Son struggling at A level

(49 Posts)
rusty100 Fri 17-May-13 17:21:47

Hi - I am new here and am hoping there might be someone who can give me some advice. Hope that's ok.

My son is 17 and in his 1st year of A levels. He seems happy, works hard, has lots of interests and friends and likes college.
The problem is that he is seriously struggling, and may drop out of college after this year. I am trying not to put pressure on him and just supporting giving advice, he is very sensible.
He failed all his exams at Christmas, Physics, Chemistry, Biology and English, and has now dropped Chemistry.

He has been a straight A student all his life and always wanted to be a vet, hence his A level choices. I am mystified about how such a successful and intelligent, and hard working person can suddently be unable to pass a single exam.

He claims everyone is struggling and that he is just not as intelligent as we always thought. This may be true but seems a bit unlikely.

I've spoken to his teachers and they say he just needs to work harder and grasp the difference in answering questions at A level as opposed to GCSE.

It is unusual to struggle this much at A level or normal? If he doesn't fail all his retakes, then I will find a tutor and see if we can help him raise his grades at least.

I am at a bit of a loss though so please do comment if you feel I Should be doing something obvious or if you think I am worrying unnecessarily.

notfluffy Fri 17-May-13 17:30:18

Message withdrawn at poster's request.

Mosschops30 Fri 17-May-13 17:49:38

Watching with interest as dd also struggling with biology at a level.
We now have a tutor but he's told me she's way behind

The only thing I can offer is that the sciences are notoriously more difficult at a level and lots of students suffer

ShipwreckedAndComatose Fri 17-May-13 18:23:34

I've spoken to his teachers and they say he just needs to work harder and grasp the difference in answering questions at A level as opposed to GCSE.


It is likely that he can do it but the jump between exams is massive and some get it quicker than others.
I would recommend trying past papers and really dissecting the markschemes. I think about 20% of the marks on a paper my year 13 students did were for using the correct specific terminology. If he doesn't know his key words then he will fall down.

As one of my students worked out; he was getting about 80% towards each mark but not quite nailing it to the depth required. So he always felt he had done ok but actually was missing far too many marks to get the grade he wanted.

creamteas Fri 17-May-13 18:34:17

Not sure if this is the case, but this is how I explain things to my students who cruised in with straight As then struggle at uni.

Most people have a 'level' of education that comes relatively easy to them, and although they do work, they only need 'surface learning' to get good grades rather than really have to think hard in order to understand.

At some point in their life, they need to go to the next level, and they hit a wall, because their previous learning strategies are no longer enough. They need to learn how to learn.

For some this happens in primary, for others at uni. But when it happens you need different strategies to learn.

It is not a question of intelligence, and most will get through it, but it will need a different sort of effort.

gillviola Fri 17-May-13 19:38:54

I have a similar problem but I have just found out that it won't be possible for my ds to resit his as levels in January as these have been stopped. The only way for my ds to re sit is to resit it in May just before his A2 exams or to see if his college will let him repeat the AS year. I too am at a loss and am dreading results day in August.

deleted203 Fri 17-May-13 19:50:00

As a teacher, I would say that the AS year is the hardest year any of them will ever do. It is a HUGE jump from GCSE (which most able students should be able to piss their way through with very little actual effort, TBH). A2 isn't really any harder - and the first year of uni is often relatively easy as students have got used to having to take responsibility for their own learning.

AS level always leaves the majority of students reeling with shock at how much independent work they are expected to do - and at the level of depth required when answering questions. Students who were happily getting A and B grades at GCSE, without honestly putting in an awful amount of sweat, suddenly discover that they are working hard at AS and getting E/U grades. The major problem, I believe, is that they are spoonfed everything they need at GCSE and suddenly there is a massive leap to AS and they are expected to do a tremendous amount of independent research/study.

Shipwrecked writes a good post about looking at past papers/mark schemes and looking at what examiners are really looking for. Particularly in the sciences, I think, (not my subject, unfortunately) you can write a really sound answer - but fail to include the subject specific keywords that examiners need and you will drop a lot of marks.

I would believe him when he says everyone else is struggling. It is very, very common.

rusty100 Fri 17-May-13 21:46:32

this is very helpful guys thank you very much. I think you have reassured me that with application, and perhaps additional tutoring he should be ok.
He has said he doesn't want to be a vet anyway, but is keen to be a chiropractor so we're hoping he can get the grades required for this.

notfluffy Fri 17-May-13 22:10:35

Message withdrawn at poster's request.

WorrySighWorrySigh Fri 17-May-13 22:26:45

Thank you for starting this thread Rusty my DD is struggling with similar subjects. Your tips Shipwrecked, will be passed on to DD, I am not sure if she is truly aware of this.

BackforGood Fri 17-May-13 23:10:25

I think it's common to do very well at GCSE and then really struggle with the jump to ASs. Everyone acknowledges this is by far and away the biggest jump in your education journey. Don't know why, but I've been led to believe maths and physics are notorious for this, with pupils who've always found them so easy, suddenly having to work, and learn to answer questions in different ways, and a lot of bright dcs struggle.

WorrySighWorrySigh Fri 17-May-13 23:20:03

Interesting comment from my DH which might be relevant:

With the AS/A2 approach rather than the straight A level approach of yore (and my day) students are expected to work at far closer to full A level standard right from the start even if it is only on a small part of the syllabus. In the old days you had a two year run up at achieving the full A level standard.

deleted203 Fri 17-May-13 23:25:25

Would agree with your DH Worry. Pupils come confidently into the 6th Form armed with their GCSE knowledge and are suddenly and immediately faced with essays/questions being marked at 'A' level standard and can't believe their marks have suddenly plummeted. What was a good answer to a GCSE question is simply nowhere near good enough for an A level.

WorrySighWorrySigh Sat 18-May-13 00:03:45

Just had a quick chat with DD and she has confirmed that the terminology thing is something she is struggling with.

At GCSE using the wrong terminology is not picked up on to anything like the same extent. At AS suddenly it matters and marks are lost.

MoominMammasHandbag Sat 18-May-13 00:12:41

Are you happy with his college OP? The results obtained by different colleges can vary enormously.
My eldest two went to different A level colleges; the level of support and commitment to the students' learning was massively higher where my daughter went than where my son went. It was definitely reflected in the colleges' results.

ShipwreckedAndComatose Sat 18-May-13 07:21:06

I give my students key words lists from the syllabus and their text book. I get them to write out the definitions and then learn 5 at a time.

I am trying to teach them to develop an internal dialogue with themselves about what must be on the markschemes; to actively think what must be on the markscheme. What I have told them is to always ask themselves what key words would be appropriate to the answer expected.
I have also pointed out that any word in bold, not defined in the question, should be defined in the answer.

My subject is Biology btw!

ShipwreckedAndComatose Sat 18-May-13 07:26:40

Also, if your DS is thinking medicine then he will need to nail an A in his exams this summer. if this is unlikely to happen it is worth thinking of back up plans (as suggested earlier).

One of my students went on to study biomedical studies at Sussex university on this basis a couple of years ago.

And twenty years ago, another student of mine failed to get into medicine. however he had worked out that a biomedical course at one university shared the same foundation first year course with the medicine course and so he got himself on that course with lower grades...and then transferred internally a year later.

Not saying that this is what your DS should do, I'm just pointing out that there are various roads he could think about taking.

WorrySighWorrySigh Sat 18-May-13 09:52:02

Thank you Shipwrecked, I will pass that top tip onto DD. Those sound like wise words. DD's school does seem to be deepening DD's love of Biology & Chemistry but I am not always sure that they are preparing them well for the exams.

DD wants to study Biochemistry at university BTW.

I agree with the general view that most able students can cruise through GCSEs but in order to get the good grades at AS they need to up their game.
They have to do more than the work that is set in class. Read all about their subject and revise continuously.

DS1 got all A* /As at GCSE with frighteningly little revision.
He started 6th form with a different attitude and worked much harder. He got all As in his January modules but not the UMS that he wanted. Since then he has moved up another gear. He works really hard. He is doing 5 subjects so not many frees but he spends every free and every lunchtime working plus several hours most evenings. For the current exam revision he is doing 3 practice papers every day. His social life is zero.
He is entirely self motivated and I hope it pays off for him.

rusty100 Sat 18-May-13 13:14:44

Mine is nowhere near as committed as some kids it seems. I kind of don't want him spending all his time working, I am a bit shocked that he has to work 10 (?) hours a day to get his A's. Although the original plan was Veterinary I have slightly encouraged him to think of other options, I think unless you are comfortable with the academic side, then the added pressure of incredibly long hourse and massive (£100k) debts at the end of it is unreasonable - especially on a starting salary of £25k.
Equine & human chiropractor seems a much better balance IMO.

Mosschops the sciences are notoriously more difficult at a level.
I think this is true and to some extent it is because they are rather too easy and insufficiently challenging for the more able at GCSE. DS is doing 3 sciences, Maths and FM. He finds the Biology by far the hardest simply because of the sheer quantity of material. The Exam is in 3 weeks and they haven't yet finished the last topic. He is looking forward to dropping Biology after AS.

WorrySighWorrySigh Sat 18-May-13 19:32:59

Something which I think you get with the sciences and maths at AS & A level is that IMO these subjects proceed in steps of comprehension. You can have been perfectly happy with GCSE algebra but then struggle to grasp calculus at all.

You dont get the same progressions in the discursive subjects. I dont think that this means that the discursive subjects are easier just that where it is necessary to make such steps you can hit a dead end at any moment.

Mosschops30 Sat 18-May-13 20:54:48

If dd fails her AS levels, which looks likely im thinking she coukd maybe leave and do an access to health course in one year.
Does anyone know if there are any disadvantages to this for a young student.
I did an access but was late twenties

eland Sat 18-May-13 23:15:32

shipwrecked, do you teach OCR biology by any chance?

If so, is there a list of there keywords online anywhere? Thanks.

ShipwreckedAndComatose Sun 19-May-13 08:26:02

I do!

I used the syllabus and the purple OCR text book that we use with them to compile lists myself after realising the direction the exams are taking. It didn't take too long and I can update with any I missed out.

However, I do know a colleague found some online from some free bio zone resources she came across

creamteas Sun 19-May-13 10:06:10

Mosschops most access courses don't take under 20s, so that is unlikely to be possible straight away.

But it is usually possible to either restart your AS, take different A levels or switch to BTECs instead.

I know of quite a few DC that retook year 12 in one way or another (some still in school and some switched to FE college) and many have gone on to good unis.

Mosschops30 Sun 19-May-13 10:10:00

Unfortunately different a levels are not an option, she wants to do physiotherapy so biology is a must

eland Sun 19-May-13 10:16:42

Shipwrecked, I've PM'd you.

creamteas Sun 19-May-13 10:21:28

Mosschops a friend of DS1 did Physiotherapy at Bradford after studying a BTEC in sports science. A can't remember where else he applied, but I can't remember that he struggled to find places.

You might find that A level biology is not a requirement everywhere.

ShipwreckedAndComatose Sun 19-May-13 10:30:24
ShipwreckedAndComatose Sun 19-May-13 10:31:45

Ok...workbook ref is wrong!! Instead you can a flash of Gove (ironic!)

try this one!

Primenumbers Mon 20-May-13 20:32:13

Just a curious question, why did not he do Maths if he was doing 3 sciences?

mindgone Mon 20-May-13 21:50:04

My DS is now in Y13. He is taking Biology, Chemistry and Maths. He is a really hard worker, but last year was so disappointed with his AS grades. He was expecting As and Bs, but got one B and 3Cs. Despite these grades, he managed to get his teachers to predict much better grades for his UCAS application, and got his offers for Pharmacy. He learned to work smarter, looking up the exact exam specifications, and working to those, also lots of memorising. Past paper after past paper. Anyway, this January, he did 2 resits and 4 new exams, and got 5As and a B! We were beyond thrilled for him! But it's not over yet, and he is terrified of becoming complacent, so it's head down all the way to get his place at the uni he has set his heart on. I hope this gives you some hope and encouragement.

jellybrain Mon 20-May-13 21:54:34

Hi Shipwrecked ds1 is hoping to do Biology at AS if his Gcses go according to plan. Wouldn't mind a copy of your list grin. Should I pm you?
Also have been told there is a lot of maths( not his strong point) what sort of things can he do In the summer so it's not too much of a shock In September,

ShipwreckedAndComatose Tue 21-May-13 07:30:41

That's exactly the journey they need to make, mindgone!! I cannot understand why the press are so determined to say that A levels are easy. Science ones certainly are not.

Well done to your DS, sounds like he is on the right track now.

Jellybean, will DS be doing OCR? The lists I have are for this course. It Might be worth with seeing what his teacher give him first. There are many excellent teachers out there preparing kids very well indeed. You could him to ask for key word lists at the start of the course or contact yourself, saying you have heard it helps preparation.

I would also strongly recommend the biozone books I listed above, or getting a course book to start reading through. he needs basic maths skills (percentage calculations etc) and there are some calculations that are in the syllabus. If his maths is weak, he will need to use study periods to make sure he practices these.

Finally, google and download the syllabus, as stated above by mindgone. This is the key as to what is in the exam and should be the foundations of any study your DS does.

BeckAndCall Tue 21-May-13 10:23:55

Whilst its too late to change things for this year - biology exam this Afternoon for instance! - I would not be totally disheartened - it is not unknown to do really bAdly after one term and en to pick up hugely by summer.

But you must have spotted by now that he can't do vet medicine without chemistry in any case?

And he may be struggling with physics as he's not doing maths - unless his college has specific 'maths for physics' sessions.

I hope your DS is having a good exam week/fortnight so far. He'll pretty much have an idea by now of how he's getting on.

DeWe Tue 21-May-13 11:11:23

I think others have said this, but I would have thought maths a better last subject than English. Certainly some of the physics will be almost inaccessable unless he is studies maths hard, probably to a similar standard as he'd need to get an AS in it.

Also as others have said, rather strangely Chemistry is the subject you need (not as you'd expect, Biology) for medicine types.

Sometimes people who have coasted through subjects up to a certain point, struggle when they hit a point they need to work to understand and achieve. It's very hard for them to realise that their natural brains, that they took for granted, have to now be put into gear to work. And it's a struggle if they decide to, but, unfortunately, a lot will decide it's not worth the effort and give up.

jellybrain Tue 21-May-13 11:12:45

Thanks Shipwrecked, some good advice here. He will be doing OCR, so I'll get hold of the books you have suggested. Had to get special agreement for him to do by Biology as the requirement is for a B grade in maths and he is only taking foundation- on target for a C though. Has got A in all his science units though and really likes the Biology elect

jellybrain Tue 21-May-13 11:14:29

Eek posted too soon. I meant 'element '.

mindgone Tue 21-May-13 12:32:09

Thanks shipwrecked, hopefully on course now smile

Mutteroo Tue 21-May-13 22:17:43

Get yourself comfy as here is the story of the Mutteroo juniors. DD attempted sixth form three times & this past year decided to give up on studies & spent her time working. The confidence she's gained is enormous & so much so that she's applying to do an access course from September at yet another college. Oh who cares, as long as she gets to where she wants to be eventually....and can work while shes doing it.

DS started his AS levels last September after sailing through his GCSEs & he's been surprised at how much harder these exams are. He's found the terminology the hardest bit to get his head around. The support offered by his (& one of DD's) college has been fantastic & I would hope your DS school are helping him through this difficult period?

I guess all I'm saying is your son is not alone. AS levels are much more challenging because in my son's words they "need to learn to jump through bigger hoops". I wish your DS all the best with his exams & hope come August, he's achieved better grades than in January.

WillStringer Tue 21-May-13 22:39:17

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musicislife Thu 23-May-13 13:45:41

Creamteas talks a lot of sense on that one my DS also struggled on Physics and Maths, swapped the Maths early on and likely to drop Physics, however doing well in Biology - I think a lot depends on the teacher in our exerience, we'll have to see on results day, stressful!

rusty100 Fri 24-May-13 06:49:28

These responses have been really interesting. I suspect it's a combination of things really, he is bright, but has never had to struggle so it's a shock to the system. His chemistry teacher was replacing someone on maternity leave and was appaling. Most of the students failed, my son gave up completely and the teacher was gotten rid of. We thought maths might be too much of stretch when selecting subjects, in hindsight if would have helped the physics which has been his biggest struggle.
We probably picked the wrong subjects.

He is really enjoying English tho so it's ok, he loves Bio but it is a lot to learn, and physics is really hard but satisfying.

He is very happy with the chiropracter plan so we have probably had a lucky escape, had we persisted he might have decided not to be a vet at a later stage when he had invested a lot more into the idea.

zamantha Fri 24-May-13 21:31:25

Really helpful thread. My DS is taking AS now and did not so well in Jan modules. It is an upward hike.

Feel heartened that others are finding learning key terminology difficult - my poor DS - language is not his thing.

Maths, Further Maths, Physics and History here - grades needed are so high these days and we expect 3 years at 6th form. GCSes went really well and I think my son being a summer born is also held back/disadvantaged. His brain does not seem to have quite developed to this level yet.

Fingers crossed this summer- some go well to keep his confidence going and to allow him to carry on positively!

WastedTomatoGuts Sat 25-May-13 21:48:06

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zamantha Tue 28-May-13 16:10:14

I do not know if critical comments were posted here but I would like to say further:

Rome was not built in a day and those of us who have Dc that reach a stage where they struggle, it is important we stick with them - success in my experience is half talent and half hard grind. Getting through tough patches is good grounding for life. I have a friend who had top marks until her final consultancy exam - she failed it 3 times but passed and is now flying high in her career. As someone said up thread - everyone reaches a tough moment to get through academically and in all areas of life.

amothersplaceisinthewrong Tue 28-May-13 16:16:04

My bright son struggled in the first year of A levels with Double Maths and Physics and politics because he had coasted his way to good GCSEs and you can't do that at A level. He did badly in his AS's, but his tutors predicted better grades for his UCAS form, and he turned it round and got them. The jump from GCSE to A Level is very big - maybe bigger than that from A level to first year uni for many

speedology Fri 05-Jul-13 20:15:49

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