A guide to how the Investigatory Skills Assessment (ISA) works in GCSE Science

Our students in Years 9,  10 and 11 will be carrying out their Science controlled assessments over the coming months.

These controlled assessments are heavily focussed on the students ability to design and implement investigations, and hence they are called ISAs (Investigatory Skills Assessments).

The ISA itself contributes 25% of the available marks for any given science exam, and the format and execution of the ISA is identical across all three sciences.

At its core, the ISA presents students with a situation that must be investigated.  The students then research and design a method and then implement the investigation.  As an example, in a previous ISA students were asked to investigate how changing the area of photocell exposed to light changes the voltage produced by the photocell.

Once the students have been briefed on the ISA they proceed to do their research and devise a plan for the investigation.  This activity is carried out under what the exam board calls “low control” which means that students can work without the direct supervision of a teacher, can access whatever resources they like and can even work in groups.

At the end of this research phase, each student will have completed a “Candidate Research Form” (CRF) which is single side of A4 containing notes that can be used during the two written test papers that comprise most of the marks available for the ISA.

Once this research phase is complete, students need to produce a blank results table which contributes 2 out of the total 50 marks for the ISA.  This is the first component of the ISA that is performed under “high control” – which is best thought of as “exam conditions”.

The next step is to sit the ISA Section 1 exam paper which asks questions about the method our students have planned to use.  This is a 45 minute long exam paper and is worth 20 out of the total 50 marks (the 20 marks includes the 2 marks from the blank results table).  This paper is completed in class under “high control”.  You can find examples of these exam papers in the links at the end of this blog entry.

Our students then go back to “low control” for the actual practical part of the investigation.  At the college we generally provide our students with a uniform method devised by the exam board, and usually a new and standardised results table.  The students perform the investigation and collect their results, and may work in groups if they chose to.

Then our students go back under “high control” in order to plot their results out, either as a bar chart or as a line graph (depending on the format of the data).

Finally our students sit the ISA section 2 exam paper which lasts for 50 minutes and provides 30 marksout of the total of 50 marks (including the 4 marks for plotting the graph correctly).

That concludes the ISA process.

Year 9 and Year 10 students will sit an ISA in each of Biology, Chemistry and Physics, and the single best result will be submitted to the exam board to provide up to 25% of the marks towards an award of GCSE: Science A.

Year 11 students will also take an ISA from Biology, Chemistry and Physics and these results will be applied to GCSE: Biology, GCSE: Chemistry and GCSE: Physics respectively.

It is planned for Year 9 students to take their ISA tests just before the Easter break.

All Year 10 students will take their Biology ISA on Monday the 8th of December, 2014

Form 10A will sit their Physics ISA on Thursday the 4th of December, 2014 and their Chemistry ISA in early January.

Form 10B will sit their Chemistry ISA on Thursday the 4th of December and their Physics ISA in early January.

Year 11 have already completed their Biology ISA and will sit their Chemistry ISA on Tuesday the 2nd of December and their Physics ISA on Monday the 8th of December.

You may find the following links of value.


A full glossary of the terms used in the ISAs can be found at:




The best way for students to improve their standard in the ISAs is to study some of the exemplar ISAs that are available.  Students should pay particular attention to the sections that show past exam papers that have been completed by a student.  These sections show questions (which are quite formulaic) alongside the students answers and commentary from the examiners as to how the marks have been awarded.




I would be more than happy to answer any questions arising, and my email is bdd@stmaryscollege.co.uk