junior cert

You’ve messed up one of your exams. What happens now?

You’ve sat the exam. You’ve messed it up.
What happens next?

Contrary to what you feel at the time, messing up in one or two questions isn’t going to make much, if any, difference to your overall set of results. How you respond to the setback will however say a lot about your approach to overcoming adversity, not just now but in life in general.

What you’ve got to remember is that almost nobody is going to excel in every exam. So your ‘competition’ is the other students (the fact that we can use the words competition and education in the same context is an absolutely terrible indictment on what we do, but for now it is what it is). And they’re going to make mistakes too.

If you allow yourself to dwell on mistakes then it is going to adversely affect your ability to concentrate for later exams. You’ve simply got to put it behind you.
I like to use sporting analogies.
If you’re a footballer and you miss a penalty in a crucial game then you want nothing more than for the ground to open up and swallow you.
But that’s not an option.

So you pick yourself up, hold your head up high and get on with the game – no matter how difficult that seems at the time.

You see nobody goes a whole match without making mistakes – it’s how you respond that determines whether or not you are a success.

So try to avoid the post-mortems, particularly if you’re not an optimist to begin with.

For what it’s worth, this also applies on a large scale. Reading about the anniversary of the Normandy Landings, a comment from one of the veterans resonated with me. In war, the side that wins is usually the side that makes the fewer mistakes.
So don’t compound one by making another.

Welcome to life.




Keeping parents in the loop

The following is a (slightly edited) email I sent out to parents recently. I include it here because it might prompt you to do something similar. I have posted previously (see link here) about the importance of keeping parents in the loop (and it is ALWAYS appreciated by parents). Feel free to copy and edit this to suit.

Dear parent,
Thank you for taking the time to come in and see me at the recent parent-teacher meeting. I am following up to maintain contact and to give you the opportunity to ask me anything that wasn’t covered in the meeting itself.

The idea that we are to communicate only once a year is crazy and as a parent it must be difficult trying to remember the comments from ten or more teachers, so hopefully this will help you keep track of the situation in relation to Science class.

During the meeting I jotted down various points that I wanted to expand upon.
They include the following:

We don’t use a textbook. I have found in the past that they contain a lot of extra information which isn’t necessary and for a young student it’s not always obvious which material is necessary and which isn’t. Instead they get a photocopy of notes for each chapter; these contain only the information that they will need to know. These notes also contain a copy of all exam questions that have appeared on that topic in the past (both at Ordinary Level and Higher Level) so they can become familiar with the detail required in their answers for Junior Cert itself.

Having said that, some students like to use the textbook for background reading.

I have asked the students to check that they have a copy of the notes on each of the chapters we covered this year.
If they are missing any they can ask me or they can download them themselves from thephysicsteacher.ie (click on the relevant chapter from Junior Cert Biology, Chemistry or Physics).

Each chapter should be kept in a separate polypocket.

Students should also have a ‘Chapter Checklist’ which helps them monitor what chapters are covered and which we have yet to do throughout the year. This can be downloaded from here

It should be obvious how to read it but just in case; the chapters covered in Second Year are in column 2. For the Summer exams we also include the chapters from First Year that were covered between Christmas and Summer. These are in the second half of each (Physics/Chemistry/Biology) section.

We will have all the topics covered by the end of next week. After that it’s all revision plus hopefully enough ‘fun’ science to keep everyone interested during the final term.

Experiment Book
Students are expected to keep a record of all the mandatory experiments which they carry out over the three years. Some teachers give them books which they can purchase (or which may have come with the textbook). I prefer to give them out a booklet which I made out and which has been tailored for the specific experiments which we do in class. They don’t need to put in a detailed procedure (I have this done for them). They do however need to put in a diagram and results (where appropriate). I then include a series of questions which tries to tease out whether they really understand the experiment or are just going through the motions. I find this approach leads to more effective learning, with (much)  less heartache all round, while still satisfying the requirements of the Department. They usually fill these in during the class when they have finished the experiment so there’s less likelihood of them loosing the booklets by taking them home. I can also check very quickly that all experiments are up to date.

This is worth 10 % of their final mark. The mark is not dependent on the quality of the write-up or the quality of the results, they merely need to have a record of having done the experiment and I then sign off to this effect so that they can get full marks.

In Third Year the students carry out two investigations (the titles of which will be issued to them towards the end of the first term) and these are worth 25 % of their total mark. The marks are awarded on the basis of their write-up. We don’t need to worry about this until next year. The whole concept is a shambles, but we don’t get to make the rules so we just play ball.
See an old blogpost on this here

They should have a copy of the tests they did on each topic; this allows them to know what they got wrong and this therefore should be what they concentrate on when they go to revise. They were instructed to keep these in the same polypocket as the notes. However it may be that this system only becomes manageable as they become more organised.

You will sometimes receive advice as to how much time a student should be spending on homework on a given night. I tend to read advice like this with an impending sense of doom. When it comes to homework, it’s quality not quantity that counts. And most students just don’t know how to study properly. That’s not their fault; it’s ours for not showing them. If it was up to me I would have a separate subject on the school curriculum called simply ‘Study Skills’. But it’s not up to me. This is probably a good thing.

Revision / Study Skills / What can you do
We will shortly be revising all topics in advance of the exam. Either ask the student what topics are being revised on a given night or alternatively check what we did in class here
You can help be asking them the questions from the end of the notes (answers are also provided, in case your own Science knowledge isn’t quite up to scratch).

Why is Johnny doing great on short class tests but then performing dismally on end-of-term exams?
Doing well on short tests gives a misleading picture and quite often doesn’t translate into doing well on end-of-term exams. In fact it can often be counter-productive.

This ties in directly with what one of you mentioned that your son had said in relation to studying for exams (it had to be a boy). He claimed that “there’s no point learning a week in advance – it will be forgotten before the test”. He is spot on if all he wants to do is do well on that specific test. Cramming the night before does work (in fact it works too well for many students). The problem is that by only visiting the material once, it resides in short term memory only and is all long forgotten before the Summer exams come around.

No problem – we can just cram for everything the night before the Summer exam also – right?

Sadly no; the short term memory (working memory) has only a limited capacity so it’s not going to be able to store a year’s worth of material at short notice.

So the material needs to be in long term memory.
How do we do that?
Answer: Constant (effective)  revision

Which brings us back to Study Skills
In summary:


·         Study for the sake of studying

·         Spend all your time reading notes

·         Spend all your time ‘doing’ the questions (if this merely involves transcribing the information from the textbook to the copy)

·         Waste time writing out the notes

·         Waste time highlighting


·         Set a target

·         Study the material to ensure you ensure you understand it

·         Test yourself

·         Check your answers

·         Learn what went wrong

·         Repeat the test after a short period (say an hour)

·         Repeat again as desired

In short, learning is about retrieval of information from long-term memory.

Rather than writing any more about Homework and Study Skills here I will simply point you to two recent blogposts I penned on the subject. It’s then up to you to read or not as you see fit.
Homework – how effective is it (answer: not much)
Study Skills – how to study hard and still fail

I do try to incorporate these ideas into my own teaching, so with Second Years I give very little homework, and we try to do all our learning in class.

Why do students go through eight years of primary education and six years of secondary education (and quite possibly four or more years of third level education) without ever learning how to learn?
Beats me.
Answers on a postcard please . . .

Student Feedback
Interestingly a number of you mentioned that your son/daughter was reluctant to speak up in class. I have a couple of techniques which I use to counter that – some more successful than others.

One is the use of Coloured Cups; each student gets three cups (red, orange and green). Red means that they don’t understand what the heck I’m on about, Orange means they kinda get it but aren’t too confident. Green means that that get it and are confident that they could explain it to a colleague if asked to do so. They keep cups stacked in front of them with the appropriate cup on top. It means that I can ascertain how the class is going with a quick scan, and as I’m walking around I can stop and take time with an individual where necessary. Tied to that is the use of MiniWhiteBoards (“ShowMe” boards) – students are often happy to write an answer on these in contrast to putting up their hand so it’s another useful weapon to have in the armory. I would however ask that you purchase a couple of whiteboard markers for this purpose. I asked the students to get these themselves but I’m still waiting . . .

In order to make the learning more effective I try to make sure that the students are engaging with their learning. This means getting them to solve problems, make predictions or answer questions in advance of doing an experiment or showing them a demonstration.
Some students are reluctant to make a prediction or take on a challenge because they associate making mistakes (or not getting the right answer) with failure. And they see failure as being Bad. I try to dissuade them of this notion – that failure is a necessary part of the learning process –  but sometimes feel I’m trying to hold back the tide. Therefore it was nice to see that The Science Gallery are currently holding an exhibition on Failure entitled Fail Better. If you get a chance you should head in there with your son/daughter and hopefully they will come away with (as Johnny Cash says) a different point of view. And – you’ve guessed it – I have written about this in more detail here

Academically exceptional students
For some of you, your son/daughter is in the academically exceptional category. You will no doubt have noticed that this can be a mixed blessing in school because, as a rule, teachers just don’t know how to accommodate these students. There are a number of support organisations out there but the one I would recommend most highly is the one with the greatest personal touch; giftedireland.ie
Tell Catherine I sent you.

Gifted Ireland is a meeting point for parents, teachers and adults interested in supporting and exploring the needs of gifted children and adults in Ireland

If I can help you in any other way please don’t hesitate to give me a shout by email or via a quick text08.

Junior Cert Science – answering graph questions

Since this science course was first examined in 2006 graph questions have become quite common. If you know how to answer them they can be a source of very easy marks but if you’re not familiar with them you can similarly lose a lot of marks just by not knowing some simple rules. And remember there is no choice on the paper!

There are different types of graph questions and you have probably covered many of them in maths anyway. It’s just that the science textbooks don’t seem to do a very good job of telling us why we have them in the first place, or why there are different types.

The graphs you need to be familiar with:

  1. Distance-time graphs
  2. Velocity-time graphs
  3. Voltage-current graphs
  4. Force-extension graphs
  5. Cooling curves
  6. Solubility curves

As you can see these are almost all from the Physics section of the course, and unless you have practiced answering exam-questions they can seem rather intimidating. The link below is to a document which contains all recent exam questions on graphs at Higher Level and Ordinary Level and also includes the solutions. The nice thing is that once you’ve done one or two questions on a given graph they all tend to repeat after that.

There is lots of other advice on answering the graph question, but it’s all in the document itself.

Hope it’s useful!

Revision – Graphs

Survey finds Physics dropped in 10% of schools

With all the media attention on NAMA these times it’s understandable that most of us missed this headline from RTE the other day (hat-tip to eagle-eyed Jude for bringing it to my attention).
The RTE article leads with the following:

Research suggests that almost 10% of second level schools have been forced to drop Physics as a subject offered to students.
The findings indicate that the decision is as a direct result of education cutbacks.

Not a happy statistic, but presumably many of these schools had less than ten students in the class, and it just wasn’t feasable to maintain this. So why don’t more students do physics? It’s a very complex issue but the problem is causing concern to authorities throughout the western world. I believe that one very important factor is the picture of physics which students get from the  Junior Cert – if we don’t get this right then it’s going to create a poor impression when they go to choose their leaving cert subjects.

So what would I change in Junior Cert Physics? – stay tuned.

btw – should we read anything into the fact that the accompanying picture in the RTE webpage is chemistry-related, not physics?

The wonder of the cell

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again; we need to put the wonder back in to science education. Currently the science syllabus in school couldn’t be more devoid of wonder if you went through it with a microscope and deliberately sucked out all the good bits. To put the wonder back in we need to go beyond scientists, teachers and educationalists; we need help from those who are expert in the field. We need artists. We need poets. We need to listen to children.

I don’t eat, read and sleep science because I think we need more engineers. I don’t teach science because it may someday produce graduates who could be good for the economy. We seem to have been down that road before and it didn’t quite work out too well.

I like science (in fact let’s be honest about it – I love science) because of the sense of wonder and awe it leaves me with. And the more I know the more amazed I get. I’m still learning basic biology – up until now it has mainly been just enough to teach with, so when I teach about the cell at junior cert level I stick up a diagram on the board and go through the main parts of the cell and their functions. What a disaster. What a disservice to my students. I may not know all that goes on inside the cell, and they may not need to know, but at the very least they do need to appreciate the complexity, the incredible organisation and the beauty of the cell. Which is why we need artists.

I have seen Harvard University’s The Inner Life of the Cell many times, and have never failed to be blown away by it, but recently watched one of the animators give a talk on TED, explaining the background to the production. It’s well worth watching.

 They finish up with a 3 minute clip from an ABC news report on the animation. As the anchor-guy says; it makes you want to go back and take Biology.

 Now that’s what I’m talking about.

The Inner Life of The Cell

ABC news report

David Bolinsky on TED

Finally there is a three hour documentary going from the history of the discovery of the cell right up to the present day where scientists are almost at the stage where they can manuafcture cells on demand (once agian scientists need outside help to guide them methinks).

Like, why would you watch Cornation Street of an evening when you could get all the drama here?

 All the above clips can now be accessed from the livingthings webpage of thephysicsteacher.ie

Annnnnd we’re back

It’s taken a while (actually all Summer) but thephysicsteacher.ie now contains student notes on all topics on the Junior Cert Science syllabus.

Each chapter contains a copy of the relevant points from the syllabus at the beginning. This gives the student an overview of what the chapter is about and also acts as a check for both student and teacher to ensure we have everything covered before we finish.

There is then the main body which contains the notes in a relatively condensed form.

Next come the questions; here we have included every relevant question which has appeared on an exam paper at higher or ordinary level. These have been arranged to follow the order of the concepts in the notes themselves.

Each question has a reference to the year when the question appeared. Some questions come up repeatedly and this is readily apparent by noting the numbering of years at the top.

Next come the solutions. These are not just the answers but where necessary fully worked out solutions.

Finally there is a bank of miscellaneous questions which rounds of the chapter.

So what next?

Because it’s my first year using this approach it will take at least the year to road-test it and fine tune as I go along. This time next year it should be closer to a polished product.

I teach second- and third-years and so far we have never needed to look at a text-book. The hope is that next year we can spare parents the expense of purchasing science text-books for Junior Science.

Of course the notes still need to be photocopied and distributed, but at least we cut down considerably on paper by using narrow margins, reducing size by printing two pages onto one A4 and photocopying back to back, with the result that most chapters are on one double-sided page. Students seem to have little trouble with this approach although they do have to invest in a plastic folder to contain the notes.

It would be nice to think that we could work in a paperless classroom, but this would require all students to have their own laptop in class so I’m not holding my breath.

The wonderful people at CESI have been helping with the presentation and I can’t see any reason why the notes can’t be published as an online book after we have road-tested it.

It can be updated every year both to improve the quality and add extra exam questions as they appear. In particular I would like to develop the questions to include a lot more ‘higher order’ thinking rather than just simple recall.

It needs to be in ‘editable’ format to allow other teachers to adapt it to their own needs.

I also need to add interactive links to the Junior Chemistry and Junior Biology pages of the website; currently I have over one hundred waiting patiently in the wings; they range from average to priceless.

It’s all freely available to download. In fact to save teachers and/or students the trouble of downloading 45 different chapters I can’t see any reason why I can’t copy them to cd and post them – at least initially.

The website already contains a guide to teaching Junior Cert Physics by topic; it would be nice if this could be expanded to include Chemistry and Biology, but this would involve a contribution from a more knowledgeable source than I.

And what I really want to do is to have evolution permeate the entire Biology section  – after all could there be anything more ridiculous than teaching Biology without reference to the underlying template upon which all life is built?

That, and the fact that it’s only the greatest story ever told.

That’ll do for now.

Junior Cert Physics      Junior Cert Biology         Junior Cert Chemistry

Junior Cert Physics Resources


I have tended to neglect the Junior Cert end of thephysicsteacher.ie

Hopefully this has now been rectified. Or at any rate it’s a start.
The interactive links were there already but not easily accessable, and were all on one long page.
The section which took longest to prepare was the ‘Tips for Teachers’ section. Hopefully this will prove useful to Biology and Chemistry teachers, and any new teachers, particularly hdip and trainee teachers.
Being more organised may also encourage me to be a bit more adventurous with the investigative approach rather than just telling students what to do for each so-called ‘experiment’.

I had my own school in mind with our own resources, but tried to be as general as possible.
The links on top are as likely to take you  into a parallel universe as anywhere else, but that’s for another day.

I am particularly proud of the ‘Teachers’ Tips’ column; each section of the Junior Physics syllabus has been teased out seperately with comments which I hope prove useful. Having everything itemised like this means I can follow this guide as I teach them myself and alter sections as needs be. Perhaps others may even get involved and offer constructive criticism on sections which they approach differently.

As with all advice, it is more a work in progress than a finished product. I would like to include a set of equipment for each section which teachers could cross-check in advance, along with a suggested length of time for teaching each chapter and sub-topic.
Next up would be a set of higher-order questions and a variety of teaching approaches, with particular emphasis on Assessment for Learning.

Electricity in particular requires special attention. It is one of the most popular topics on the exam paper and I imagine one of the trickiest to teach for the non-specialist teacher.

But it’s a start.

Feel free to download them to your own pc and adapt them to suit your own school needs. 

Horrendous:Average mark in Junior Science H.L written exam is 55%

I was browsing through the Chief Examiner’s report (as one does) for the Junior Cert science exam 2006 and found buried amongst all the text and statistics the following unbelievable nugget: the average mark for the written exam was 55%.
I couldn’t find any data on 2007 or 2008, so I don’t know if things have changed in the meantime or not.


This is after three years work. In hindsight it would have been more useful if it was one percentage point lower in that we could then conclude that the average mark didn’t merit an honour and maybe drastic action could have been taken. Maybe for that matter action has been taken, but again I couldn’t find any comment or reference to this anythere.

I can see why this statistic didn’t cause a furore at the time: the overall mark turned out to be 67%, so most students would have been (relatively) happy with that. This was due to the combining of the written exam with the two other sections.
Coursework A: (recording of experiment work over the three years) is worth 10% of the overall mark and the average mark here was 98%.
Coursework B: (based on a report of two seperate investigations) is worth 25% of the overall mark and the average mark here was 85%.

But stilll.

The standard explanantion for this is that students no longer have a choice in the paper, so all questions need to be answered. This is certainly a large contributory factor, but when I looked over the papers for 2006, 2007 and 2008 there was another shock. I concentrated on Physics and found that the hardest topic – Electricity – accounted for over one fifth of all the marks on the physics sections.
Three other sections featured very strongly; Heat, Light and Energy, and all other topics were then very much hit-or-miss as regards whether they featured or not.

Some of the questions within each section were also ridiculous. I have listed some of the worst offenders in a submission to the editor of SCIENCE, the in-house journal for members of the ISTA (Irish Science Teachers Association). The full article can be accessed below: on the top-right there is the option to toggle for the full screen.

I included in the document a link to this posting so hopefully we will receive some feedback (the next edition of the journal goes out towards the end of May) .

What think you?


Junior Cert Revision




To access the Junior Cert Revision document, simply right-lick on the link below and then choose ‘Save Target As’ to save it to your computer

Junior Cert Revision Schedule

Revision is one of those areas where I suspect some of us fall down.
Particulary at Christmas time, I tend to forget that while the top students seem to have no problem knowing what to learn and how to plan their revision, us lesser mortals could do with a bit of guidance.

While there are plenty of students who won’t open a book over Christmas (and good luck to you), for those who are trying hard, you could probably do with a little guidance. Hopefully this will help.

Don’t forget to ask your teachers NICELY to help you put together a list of tasks which will help with your revision.
And say THANK YOU to Ms Marion Mcginn for coming up with the template.
Remember that you can always edit this to suit your own needs.

Good luck!

Congratulations Scifest winners!!!


I mentioned that I was trying to promote Scifest as a means of getting students to do real science as opposed to the learning by rote and following cookbook recipe-type so-called experiments. So after promoting it among second, fourth and fifth years, I ended up with about eight groups, of which seven pulled out when they realised the presentation was going to be held on a non-school day.

Which left us with ‘The Power of Poo’, a second-year entry from two girls; Georgina Gilsenan and Philippa Tuthill. This highly original project involved inserting a couple of radiators into the middle of a dung-heap, pumping water through the pipes, and noting the rise in temperature. The results obtained may not turn the planet off its axis, but there was a serious amount of science involved in controlling variables. They even tried two different dung-heaps; cow and horse!

And it won!
In three categories!
Best Junior Project.
Best overall Physics Project.
Runner-up in Best overall Project.

Unfortuantely I had to leave early in the afternoon and so wasn’t there for the prize-giving ceremony, and so don’t have any photos of the girls receiving their prizes, but if I talk nicely to their parents they might lend me some to put up here.

The irony is that after prodding and poking each of the other groups all along the way, only for them all to pull out, this was the one project which I had almost nothing to do with apart from submitting the entry.  There really shouldn’t be any teacher’s name associated with it – it really was all there own work.

Not that it will stop me shamelessy exploiting the publicity in school as a means of promoting the project again next year, with hopefully a little more commitment.