How to ace GCSE RE

It's always been important for GCSE Religious Studies students to understand the specification. But the exam boards have made changes to GCSE RE courses in recent years, making it even more vital to get to know the new specification thoroughly.

In the lead up to the How to Revise GCSE RE Masterclass with Chris Eyre, I talked to Chris about how you can ensure your revision will set you up well for your RE exams and how you can prepare yourself to write exam answers that will earn you the top marks. 

Chris has been an RE and Philosophy teacher for 25 years and also has experience as a senior examiner for GCSE and A-Level RE, so he's got some great insight and advice to share.

If you study RE at A-Level, you can still access the How to Revise A-Level RE Masterclass that Chris led inside The Extraordinaries Club. You can also listen to his podcast interview about A-Level RE

Listen to the GCSE RE podcast using the player above or listen on The School Success Formula podcast on Apple podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts. You can also watch my conversation with Chris or read the summary below. 

Get to know your GCSE RE specification 

Chris's first tip is to really get to know the specification. It’s the prime source of the topics you need to know. If a topic is on the specification, the examiner will expect you to have knowledge and understanding of it, so treat it as a checklist to make sure you’ve covered everything.

GCSE Religious Studies specifications vary a lot from exam board to exam board. Typically, you’ll cover two religions at GCSE, one of which will be Christianity. There will usually be a perspectives or an issues paper or, in some cases, more than one issues paper. 

Have a close look at your specific exam board's specification or ask your teacher to talk you through it. Ask yourself:

  • What topics, keywords and key phrases do I need to understand? 
  • What will my final exams be? 
  • How long will they be? 
  • What are the styles of questions that I should expect on that paper?

Which assessment objective does each exam question test?

The changes that have been made to GCSE RE courses recently are around their assessment objectives. Assessment objectives outline the skills that the examiner is looking for in your exam paper.

Here’s what the GCSE RE assessment objectives are typically about:

  • Assessment objective one (AO1) is about knowledge and understanding 
  • Assessment objective two (AO2) is about argument and evaluation

There have been some slight changes by some of the boards in terms of what assessment objectives they’re testing on different questions. 

For instance, OCR used to have six-mark questions where there were two marks for AO1 and four marks for AO2. They've simplified that now so that on one paper it's AO1 and on another paper it’s AO2. 

You should know which questions are testing which assessment objective before you walk into the exam so you know exactly what the examiner is looking for. 

Chris will go into more detail about what these assessment objectives look like in the masterclass

Understand the format of the exam paper

GCSE RE exams typically have shorter questions that gradually build up to a longer question.

For instance, AQA GCSE RE exam papers have one, two, four, five and twelve mark questions. For OCR, it might go three, three, six and fifteen. 

How to learn the exam format for your exam board

Usually, this would be a case of looking at all the past papers available to you from your exam board. However, with the exam boards changing the GCSE RE exams recently, try to get hold of the exam paper from 2020. It might not be available through the exam board website yet but your teacher may be able to access it. 

Your exam board will also spell out the changes on their website. 

How to write successful GCSE RE exam answers 

As Chris explains, a big aspect of writing answers that will gain you the top marks is getting your revision right. 

When you’re revising for assessment objective one (knowledge and understanding), ensure that you’ve got two or three specific things to say about each thing that’s in the specification. 

The examiner is keen to see that you’re aware of differences and perspectives, particularly for the slightly longer questions. For example, you might show you understand that not all Christians practice in the same way or believe the same things. 

Whatever revision techniques you’re using, can you produce those two or three (or however many) specific things, clearly and in order? 

How much should you write for each answer?

For the one, two or three mark questions, you can be quite brief. If it asks you to list three Christian denominations, for example, just those three words would be enough to get you the marks. 

For the four, five or six mark questions, it’s key that you develop your answers more fully. For example, if the question asks you to give two reasons why a Christian might think that Eucharist is important, there might be two marks for giving the two reasons, then another two for explanations of those reasons. In questions like these, think of it as needing two sentences rather than one for each of the points and make sure you’ve explained the ‘why’. 

How are the shorter questions marked?

Shorter questions are either marked using pointed marking or level marking.

Some exam boards use points marking for their four, five or six-mark questions. For example, a question might be ‘Give three examples of  what a Christian might understand by the idea of baptism’. To answer this well, you’d give three points and develop them to get all the marks. 

Other exam boards use level marking. For these, the examiner doesn't necessarily want three different things. They’ll look at your answer as a whole and mark it against level descriptors that indicate a good, satisfactory or limited answer.  

Knowing whether the question is marked using pointed or level marking will affect how you answer it. It will also affect how much time you spend on your answer, which is really important. Timing is key for GCSE RE exams. You need to ensure you keep pace through the paper and don’t write too much for short questions. 

How to achieve higher marks on longer answer questions

Previously, the longer questions of GCSE RE exam papers required you to discuss a statement. If you structured your answer with an argument for the statement, an argument against, what a religious person thought about it and what your personal view was, you could get most of the marks. 

However, with the new specification, your writing style for long-answer questions should be more akin to a lawyer using evidence to present a case. You need to build a case throughout your answer using religious evidence that you’ve learned. 

Keep in mind that not all questions will appear as if they obviously require a religious answer. For example, Chris refers to a question he saw that asked whether prison is effective at rehabilitating people. As you’re sitting an RE exam, however, you need to make sure to bring religious evidence into your answer. 

In the masterclass, Chris will show you different exam answers at different levels and explain how to access those top marks. 

What are the common mistakes students make in GCSE RE exams? 

A common mistake that comes up in the examiner reports is around technical terms and subject-specific vocabulary. 

In GCSE RE, you'll come across words relating to different religions that you may not have used before. They'll often come up in short exam questions that ask you what different technical terms mean.

A common comment that comes up a lot on the exam reports is that students don’t know or can’t explain what the terms mean, whether they’re religious or non-religious terms, such as cohabitation, reconciliation and nuclear family

To make sure you understand all the terms, highlight them all in the specification and revise them thoroughly. 

More help with acing your GCSE RE exams

Chris is leading the How to Revise GCSE RE Masterclass on Monday the 3rd of January, at 3.00 pm. 

We'll talk in more depth about:

  • Understanding the exam specification and the different assessment objectives
  • How to recognise different question types and how they’re marked
  • How to write answers that access the higher marks
  • And much more!

Find out more and sign up for the How to Revise GCSE RE Masterclass here. 

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