Archive for A-level

Age, Memory and Learning

Posted in Education, Maynooth with tags , , , , , , , on August 20, 2018 by telescoper

Today’s a big day for prospective students at Irish universities. It’s the day when the Central Applications Office (CAO, the equivalent of the UK’s UCAS) makes offers of places to students based the Leaving Certificate results that were announced last week. Thus begins the process by which universities find out how many students we will have for entry next month. Lectures here at Maynooth start on 24th September, with an induction week before that, so there promises to be quite a rush to get everything sorted out.

The first thing that struck me thinking ahead to this year’s new entry of students was that the majority of students starting this autumn either here in Ireland or in the UK were born in the year 2000. That means that I’ve been a Professor (at four different universities: Nottingham, Cardiff, Sussex and Maynooth) all the time they have been alive! Yikes I feel old!

The other thing that struck me among all the press coverage of the Leaving Certificate in Ireland is the significant amount of griping about how these examinations are basically just memory tests and the system encourages rote learning. This is something I’ve complained about before in the context of British A-levels and indeed the system of university examinations.

Over my lifetime the ratio of assessment to education has risen sharply, with the undeniable result that academic standards have fallen especially in my own discipline of physics. The modular system encourages students to think of modules as little bit-sized bits of education to be consumed and then forgotten. Instead of learning to rely on their brains to solve problems, students tend to approach learning by memorizing chunks of their notes and regurgitating them in the exam. I find it very sad when students ask me what derivations they should memorize to prepare for examinations because that seems to imply that they think their brain is no more than a memory device. It has become very clear to me over the years that school education in the UK does not do enough to encourage students to develop their all-round intellectual potential, which means that very few have confidence in their ability to do anything other than remember things. It seems the same malaise affects the Irish system too.

On the other hand, as a number of people have pointed out in opinion pieces (e.g. here) and letters (here and here), a good memory is undoubtedly an extremely important asset in its own right.

I went to a traditional Grammar school that I feel provided me with a very good education in which rote learning played a significant part. Learning vocabulary and grammar was an essential part of their approach to foreign languages, for example. How can one learn Latin without knowing the correct declensions for nouns and conjugations for verbs? But although these basic elements are necessary, however, they are not sufficient. You other aspects of your mental capacity to comprehend, translate or compose meaningful pieces of text.

The same considerations apply to STEM disciplines. It is important to have a basic knowledge of the essential elements of mathematics and physics as a grounding, but you also need to develop the skill to apply these in unusual settings. I also think it’s simplistic to think of memory and creative intelligence as entirely separate things. I seems to me that the latter feeds off the former in a very complex way. A good memory does give you rapid access to information, which means you can do many things more quickly than if you had to keep looking stuff up, but I think there’s a lot more to it than that. Our memories are an essential part of the overall functioning of our brain, which is not  compartmentalized in such a simple way.  For example, one aspect of problem-solving skill relies on the ability to see hidden connections; the brain’s own filing system plays a key role in this.

Recognizing the importance of memory is not to say that rote learning is necessarily the best way to develop the relevant skills. My own powers of recall are not great – and are certainly not improving with age – but I find I can remember things much better if I find them interesting and/or if I can see the point of remembering them. Remembering things because they’re memorably is far easier than remembering because you need to remember them to pass an examination!

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Results Day Advice!

Posted in Education with tags , , , , on August 15, 2018 by telescoper

Today’s the day in Ireland that students get the results of their school Leaving Certificate examinations and, over the other side of the Irish Sea, tomorrow is when A-level results come out. For many there will be joy at their success, and I particularly look forward to meeting those who made their grades to get into Maynooth University shortly.

Others will no doubt receive some disappointing news.

For those of you who didn’t get the grades you needed or expected, I have one piece of very clear advice:

1-dont-panic

In particular, if you didn’t get the Leaving Certificate points you needed for entry to your first University in Ireland or the A-levels needed to do likewise in the United Kingdom, do not despair. There are always options.

For example, in Ireland, you could try looking at alternative choices on the Available Courses, where any places remaining unfilled in particular courses after all offers have been made and the waiting lists of applicants meeting minimum entry requirements have been exhausted, will be advertised.

In the United Kingdom the Clearing system will kick into operation this week. It’s very well organized and student-friendly, so give it a go if you didn’t make your offer.

Worrying Times for UK Physics

Posted in Education, The Universe and Stuff with tags , on August 19, 2016 by telescoper

As I’m more-or-less in between jobs at the moment, this is the first August in many that I haven’t been involved the clearing and confirmation process that helps students find places at university after the A-level results are released. I know how stressful it is for admissions staff and prospective students alike, so I’m not sorry to be out of it for once!

On the other hand I did notice something worrying that seems to be the continuation of a trend I noticed last year.  I quote from a piece issued by the Institute of Physics about the number of students taking A-level physics last year:

Although there was an overall rise of 2% in the number of A-level entries, the number taking physics fell to 36,287 compared with 36,701 last year – the first time numbers have fallen since 2006. The number of girls taking physics rose by 0.5%, however.

That decline is slight, of course, and it was  obviously too early to decide whether it indicated whether or not the UK has reached “Peak Physics”. Well, this year has confirmed that trend. According to a piece by the Wellcome Trust the number of entrants for physics A-level has fallen further this year, from 36,287 in 2015 to 35,344 in 2016. The Institute of Physics has also commented.

Virtually all students who get a Physics A-level do go to university, but by no means all do physics. It is also a qualifying subject for engineering and technology programmes, as well as medicine. It’s not clear yet whether the decline in A-level entry reflects a decline in the number of students going to start physics degrees at University this year, but this seems probable. This is good news if you’re an applicant with a Physics A-level, of course, because it increases the chances of you getting a place, but it’s no so good for physics as academic discipline.

Physics departments in UK universities are already competing for a very small pool of students with a Physics A-level.  The removal of student number controls allows  large universities to recruit as many students as they like, so the competition between universities for such a small number of applicants is extremely intense. Moreover, some universities, e.g. Newcastle and Hull, have opened up physics courses that they had previously closed, and others have started  new programmes based on what was anticipated to be an overall increase in demand. To support this expansion, many institutions have recruited extra numbers of teaching faculty assuming the salary costs would be covered from tuition fees. If the decline in overall student numbers continues then the budgets of many physics departments are going to look pretty grim, with potentially serious  consequences for the long-term sustainability of physics in many institutions.

I have to confess I’m worried. The physics community urgently needs to find out what is behind this fall. It’s not restricted to physics, in fact. Both biology and chemistry have also experienced a decline in the number of A-level entrants (from 44,864 to 43,242 and from 52,644 to 51,811 respectively), but the effect on physics is likely to be greater for the reasons I discussed above.

Mathematics numbers have also fallen, but by a much smaller percentage and from a much higher level: from 92,711 to 92,163.  I‘ve argued before that there’s a case on a number of grounds for scrapping the physics A-level as a requirement for entry to university as long as the student has mathematics. That may be a step too far for some, but it’s clear that if physics is to prosper we all have to think more creatively about how to increase participation. But how? Answers on a postcard – or through the comments box – please!

 

 

Have we reached Peak Physics?

Posted in Education, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on August 17, 2015 by telescoper

One of the interesting bits of news I picked up concerning last week’s A-level results is a piece from the Institute of Physics about the number of students taking A-level physics. The opening paragraph reads:

Although there was an overall rise of 2% in the number of A-level entries, the number taking physics fell to 36,287 compared with 36,701 last year – the first time numbers have fallen since 2006. The number of girls taking physics rose by 0.5%, however.

The decline is slight, of course, and it’s obviously too early to decide whether we’ve reached Peak Physics or not. It remains the case however that Physics departments in UK universities are competing for a very small pool of students with A-levels in that discipline. With some universities, e.g. Newcastle, opening up physics programmes that they had previously closed, competition  is going to be intense to recruit students across the sector unless the pool of qualified applicants increases substantially.

The article goes on to speculate that students may be put off doing physics by the perception that it is harder than other subjects. It may even be that some schools – mindful of the dreaded league tables – are deliberately discouraging all but the brightest pupils from studying physics in case their precious league table position is affected.

That’s not a line I wish to pursue here, but I will take the opportunity to rehearse an argument that I have made on this blog before. The idea is one that joins two threads of discussion that have appeared on a number of occasions on this blog. The first is that, despite strenuous efforts by many parties, the fraction of female students taking A-level Physics has flat-lined at 20% for over a decade. This is the reason why the proportion of female physics students at university is the same, i.e. 20%. In short, the problem lies within our school system. This year’s modest increase doesn’t change the picture significantly.

The second line of argument is that A-level Physics is simply not a useful preparation for a Physics degree anyway because it does not develop the sort of problem-solving skills, or the ability to express physical concepts in mathematical language, on both of abilities which university physics depends. Most physics admissions tutors that I know care much more about the performance of students at A-level Mathematics than Physics when it comes to selecting “near misses” during clearing, for example.

Hitherto, most of the effort that has been expended on the first problem has been directed at persuading more girls to do Physics A-level. Since all universities require a Physics A-level for entry into a degree programme, this makes sense but it has not been successful.

I now believe that the only practical way to improve the gender balance on university physics course is to drop the requirement that applicants have A-level Physics entirely and only insist on Mathematics (which has a much more even gender mix at entry). I do not believe that this would require many changes to course content but I do believe it would circumvent the barriers that our current school system places in the way of aspiring female physicists. Not all UK universities seem very interested in widening participation, but those that are should seriously consider this approach.

I am grateful to fellow astronomer Jonathan Pritchard for pointing out to me that a similar point has been made to drop A-level Physics as an entry requirement to  Civil Engineering degrees, which have a similar problem with gender bias.

Charlotte Church and Physics

Posted in Music, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on March 14, 2014 by telescoper

I just noticed an interesting news item about popular vocal artiste Charlotte Church. Apparently she is thinking about doing a degree in physics. She is quoted on the BBC Website as saying

“I just think it’s important to keep the brain active and keep educating yourself.

“I have an interest in it and I should try to follow it. It’s something I’ve been interested in for the last year or two.”

I hope she does it, as it will set an excellent example. In the article, however, she also says “I will have to do an A-level in physics and maths first though”. That’s not necessarily the case, actually. It is possible instead to opt for a physics degree programme with a Foundation year. Many universities run such programmes. We have one here at the University of Sussex but there is also one at Cardiff University, which happens to be in Charlotte Church’s home town.

These courses are specifically designed for people who didn’t do the traditional mix of A-level subjects for a Physics degree and I always recommend that students who are coming to the subject late in life give them serious consideration rather than assuming they should go via the usual A-level route. Widening participation in higher education by offering such access courses is something many universities work very hard at and do very well.

In fact, as I’ve pointed out before, that the current A-level Physics courses are part of the reason why we have so few female physics students; the fraction is a meagre 20%. That might start to change if high-profile women like Charlotte Church lead the way, but in the mean time it’s definitely worth thinking about alternatives to A-level such as those I’ve described.

In any case, and whatever Charlotte Church does decide to do in the future, I’m sure I speak on behalf of the vast majority of physicists when I express thanks to her for putting such a nice story about physics into the news!

POSTRSCRIPT: I wasn’t aware of this when I wrote the above piece, but it seems a former colleague of mine from Cardiff University, Edward Gomez helped get Charlotte Church interested in physics.

How to Address Gender Inequality in Physics

Posted in Education, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on January 26, 2014 by telescoper

Last night I was drinking a glass or several of wine while listening to the radio and thinking about a brainwave I’d had on Friday. Naturally I decided to wait until I reconsidered it in the cold light and sobriety of day before posting it, which I have now done, so here it is.

The idea that came to me simply joins two threads of discussion that have appeared on this blog before. The first is that, despite strenuous efforts by many parties, the fraction of female students taking A-level Physics has flat-lined at 20% for over a decade. This is the reason why the proportion of female physics students at university is the same, i.e. 20%. In short, the problem lies within our school system.

The second line of argument is that A-level Physics is not a useful preparation for a Physics degree because it does not develop the sort of problem-solving skills or the ability to express physical concepts in mathematical language on which university physics depends. Most physics admissions tutors that I know care much more about the performance of students at A-level Mathematics than Physics.

Hitherto, most of the effort that has been expended on the first problem has been directed at persuading more girls to do Physics A-level. Since all universities require a Physics A-level for entry into a degree programme, this makes sense but it has not been successful.

I now believe that the only practical way to improve the gender balance on university physics course is to drop the requirement that applicants have A-level Physics entirely and only insist on Mathematics (which has a much more even gender mix). I do not believe that this would require many changes to course content but I do believe it would circumvent the barriers that our current school system places in the way of aspiring female physicists.

Not all UK universities seem very interested in widening participation, but those that are should seriously consider this approach.

Physics and Statistics

Posted in Bad Statistics, Education with tags , , , on August 16, 2013 by telescoper

Predictably, yesterday’s newspapers and other media  were full of feeble articles about the A-level results, and I don’t just mean the gratuitous pictures of pretty girls opening envelopes and/or jumping in the air.  I’ve never met a journalist who understood the concept of statistical significance, which seems to account for the way they feel able to write whatever they like about any numbers that happen to be newsworthy without feeling constrained by mathematical common-sense.  Sometimes it’s the ridiculous over-interpretation of opinion polls (which usually have a sampling uncertainty of ±3 %), sometimes its league tables. This time it’s the number of students getting the top grades at A-level.

The BBC, for example, made a lot of fuss about the fall in the % of A and A* A-level grades, to  26.3% this year from 26.6% last year. Anyone with a modicum of statistical knowledge would know, however, that whether this drop means anything at all depends on how many results were involved: the sampling uncertainty depends on size N approximately as √N. For a cohort of 300000 this turns into a percentage uncertainty of about 0.57%, which is about twice as large as the reported fall.  The result is therefore “in the noise” – in the sense that there’s no evidence that it was actually harder to get a high grade this year compared with last year – but that didn’t prove a barrier to those editors intent on filling their newspapers and websites with meaningless guff.

Almost hidden among the bilge was an interesting snippet about Physics. It seems that the number of students taking Physics A-level this year has exceeded 35,000 in 2013.  That was set as a government target for 2014, so it has been reached a year early.  The difference between the number that took Physics this year (35,569) and those who took it in 2006 (27,368) is certainly significant. Whether this is the so-called Brian Cox effect or something else, it’s very good news for the future health of the subject.

On the other hand, the proportion of female Physics students remains around 20%. Over the last three years the proportion has been 20.8%, 21.3% and 20.6% so numerically this year is down on last year, but the real message in these figures is that despite strenuous efforts to increase this fraction, there is no significant change.

As I write I’m formally still on Clearing business, sitting beside the telephone in case anyone needs to talk to me. However, at close of play yesterday the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences had exceeded its recruitment target by quite a healthy margin.  We’re still open for Clearing, though, as our recent expansion means we can take a few more suitably qualified students. Physics and Astronomy did particularly well, and we’re set to welcome our biggest-ever intake into the first year in September 2013. I’m really looking forward to meeting them all.

While I’m on about statistics, here’s another thing. When I was poring over this year’s NSS results, I noticed that only 39 Physics departments appeared in the survey. When I last counted them there were 115 universities in the UK. This number doesn’t include about 50 colleges and other forms of higher education institutions which are also sometimes included in lists of universities. Anyway, my point is that at most about a third of British universities have a physics department.

Now that is a shocking statistic…