what would normally be accomplished through social interaction i.e. the purposeful reprocessing of knowledge. This requires, from the student, conscious, deliberate and strategic control over the construction of written content. This means the student has to go beyond mere knowledge telling to the construction of a written answer that achieves it intended purpose and, in the process, reconstructs their knowledge.

We need to encourage chemistry students to engage in an internal conversation between the question, themselves and the written content that will provide them with a space where the chemical content and discourse knowledge can interact and transform one another. This move the student away from knowledge telling towards knowledge transformation.

There are a number of strategies that can be used in class in in exams to help this process.

  1. Start-up time; The student should be encouraged to spend more time reading and processing the question before writing an answer. The longer a student spends reading the question, looking for clues and cues to the chemical and discourse knowledge needed, before putting pen to paper the more likely they are to use a knowledge transformation process. This start up time can involve copious amounts of highlighting, but the student should be able to justify why they are highlighting and how it the highlighted text is going to be used to answer the question.  Part of this highlighting process should include the command words in the questions as these will cue the student to answer the question in a particular way (see for example ).
  2. Thinking aloud; Before writing an answer, the teacher can get students to talk their way through a problem individually (without comment). This can give the teacher a good idea of the type of process being used. In knowledge telling the student will use fewer words in total and most of these words will be related to the written content. A student using a knowledge transformation process will not only use more words but more of the words will be related to planning and less of the words will appear in the final text. This especially true if the task involves some form of extended calculation. This thinking aloud protocol eventually needs to be internalised and expressed as a brief written plan. However, this move from oral to written is much easier if it has first been done within the social context of the class.
  3. Note making; Student should be encouraged to review the notes made in each lesson and make their own notes after each lesson. Both the knowledge telling and knowledge transformation processes should involve making notes, but the knowledge telling process is more likely to produce a simple list of ideas whereas knowledge transformation will produce a list of ideas that are linked to other part of the ideas and topics.
  4. Revision of notes or written responses to question. Once a student has produced the written content for a question it will need revision. A student using a knowledge telling process will often show little or no evidence of making changes or will simply rewrite the same content in different way. In the knowledge transformation process revision of the written content will be evident and is done not only to be better understood but to understand better.
  5. Free writing (Shut up and write!); Free writing is a good warm up task for writing and is simply what is says, writing about a topic without worrying about writing style or SPAG or whether it makes any sense or is correct. Give the students a recent topic or question and get them to write continuously for 5 minutes (this can be extent to 10 minutes). The students can then comment on and/or correct their own writing using a text book, model answer or other notes. If the students work in small groups you can also get student to pass their writing to the student next to them to comment upon for a few minutes (this can be very intimidating for some students and make them feel very exposed so best done in groups where the students trust and respect each other). This process is repeated around the group until the student has the writing returned to them.   

Both writing and oral conversation involve thinking and knowledge production, but unlike a conversation where our words and thinking are lost in time, writing is thinking captured, made tangible and permanent in a spatial-graphical form. Through writing our thinking can be stopped, examined and reflected on it. This allows us to spot flaws and attempt to find other words to express our ideas and it is through this process that we have the opportunity to discover and transform our knowledge and thinking through writing to learn.

Bangert-Drowns, R. L., Hurley, M. M., & Wilkinson, B. (2004). The Effects of School-Based Writing-to-Learn Interventions on Academic Achievement: A Meta-Analysis. Review of Educational Research; Washington, 74(1), 29–58.

Markic, S., & Childs, P. E. (2016). Language and the teaching and learning of chemistry. Chem. Educ. Res. Pract., 17(3), 434–438.

Wellington, J., & Osborne, J. (2001). Language and literacy in science education. Buckingham: Open University.

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The author

Ollie Hunter has been a full-time chemistry teacher since 1993 and a Head of Department for 15 years. During that time, he has also been a Head of Year, run Gold DofE, and lead overseas mountaineering expeditions. He completed an MA(Ed) through the Open University and is now a part-time Doctoral student in the Faculty of Education at the University of Cambridge. Ollie’s research focus is secondary school students’ understanding of the symbolic language of chemistry and how chemical equations and formulae are used by students to generate chemical meaning. He also has an interest in the role of language in the teaching of chemistry and etymological and historical origins of chemical words. Ollie tweets @olliehunter101

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