When students are first exposed to Chemistry at Secondary 3, be it Combined Science (Chemistry) or Pure Chemistry, they all find themselves facing a similar problem: explanation questions. They answer the questions based on their understanding of the subject and realise only afterwards that they have gotten the question wrong due to a multitude of reasons, such as inaccurate terminology, wrong sequence of points etc. This scenario will happen multiple times, and in the end, students often end up giving up using their own words and resort to blind memory of model answers.

Blindly memorising model answers may prove to be useful in the beginning, but with the increased emphasis on higher order thinking questions and application questions in the national examinations, it will become increasingly more difficult for students to memorise the model answers for all the different types of questions.

Blindly memorising model answers may prove to be useful in the beginning, but with the increased emphasis on higher order thinking questions and application questions in the national examinations, it will become increasingly more difficult for students to memorise the model answers for all the different types of questions. Students must know how to adapt and tweak their answers to the demands of the question in order to accurately score the marks. Effective answering of explanation questions requires a few skills that need to be honed and constantly practised. Mastery of these skills does not only benefit them in terms of answering explanation questions in Chemistry, but also in other subjects as well, namely humanities.

Accurate Terminology

The use of accurate terminology in explanation is a major component in answering chemistry explanation questions. Often referred in schools as the use of “key words”, students often paraphrase or replace these key words with words that they are more familiar with. Even teachers themselves often do so when first teaching a chapter in order for students to better understand the concept. Nonetheless, the use of such “key words” is necessary as the use of other words may not be able to bring out the full meaning of these “key words”.

Each chapter in Chemistry has a list of “key words” that should be used whenever possible. Students who are able to consolidate a list of key words for each chapter and make a consistent effort to use them whenever possible tend to score better in these explanation questions.

Causation in Answers

Causation refers to the act or process of causing something to happen or exist. Applying causation in answering questions allows the student to state points in a particular sequence, leading from one point to the next and eventually arriving at a conclusion that directly answers the question. This technique ensures that students are able to make a coherent argument that is structured, flows well and directly answers the question. Effective practice of causation also prevents students from missing out vital intermediate points that could cause them valuable marks.

Mark Allocation

With the vast amount of conceptual knowledge in Chemistry, everything may seem vaguely relevant when answering an explanation question. How then would a student know what is truly considered relevant to the question and what is considered over-elaborating?

Knowledge on how to allocate marks to their answers can help give the students a gauge as to whether they are writing too much or too little. Effective answers to explanation questions boils down to a sequence of marking points that presents key concepts or arguments that directly answers the question, each point bearing one mark.
In the event that a student only presents three points in a five mark question, that student will likely need to further elaborate on his points in order to stand a higher chance at scoring the full marks. On the contrary, if a student has presented five key points in a three mark question, that student has likely over-elaborated and wasted precious examination time that could be better spent on other questions.

Conclusion

 The three key points above seek to give students a better understanding of the skills required to effectively answer explanation questions in Chemistry. Students will need to be trained or guided early in order for them to be able to internalise and hone these skills. With ample practice and guidance, students will be able to demonstrate these skills subconsciously and effectively answer explanation questions in Chemistry.

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