The Secret Process Behind Writing the GCSE Physics Exam Papers

exam facts gcse gcse physics Jun 22, 2020

We all have ambitions in life and there are often very real hurdles in the way of achieving those ambitions. As a teenager in the UK, one of the biggest hurdles you will have met so far are exams.

It helps to know why you have to sit exams and who writes them to make sure they are fair for everyone.

Why do I even want a qualification in GCSE Physics?

Let’s start at the very beginning…. if you are reading this blog post then you are probably working towards a qualification in GCSE Physics. You may be asking, “Why do I need a qualification in GCSE Physics anyway?” and that’s a completely legitimate question! Here’s why it’s worth working towards your qualification in GCSE Physics:
When you get older, you may want to do other stuff:
  • Get a job
  • Go to college
  • Go to university
  • Start your own company
and it’s likely that you are going to have to prove yourself ahead of others to get what you want. It’s a sad fact in life that you’ll have to compete against others, but it’s a fact nonetheless.
A list of qualifications on your CV (or resume) prove that you have achieved a certain level of learning. GCSE Physics shows that you have important life skills that will make you valuable in that job. Some of those life skills include problem-solving, mathematical prowess, resilience, practical abilities, etc.
It’s important to note, that each qualification in itself (e.g. GCSE Physics) is not massively important in the grand scheme of your life. If you don’t get a ‘9’ in GCSE Physics, your life will NOT be ruined!
  • You can still be happy!
  • You can still be successful!
  • You can still be anything you want to be!
It’s likely that you have skills in lots of areas in life and your other qualifications will reflect this.
Now, I am 100% qualified in my status as “Tik Tok Superfan”, but I’ve never taken an exam in it and there’s no proof. So…… to gain verifiable qualifications, students often take examinations. Those exams have to be fair to everybody and contain the same questions and level of difficulty.
All GCSE exams are based on a specification.

What is a GCSE Physics Specification and Where Can I Get one?

Specifications are created by exam boards. The main exam boards in the UK are:
  • AQA
  • OCR
  • Edexcel
  • WJEC
  • CCEA (Northern Ireland)
  • CIE
Each exam board writes their own specification for GCSE Physics.
The specification covers the knowledge, understanding and skills needed to gain a qualification. If you look through the specification. it basically includes lots of learning objectives. The specification written by each exam board will be subtly different. The core learning material of each GCSE Physics specification will be the same. This core material is decided by Ofqual, who are the exams regulator in the UK.
I can’t stress this enough… you need a copy of your exam board’s specification. You need it and you should study from it. If it’s not in the specification, it’s not in the exam! Simple.
If you don’t already have a copy, click on the appropriate exam board above.

How do Examiners Decide What to Put In the GCSE Physics Exam Every Year?

Believe it or not, the GCSE Physics paper is designed to allow students to show what they can do and to engage you! The papers are not meant as an act of torture!
By now, you should have downloaded your GCSE Physics specification from above. You'll notice that it's really long and contains LOADS of learning objectives! The examiners could not test EVERY learning objective in one set of May exams. So they select some of the material from the specification and test you on that.
What most people don’t know is that....
The exam board have to examine every single part of the specification every 5 years.
If you look past through the last 4 years of GCSE Physics exam papers and you notice that Newton’s 2nd Law has not been examined, then it must be examined in the next paper.
In theory, it would be easy to examine all the previous papers in this way. However, GCSE Physics was revised in 2018 and we don’t have 4 previous years of past papers to work work through.

How Do Examiners Write the Exam Paper Every Year?

You would not believe the amount of work that goes into writing an exam paper.
It’s likely that the paper you will sit will have been written more than 18 months before you are due to sit the exam.
It’s not just ONE random person thinking up crazy, horrible questions to catch poor unsuspecting students out. A question paper constructed by an exam committee; made up of teachers, assessment gurus, chief examiner and chair examiner. I don’t know the EXACT make up of the committee but I like to believe there’s a guru in there somewhere! I do know that the majority of people who write the exams have marked the exams in the past. They have an intimate knowledge of the assessment process.
One of the key members if the committee is the qualification developer. They are responsible for managing the process and ensuring that the question paper complies with exam board rules.
Before the exam paper is written, the chair and chief examiner review the question papers from the previous exam series (as far back as 4 years). They look in detail to see how well each previous question performed. If it was clear that one question from the previous year was badly answered, then they ask themselves,
“Why was that badly answered by the majority of students?” 
Quite often it will boil down to the wording of the question and a lack of understanding on what the question is asking. That type of question will be reviewed and a better way to ask the question will be suggested. The exam boards are serious about improving the quality of exam question papers.
The lead assessment writer then develops the blueprint for the paper with the chief examiner.
This means that they’ll start the blueprint with something like,
Question 1 - multiple choice on Hooke’s Law
Question 2 - sentence completion question on Forces.
This is one of the most important parts of the whole process. All the individual questions will be checked against the blueprint.

What types of question will be assessed in the exam?

The exam boards use a consistent range of question types:
Closed Questions: Definitive Correct/Incorrect Answers
  • Multiple choice questions
  • Sentence completion questions
  • Link boxes
  • Labelling diagrams
There tends to be a higher proportion of multiple choice and short answer questions in the Foundation Tier exams.
Open Questions: Longer (more subjective) answers required
  • Labelling/drawing diagrams
  • Short answer questions
  • Calculations
  • Extended response (e.g. explain, describe, etc)
The examiners will get to work writing questions that meet the blueprint set out by the Lead Assessor. They will write LOADS of different questions for each section of the blueprint. They will not know which question will be chosen for the final question paper. This means that even the examiners don’t know what exactly will be in the final paper.
Then each question and it's mark scheme is reviewed by the reviser and other senior examiners. They use a checklist to make sure each question offers the right level of challenge. They also make sure it tests content that is covered in the specification and is error free.

Do the examiners try to keep the paper the same level of difficulty throughout?

Most GCSE Physics exam papers and questions within the exam paper are ‘ramped’. That means that they start easy and ramp up in difficulty. This allows all students a fair chance of gaining some marks on each topic area throughout the paper. Some questions will step up in demand gradually, others quite sharply. In addition the demand also increases steadily throughout the paper.
If you want a picture of how that works:
Both papers start with questions that are easier (often closed questioning). These are designed to build the confidence of the student.
In the middle of the exam paper, each question will have varying levels of difficulty. Each question will start off easy(ish!) and the question will be ‘ramped’ up as it works through each section off the question (e.g. 5a, 5b, 5c, etc).
At the end of the paper, most questions are generally harder and start from a more difficult baseline.

How do exam boards work to include all students?

Exam boards work hard to ensure that the questions work for everyone. They have a team that modifies papers for visually impaired students. They also work closely with The British Association of Teachers of the Deaf, who tell them if certain words or images could make the question more difficult for some students.

Final checks

  • The paper is read by the qualifications developer and professional proofreaders. They check the spelling, grammar and accuracy of the questions, as well as any images, diagrams and charts.
  • The lead assessment writer and reviser double check that the paper follows the blueprint.
  • The Scrutineer is a subject expert who sits the exam exactly as a student would. They check to see that all the questions are clear, the paper offers the right level of challenge and that it can be completed in the allocated time.
  • The question paper is then reviewed by the Question Paper Approval Committee, who sign it off as fit for purpose and error free.
  • It’s proofread again
  • A second scrutineer sits the paper.
  • A member of the subject team who hasn’t seen the paper before gives it a final check.
  • If everything is fine, the chair of examiners gives their approval.
After 18 months of work, the question paper is ready to be sent to the printers.
The question paper now goes back to the specialist team who produce all the different versions of the paper - including large print and braille – which will make it accessible to visually impaired students.
Then the papers are hidden and locked away, ready to be sent to your school and for you to obtain those qualifications that we talked about earlier!
I hope this gives you some context on why we sit GCSE Physics exams and how the exams are written to make sure they are fair for everyone.
Best Wishes