NCEA Science: help and resources for students

Do you need help with NCEA Level 1 Science, Level 2 Science, or Level 3 Science?

This article outlines several strategies for improving your performance in NCEA Science. It includes resources, tips, and techniques recommended by experienced teachers, for use students in New Zealand schools.

In this article:

  • NCEA science overview
  • Why get a good grade
  • More about unit standards and achievement standards
  • Top tips to achieve in NCEA science
The iQualify for Schools team give their best study hints for high school science in New Zealand.
There are strategies you can use for improving your performance in NCEA Science.

What is NCEA science?

Year 11, Year 12, and Year 13 high school students can take NCEA Science. There are a number of different NCEA Science classes and courses available, covering different parts of the curriculum. Students will sit achievement standards, earning credits though internal assessments and end of year exams, which will go towards National Qualifications.

NCEA stands for the National Certificate in Educational Achievement and is the main national qualification for secondary school students in New Zealand. Employers recognise NCEA; universities and polytechnics use it as a selection tool.

You will choose your syllabus each year from a range of courses and subjects offered by your school. Students are assessed against a numbers of standards in each subject.

For example, an NCEA Level 1 science standard is “Investigate implications of heat for everyday life”.

An NCEA Level 3 science standard is “Demonstrate understanding of processes in the atmosphere system”.

Why is a good grade in science important?

Science has applications to so much of everyday life – for example, science offers an understanding of how to produce food, how to work out its energy consumption and how this translates to your energy output, and how it gets from the ground to your plate at night.

Success in science is not just about knowing how to carry out general science and experiments. Getting a good grade in your science classes is important in its own right. Good grades are helpful for getting into your most desired course of future study. They are also useful for landing that scholarship or apprenticeship, and for having independent proof of your skillset without needing to constantly demonstrate it.

Success in science is not just about experiments.
Science is about more than the ability to carry out experiments.

Before we jump into the tips and techniques for tackling NCEA Science, you might have some bigger questions about NCEA.

What is an NCEA unit standard or achievement standard?

There are two types of assessment standards in NCEA: unit standards and achievement standards. Assessments can receive a grade of Not Achieved, Achieved, Merit, or Excellence, and follow the New Zealand curriculum.

Teachers use a range of tests or projects to form the internal assessment for some standards. Other standards are assessed externally at the end of the year by NZQA (the New Zealand Qualifications Authority) either by exam or portfolio. Each standard is worth a number of credits, which the student earns by achieving the standard.

If the student performs particularly well, they will receive their credits at a Merit or Excellence level. If they achieve consistently high marks across several standards, then they can receive a Merit or Excellent endorsement for the subject or course as a whole.

NCEA Scholarship Exams

If you do well in science, you may wish to sit New Zealand Scholarship examinations at the end of your NCEA Level 3 year. The subject requirements are the same as Level 3, although assessed to a much higher standard. Successful candidates receive a financial award.

With that out of the way, let’s discuss some strategies for fulfilling your potential!

Collect evidence for an NCEA Science experiment

Evidence of science work can be collected in many ways, using different media.
There are a diverse range of resources to help with research and recording findings.

Technology is a daily part of our lives – we use it to connect with friends, watch YouTube clips or find funny memes relating to the implementation of technology in the classroom.  Technology also offers a vast range of resources to help with research and recording findings.

Allowing students to be innovative in collecting evidence has taken the pressure off them to only excel in one area, creating more opportunities for all students to do well.

“Successful student evidence resulted where teachers showed awareness of the need to provide a range of opportunities to demonstrate their understanding”.

Students can demonstrate evidence of science work in many ways, including blogs and video clips. As teachers work with students to present succinct evidence, the quality of work improves. Collecting evidence is particularly relevant when on field trips – to aid in the recollection of findings and the ability to link to clear examples.

For Excellence, the marking criteria requests you to demonstrate an understanding of results that incorporate evidence. This separates you out from an achieved mark (given for offering a simple description). Remember that collecting only relevant evidence that directly addresses standard criteria is the goal over collecting large quantities of evidence.

Have a look at science exemplars from the NZQA website which showcase past student work, providing commentary that matches unit standard criteria. This gives an understanding of how a grade can move from Achieved to Merit and Merit to Excellence.

Here is a section from a Level 1 Science Exemplar (Copyright: NZQA):

Focus on quality

Further to the above, collecting evidence aids in increasing report quality. Scientific quality is important for ethical considerations, and for maintaining integrity of research. A focus on quality over quantity gives confidence in results which if applied to a real-world scenario is crucial for getting products to market. For example, drug companies need to prove consistency of their products through a series of trials – giving customers confidence in their use.

Being able to filter out information or evidence that will not add to the quality of your work is an essential skill to learn. It will clarify your research, keep you on track and assist in the learning experience by diluting unnecessary information.

In saying this, experiments need to be tested and proved.  Ensuring there is enough valid data to provide a quality scientific response is vital. You need to be able to demonstrate an understanding of the evidence at the curriculum level you are being graded on to reach the Excellence criteria. If drawing diagrams makes it easier to explain or demonstrate a reaction, then do this, but make sure you annotate them so the examiner can follow your chain of thought to ensure your workings are eligible to be marked.

Example of an annotated diagram – life cycle of the neck blast fungus on rice (Copyright: The Open Polytechnic of New Zealand Ltd).

Your focus on quality also relates to the information you retain. Learning terminology all in one go results in confusion between concepts (such as: meiosis and fertilisation). Instead, break the concepts down into manageable bite size chunks.

“Focus on understanding the concepts of genetics and then learning the words to describe them better”.

Learn from the feedback given to you throughout the year by your teacher. When you get a question wrong, take time to understand where you made mistakes and where you lost marks. This focus on correcting errors (rather than doing as many practice tests as possible) is where you will find your efforts paying off when it comes to the final examination.

Be an active participant

It may seem obvious, but many students are not aware of how to be an active class participant. The New Zealand schooling system is based on an interactive approach to the learner’s responsiveness. Therefore to get the most out of your classes you need to be taking notes, listening to the teacher, asking questions and engaging in discussions.

The first step you can take is to sit near the front of the class so you can easily hear and see the teacher and avoid distractions. This will assist you in taking quality notes that you can review after class. You do not need to write down everything the teacher says. During class, develop a note taking system that works for you that you can add to later in your own revision time. Try to associate your learning with a real-world example to help you visualise material and retain more information. Forming a study group with fellow students to discuss class material will also help you to remember concepts.

Ask questions during class to demonstrate your willingness to learn. You will grow in your understanding of scientific concepts, and your teacher will see your areas of weakness. They will then be better placed to offer you guidance if they notice you are struggling.

Work through the study material before looking at the sample problems and solutions. This way you have a holistic understanding of the material and will recall it more readily, rather than using an example to guide you (which won’t be there during the examination).  

“One of the biggest causes of low performance on science tests is the habit of using the examples to do the homework. You must do the problem yourself; do not let the example do it for you!”

Remember that your teacher wants you to do well so do not be afraid to approach them to request extra guidance after class hours. This shows that you are eager to succeed and may assist when it comes time to receive additional tutoring for scholarship examinations.

Relate your NCEA Science study to the real world

Many science concepts relate to the real world. Chemical reactions, graphs, energy, or genetics all have direct applications to the real world.

An understanding of how science is being used in these situations will assist you in describing the event or problem, and you can check that your answer makes sense based on what you already know.

“The beauty comes in its connections”

Relating your study to a real-world context fosters neural pathways that will be triggered during recall in examinations to help you answer the questions. Understanding topics as cohesive units makes them appear less complex. Linking concepts and terms to ideas you already understand and relate to helps with memory recall.

Relate your genetics study to what you already know from your own family traits. Use this knowledge when drawing a punnet square as it will help you determine the dominant and recessive genes. For example you may have brown eyes like your mother while your dad has blue eyes which indicate that the blue eye gene is the recessive gene.

“Many candidates could benefit by practicing creating scenarios where they can apply their learnt knowledge to unknown situation to achieve the uppermost grades”.

Sometimes questions purposefully have excess information in them. Just like in the real world, use your problem solving skills to decipher what information is relevant and what is not.

Understand chemical reactions

You will be required to investigate chemical reactions. This is a process where a substance, either a chemical or a compound, is converted to produce a new substance through rearranging the atoms.

You will need to grasp cencepts that are common in external examinations. These include rates of reaction (with ability to graph results) and why ions form and undergo certain changes. Examiners will be impressed if they can see that you can confidently explain what is going on. It’s a good idea to develop a diagram and test yourself on the concepts.

Chemical formulas are useful in demonstrating your understanding in NCEA science
Chemical formulas are useful in demonstrating your understanding in NCEA science.

Describe how substances are produced through demonstrating the workings involved in chemical equations. It is not enough to answer that carbon and oxygen produce carbon dioxide. You need to show how you know this through the equation. Balancing chemical equations is a skill that (if perfected) will gain an Excellence mark. Prepare using past exam papers, and you will see this skill is always required.

Knowing the periodic table and symbols is crucial for these equations.

NCEA Science revision

We have mentioned above that you should take accurate notes during class – this is vital when it comes to revision. There are many methods of revision. It is important you find the solution that works most effectively for you to get the most out of it.

  • Utilise the study guide found on the NZQA website
  • Use suggestions from your teacher to form a study checklist
  • Organise your assessments and tasks using your checklist as a visual tool. This will mean you don’t miss deadlines or skip important information. Checklists provide motiviation. As we see each item ticked off we become more inclined to continue getting ticks, thereby potentially increasing productivity.

Checklists are beneficial for marking off all areas of study in a topic. By breaking the topic of genetics down into components (DNA, genotype and phenotype, genetic variations etc.) you can make sure all areas of study are covered.

For example you would use DNA as the heading and under that have your areas of knowledge.

‘I can define, describe and explain the structure of DNA’

‘I can define and describe chromosomes’

‘I can define meiosis and mitosis’

Genetics Checklist – NCEA Level 1 Science

Take a look at the Assessment Schedule and Marking Schedule for each Unit Standard to help you prepare for testing. The Science Formula relating to the Unit Standard will be provided in the test. Familiarity with the formula is necessary in order to carry out calculations, descriptions and graphical interpretations.

NCEA Science practice exam questions

Complete official examination papers from previous years. This is one of the best ways to test how you are performing in a subject. NZQA publishes old exam papers on their website, which are available from the Science resources page.

By completing past papers you will become familiar with the style of questions that will appear in the external exams and get an idea of how the paper is organised. Then, when you arrive at your exam, you will have a good idea of what to expect.

Another good reason to practice questions from exam papers ahead of time is to get a feel for the level of difficulty of the exam questions. This way you’ll know whether you are on track with your revision, or if you need to do a bit more work beforehand. Some people find it stressful to look at old exam papers and are shocked at how hard the questions look.  If you are going to be shocked, it is far better to get that out of the way in the comfort of your own home – instead of waiting for the exam to start.

Try to spread out your use of past exam papers, as there are only a few available. Leave most of them for the week or two before the exam. This way, you’re giving yourself time to do more revision, without using them all up before you’ve covered the necessary concepts.

It is a great idea to work through at least one past exam paper in the same timeframe of your exam. That way you can practice the questions and answers, and get a feel for how quickly you’ll need to work. Remember to try and leave some time in the exam to take a second look at your work, if you can.


Make your resources work for you – utilise textbooks, worksheets and online material to enhance your learning.

Make your resources work for you.
Bring together your resources and make them work for you.

At the start of your course, your teacher will recommend the textbook they want you to work through. It is also helpful to look at other textbooks to see whether their explanations make more sense to you. When you receive your textbook you may feel overwhelmed by its size, but textbooks are not designed to be read cover to cover. Use the contents page and index page to find the information you need. Flag these pages with post it notes or similar to come back to them. Don’t get weighed down in material in the textbook that is not needed for your level of study. If you are unsure, your teacher will guide you on what you will need to know.

Other textbooks and study guides that are worth having a look at are those available from ESA Publications. ESA Publications is a long-established educational publisher in New Zealand. They produce Study Guides and Workbooks for primary and secondary schools covering the New Zealand Curriculum and NCEA. Find ESA’s Science resources here.

Many teachers now will upload their notes online. Some of these resources will be available only for students at that school, while some will be open to everyone. Search online and see what you find to add to your notes and examples.

A number of tutoring and revision websites publish free NCEA science resources or tutorials for students. Some are NCEA tutorial videos, some are written texts, some are textbook ebooks – resources and help can come in a variety of forms.

Examples include:

  • Study Time: “StudyTime is an online platform dedicated to helping NZ kids make the most of high school.” The site contains checklists, tutorial videos, strategy guides, online tutoring options, and more.
  • NCEA on TKI: TKI is the online learning basket for the New Zealand Curriculum. The NCEA portion of TKI is mostly targeted at teachers, but students and whanau can also find some useful articles and information there.
  • No Brain Too Small is an online science site developed by four practicing New Zealand science teachers sharing their resources, from flash cards, to power points to revision notes.

If you learn best through discussion (and student forums do not work for you) then look into hiring a science tutor. You do not need to be struggling to have a tutor work with you; tutors can extend your current knowledge to help you study for scholarship exams. They sometimes work with small groups as well as in person or online.

Here are a few other online resources you may find beneficial:

Use a digital platform like iQualify for Schools

Digital platforms such as iQualify for Schools use gamification to make learning science more rewarding, allowing you to learn and revise NCEA science online.

iQualify for Schools is a superb solution for schools. It is an online learning management system (LMS) that provides an easy-to-use way for teachers and schools to create content pages, quizzes, assessments and more. Not only that, but the iQualify for Schools team have a range of resources available, created by ESA Publications, which teachers can use as they are or can customise for their students’ needs.

Teachers can track student progress through the programme. They can gain insights into how students are responding to the topic.  It is therefore easy for teachers to identify any areas where further explanation or in-class discussion might be needed.  Having quality NCEA resources right there at their fingertips means that teachers can get on with focussing on the students’ needs, instead of spending hours searching for good material.

By having a combined in-class and online programme, schools are better able to provide a flexible work environment. Schools can then supply each child in the class with content that allows them to work at their level. Students can complete work in class or from home.  Teachers and students can discuss questions and answers together both in and out of the classroom on an online discussion forum.

If you found this article helpful, please share using the social media icons below. If you would like to find out more about how iQualify for Schools can help you, please contact us.

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