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Understanding the syllabus

When we started teaching, way back in the turn of the century, few students were given detailed information from the subject syllabuses. They weren’t that readily available, kept on shelves in hard copy with the occasional pieces of information photocopied or rewritten to be made student-friendly. Nowadays syllabuses going back years are available online alongside past papers, examiner’s comments, and a huge range of resources supplied by specific exam boards. Some teachers might worry that this is information overload, and that this could be a risk for some students who might fixate over details in the syllabus that the teacher doesn’t really need to focus on, let alone the student. A counterpoint is that there is now a lot more transparency for a student sitting an exam; they know now more than ever why they are learning what they’re learning, as well as what they will be covering.

It’s unlikely that your teacher will supply you with a full syllabus, although they might do so electronically if you have a VLE (Virtual Learning Environment). They are more likely to give you a summary, which is probably fine, but we think it’s useful to have a look through the syllabus for each of your subjects, and to know what to look for. Understanding what the syllabus is, and what is expected of you, will help you plan and set goals for the year.

Every syllabus has the potential to be different in structure and layout, but they generally follow the same structure. This is, in part, because of Ofqual, an organisation that agrees learning objectives across different exam boards.

Who are Ofqual and what’s it got to do with me?

We have been involved in advising many students in terms of which exam board they should take for specific subjects. Ofqual ensures that, for every subject, the endpoint is the same. The route that takes a student there is designed by the different exam boards, and teachers have certain preferences based on their own subject specialism and/or the individual learning needs and skills of the students. There are of course massive variations in certain subjects, such as GCSEs and IGCSEs and units, topics and modules which can’t be delivered with each other or in certain locations, but generally speaking, there is a standardisation of these qualifications, which is approved by Ofqual.

What’s all that mean for you? Well, mainly, it means you should have confidence that the outcome of what you are learning will have the potential to be the same as the outcome of someone learning the same subject but with a different exam board. Don’t waste time complaining that a syllabus doesn’t make sense or asking why you’re studying what you’re studying. Have a look at the assessment objectives, with the knowledge that they’ve been carefully developed, discussed and standardised, and the reason for the content you study should be much clearer.

Understanding Assessment Objectives

Every subject syllabus has assessment objectives. Objectives are measurable, specific goals. It is these assessment objectives that inform the development of content in a syllabus. Much like the past few paragraphs, the language of assessment objectives is quite dry and dull, but they are so important in helping you set your own personal objectives and aims throughout the year. They should be the first thing you look for when you read through your syllabuses. You could copy and print out the assessment objectives and keep them at the front of your subject folder and/or put them on your wall, print them off in reverse on a t-shirt so you can see them in a mirror – whatever will help you remember them and keep them at the back or the forefront of your mind (or wherever in your brain you’d prefer) while you’re studying.

To help you understand what we mean by assessment objectives and how they inform a syllabus, here is an example of objectives from AQA French A level:

AO1: Understand and respond:

- in speech to spoken language including face-to-face interaction

- in writing to spoken language drawn from a variety of sources.

AO2: Understand and respond:

- in speech to written language drawn from a variety of sources

- in writing to written language drawn from a variety of sources.

AO3: Manipulate the language accurately, in spoken and written forms, using a range of lexis and structure.

AO4: Show knowledge and understanding of, and respond critically and analytically to, different aspects of the culture and society of countries/communities where the language is spoken.

Summarising it briefly, it seems that AO1 is speaking and listening, AO2 is speaking and reading comprehension, AO3 is showing off your ability to write and speak French well and AO4 is showing a good understanding of French in context. If a student can achieve these objectives to a decent degree, not only will they be able to understand and respond to spoken and written French, they will also be able to engage in social, political and cultural life where French is spoken. The exam board doesn’t want the student to simply repeat or learn by rote; they have designed the specification so that the individual has the opportunity to engage on a personal level with all things French.

Once I know that, I can look back at the summary section of the syllabus, telling me how many papers there are in the exam, and then drill down for more detail in terms of content, and it will be much clearer why the content has been chosen to help students reach those four objectives. There are set texts, such as Voltaire, Camus and Truffaut, an individual research topic on a subject of the student’s choice, topics on legal systems, cinema, diversity, poverty, cybersociety, chances to demonstrate translation skills, as well as a focus on grammar. I can see how each of these is informed by AOs 1 to 4.

Looking at Edexcel’s French A level specification, the assessment objectives are identical. The route they take, the content that’s included, differs, but not extremely. There’s a broader range of set texts on offer, and the discussion topics are different, but these are just roads leading to the same destination.

Specifications in summary

It’s important not to get bogged down by reading the specification cover to cover. They’re heavy documents and much of what is written is information you don’t need to know (by all means, read it all if you want, but it might not be the best use of your time). The summary of the specification tells you all you need to know to begin with. I would suggest you look at that first and then maybe identify areas where you feel less sure about the subject (for instance, in the French syllabus, I might focus on the Speaking topics). Then, read the more detailed description of that area of the specification first, as this might be the area that you want to plan extra study time for throughout the year.

Check your current knowledge. What aspects of the content do you already know a bit about? Test this.

A note of caution here, remember that the specifications include all possible content but that your teacher will decide what content is studied in class. History A level, for instance, has a huge range of periods and topics to allow for a teacher’s specialist area. It wouldn’t be the most effective use of time to read through all of these and test what you want to know. You might want to do this to test your critical thinking skills, but it is not useful in terms of planning for your academic year. If you’re planning to take the A level outside of your school then of course it is better to have a detailed understanding of your topic options.

Past papers

After looking at the specification in summary, and working out how this might impact your planning, you should look more closely at the exam papers which are, after all, the end point of the course. They are not the end point of the subject, by any means. You might well be pursuing the subject in further study elsewhere or at least hopefully have enough of an interest in the subject to continue studying it for fun. But unfortunately, all exam boards agree that assessment for GCSEs and A levels is best done, in the main, through exams. This is largely a culturally established consensus in the UK, although after the exam results fiasco as a result of the covid-19 school closures, we might start seeing a move in a different direction.

We don’t need to enter into a debate about the merits of exams in these qualifications. You’re taking them, you’re sitting the exams. That’s it. Remember, there are many other qualifications that don’t include exams or have a balance of different assessment methods, but this post is specifically about A level specifications.

Each paper will be mapped against assessment objectives in the specification. This is so useful to know when it comes to revision. You should have a very clear idea of what needs to be revised for each paper and why so that you don’t end up revising things for Paper 1 material after you’ve already sat it. A clear understanding of objectives, and good organisation of notes, should stop this happening.

Specification key words

The specification is a great source of key words for you to use for study. For instance, the Edexcel French A level has a grammar list in the Appendix. Your teacher will be using this and making sure that everything in that list is covered comprehensively in the course, but you could also copy it and create revision cards from it, or create study tasks from it, e.g. pick three points from the grammar list at random, and try and write a meaningful paragraph including all three grammar points. Include these key words in your year plan, e.g. by February I will be able to define X, Y and Z.

You could ask your teacher why they’ve chosen one specification over another. Sometimes it’s a school or college decision to go with a particular exam board, but usually the teacher will be playing to their strengths, resources available and what might work best for the students.

Now that you’ve looked through the assessment objectives and the summary of the syllabus, you should think about the textbooks that you’ll be using in your study.

You should regularly look back at exam specification summaries and assessment objectives, just to remind yourself why you’re doing what you’re doing, and to help contextualise your learning.

Here’s a link to Ofqual and the main UK exam boards.

And you can contact us about qualifications, revision courses and one to one tuition at


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