An A-level Physics Examination Paper, Vintage 1981

At the risk of becoming one of the Great Bores of the Day on the subject of past examinations I thought I’d follow up  my old O-level Physics paper  with a Physics A-level examination paper to see what people think about it. It might add to the discussion over on another blog I read too.

I took this particular examination myself in 1981. Can it really be 30 years ago? Agh. Paper 1 comprised a collection of short questions of multiple-choice type from which I’ve already posted one example on this blog.  This one is Paper 2 and, as you’ll see, it consists of longer questions with a freer format.

One comment I’ll make is that Question 5 is remarkably similar to a coursework questions we have been using here in the School of Physics & Astronomy at Cardiff University in our First year Physics module on Electricity and Magnetism.

Any other comments from people who’ve done A-levels more recently would be very welcome through the Comments Box, e.g. is there anything  in this paper that you wouldn’t expect to see nowadays? Is it easier, harder, or about the same as current A-level physics papers?


23 Responses to “An A-level Physics Examination Paper, Vintage 1981”

  1. I took Maths, F Maths and Physics A Levels in 2006 and it seems very similar to questions from the easier Mechanics modules in Maths (M1 and M2). I seem to remember there was quite a lot of overlap between Physics and M1/M2 so I would say it is ball park the same standard maybe slightly harder because of the format of the paper (less diagrams etc).

    The content of the course seems very similar though; we covered everything mentioned.

    I went on to do pure maths so definitely the most Physics-y stuff there I must have learnt at A Level.

    The comment about overlap with 1st year seems a bit misleading; I assume there has always been an overlap between A Level and 1st year. A lot of braincells get killed that summer don’t you know ; )

    • It’s perhaps also worth mentioning that the two written papers constituted the entire assessment in those days; there was no coursework element and it wasn’t taught in a modular style so the exams covered the whole syllabus, as you can see…

      I’m going to post the Mathematics and Further Mathematics papers I took in 1981 too. I’ve already shown them to some students here at Cardiff.

      I’m not sure why you say my comment is misleading. I also found quite a lot of material in my first year at University was a repeat of A-level, with a slightly more mathematical emphasis. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. I was just pointing out that it’s a coincidence that the paper I took happens to contain a question we use here.

      • Apologies, I read it as suggesting that Old A Level ~= Modern 1st Year, as opposed to A Level ~= 1st Year.

        I’m looking forward to the F Maths papers : )

      • With regards to sitting exams in a modular style: I’m not convinced that actually makes things easier. Because you’re introduced to completely new topics, such as calculus for example in Maths A Level, and these concepts are a reasonable jump in complexity from GCSE, I found that sitting exams covering these topics in the first year of A Level was much more challenging than I found them (doing re-sits) in the second year. Covering all of the material in the second year does have the advantage that you’ve had an extra year of practice to become comfortable with new concepts (such as calculus). (Which in reality is what lots of people end up doing anyway: sitting most, if not all, of the AS papers again in their second year).

      • telescoper Says:

        I should add that there were no AS levels in those days. The A-levels were two-year courses with examinations at the end.

    • The first three questions on the A-level Physics paper look very similar to the topics covered in the M3 maths module. Please can someone show me how to do the last part of question 2 on the circular motion question please. This paper is a lot harder than the current A-level Physics papers.

  2. You can find more modern papers here.
    To my jaundiced eye, they seem much easier (I did my A-levels in 85 I think).
    Why does electrical resistance increase with temperature?

  3. telescoper Says:

    It’s quite amazing that this has been viewed over 5000 times in the past week!

  4. “I took Maths, F Maths and Physics A Levels in 2006 and it seems very similar to questions from the easier Mechanics modules in Maths (M1 and M2)”

    Chris, Mathematics hasn’t seen the decline in standards nearly as much as in physics. Indeed, telescoper posted a mathematics for Physicists entrance paper he took in 1981 and it is exactly the same difficulty as the STEP mathematics 1 paper I took in 2001.

    If you look at the non-mechanics questions on that paper, the difficulty is harder than that of 1st year University Physics exams – Cambridge University that is.

    (ok, so this post is several months old, so Chris is probably gone….)

    • telescoper Says:

      I don’t really with these comments. I think recent A-level Mathematics papers are far easier than the ones taken by my generation, but the Physics papers are comparable. I’ve looked at Mathematics papers from 1995 to 2008 and they’re all significantly more structured and significantly less demanding than ones from the 80s. Those of my current students who have seen these papers agree with this assessment. I have some more recent A-level papers and may invite my readers to form their own opinion!

      I haven’t seen a STEP paper so can’t comment on the comparison with the old-style entrance examinations.

      PS. Remember that courses weren’t modular in those days either, so there was one examination covering all the syllabus.

  5. The slide wont show.

    • telescoper Says:

      The file is still there on slideshare but apparently can no longer be viewed through their viewer. I’ve reported the fault and hopefully they will fix it soon.

    • telescoper Says:

      It now works, thanks to the elves at!

  6. I took my A-Levels in 1992 along with the Special papers and I thought those were hard until I saw your 81 paper. Nowadays a lot of the topics have been removed (AC circuits – LRC, Logic gates etc) and made into modules.

    Do you happen to have any Special papers to post? I’m finding it hard to give any challenging questions to IB students nowadays and I think those estimation questions for the S level may just do the trick 😉

  7. lisa kennedy Says:

    Hi there – I was wondering if you had access to A Level Chemistry Papers sat in June 1985? London board. Thank you

  8. I did A-level physics from 2010 – 2012 (with CCEA – the Nothern Irish board). On first reading, the most obvious difference is the fact that there are very few diagrams and the questions are very wordy. When I did my A-level exams, there was a lot of blank space in the papers. Calculations took no more than a few lines and neither did any qualitative explanations. A-level physics is far too easy now (although I was lucky to have had a really good teacher who didn’t just teach to the test).

    Q1 shouldn’t be a problem to a-level students who actually understand the material, especially the first half (but you probably wouldn’t see a question like this in the exam). Competent students should probably at least have a qualitative understanding of the second half.

    Q2: Angular momentum is not covered in CCEA a-level physics, as far as I remember.

    Q3: A-level students should be able to do this one (I don’t think we covered the measurement of G but that’s just a matter of learning off a few pieces of information.)

    Q4: Again, the theory behind this isn’t beyond the comprehension of an a-level student but the style of question would throw a lot of students.

    Q5: Nothing tricky about this one (again, I should say that this is the kind of problem my teacher would have had us solving but maybe she went beyond the scope of the course.

    Q6. Students should have an understanding of this. I could see this being a data analysis / synoptic question at the end of an A2 paper, although there would probably have to be a lot more prompting and diagrams provided.

    Q7. Students could have a go at this one, bringing together their knowledge of waves and harmonic oscillations (in the CCEA specification, I don’t remember these two topics being linked together).

    Q8. I think this could be a exam question in a recent paper, although it would come with diagrams.

    Q9: The Doppler effect and beats were not covered on the CCEA syllabus.

    Q10: CCEA Students may be able to attempt the first part (about mean square velocity). The rest would be foreign to them.

    Q11: No.

    Q12: Shouldn’t be a problem.

    Overall, I’m actually pleasantly surprised. A-level standards clearly have dropped, a lot. But not as much as I thought they had. A lot of content has been removed and students aren’t trusted to do anything but simple calculations now, but I can see that a huge part of the decline in standards are the style of questions asked.

  9. Andy Waller Says:

    I actually teach A2 Physics in an International school and I did my A Level in 1980 so this is very close to my experience. There has, of course, been a political decision made to increase numbers entering higher education. In my day 10% got into University.

    Be aware calculators had only been introduced in 1979 (and they were VERY expensive). I learned to calculate using log books.

    To study Physics, my highest offer from UCAS was DEE and my safety offer was EE. These were for a mixture of plate glass and red brick universities. These offers would not be given today.

    The mechanics question given would more typically be seen on a Maths paper than a Physics paper, particularly given the algebraic nature of the problem and issues of averaging trigonometric quantities around the half circle. This part would certainly be beyond my Physics students. Of the rest, I would say about half of it could be handled by my students, maybe a little more than that.

    Definitely noteable is the lack of explanatory diagrams and the heavy use of algebra.

    In my day, the first year of university was primarily at A Level standard and getting everyone up to the required level to begin more difficult work.

    • After reading your reply I totally agree about the lack of diagrams and algebra and would also say that there are very few derivations in current Al Level Chem or A Level Physics. My overs to Uni in 1989 topped out at DD to study Physics even from Liverpool Univ.

  10. Wondering if there’s a mark scheme for this…

  11. zeitghost Says:

    I took my A levels in 1972: Physics was still taught in CGS, MKS, and Imperial units which was wonderful since O Level had converted to SI.

    Amazingly I managed a B, with a C in Pure & Applied Maths, sufficient to get me onto a degree course in Electrical Engineering (though that was a bit of a disaster).

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