student life

Could you re-sit and pass your A-Level exams?

According to a recent study by the University of East Anglia, by the first week of university, freshers will have forgotten the ‘basic concepts’ of their A-Level syllabus.

According to a recent study by the University of East Anglia, by the first week of university, freshers will have forgotten the ‘basic concepts’ of their A-Level syllabus.

New first year bio-science students at 5 UK universities were given a test shortly after they arrived, which involved answering multiple choice questions on cells, physiology, biochemistry and genetics.  Although they knew that they were going to sit a test, they were unaware of the subject matter, meaning that they were unlikely to have revised. 

The study found that the students answered 60 per cent of the questions incorrectly, despite almost all of them having achieved an A*, A, or B grade at A-Level. The 5 universities at which the research took place were: Birmingham, Bristol, Cardiff, Leicester and East Anglia.

Dr Harriet Jones, who was the lead researcher of the study, concluded that the results were due to the “trend to teach to the test” in secondary schools, in order to “ensure good results for schools’ reputations.”

Sounds familiar

When I read the BBC article describing the study, I was immediately reminded of something I wrote in one of my very first blog posts:

“Of course, much of the ‘A’ Level content isinteresting, yet is compromised by the fact that we seem to be learning for the sake of learning.  In the days before each of my exams, my one wish was to ‘get all this information out of my head!’  Walking out of the exam hall, I felt complete relief at being able to just let go of all the facts and figures I’d been so desperately clinging on to for the past few months.  Is this really what education should be about?  Sure, almost a year on, I can remember the vague overview of the A2 Psychology course.  But if someone gave me the exact paper I sat, I’d wonder how on earth I even began answering the questions.”

I don’t really think we needed a study to tell us that learning and teaching in today’s secondary schools is very exam-orientated.  While key techniques and skills are probably retained and well-used in further study, the majority of facts and figures that were once so diligently memorised, tend to be gratefully pushed aside as soon as possible. 

Out of the four A-Levels I studied (English Literature, French, Psychology and Geography), the ones that I feel I remember the most about now, a year on, are undoubtedly English and French.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, these are the two that required very minimal memorising of facts and figures, but more of an on-going understanding and application of knowledge. 

While I still had to learn an unthinkable number of quotes for my English exam, most of which I have now forgotten, they were specific to the books I studied and probably wouldn’t be much use at university anyway.  However, the essay writing techniques and the ability to find appropriate quotations and critics, has stayed with me and will hopefully be effectively built upon during any further study that I choose to do. 

Is it useful to remember what you’d learnt?

If I’m honest, I’m not entirely sure. Clearly, if the solution was obvious, then there wouldn’t be an issue in the first place. Maybe we’d retain more information if we were given on-going assessment, rather than having to cram for one end-of-year exam. But that may not suit everyone. Maybe exams should test our overall understanding, instead of require us to reproduce memorised facts.  That’s all very well, but easier said than done.  Or, maybe our ability shouldn’t be tested by exams. 

According to the Education Secretary, Michael Gove, the answer lies in making A-Levels “linear” and involving one final assessment at the end of two years. This will apparently prepare “students adequately for the rigours of degree-level study.”

I may well be missing something, but personally, I don’t see how this will help.  Surely it will just mean even more cramming, followed by even more forgetting? However, if these new A-Levels (as advised by the researchers at UEA) “encourage retention of key concepts” on a more permanent basis, then perhaps I will be proved wrong. 

You never know, if this study is conducted again in a couple of years, students might only get 50 per cent of the answers wrong, or maybe even 40 per cent?

What do you think? Do you think A-levels are adequate preparation for degree-level study or should they be remodelled? Have your say in the comments section below.