Archive for A-level

Disturbing Admissions

Posted in Education, Maynooth with tags , , , on August 13, 2020 by telescoper

So, as the second day of Repeat Examinations at Maynooth University gets under way, students in the United Kingdom are receiving their A-level results. I’ve already heard a number of stories from friends and colleagues flabbergasted by the way some marks have been treated, so it all looks likely to be quite a mess. I have great sympathy for the students, for whom this has been an extraordinarily difficult year, and I hope the A-level fiasco doesn’t affect too many too badly.

My experience of over 30 years teaching in UK universities has convinced me that A-levels are not a very good preparation for higher education anyway and the obsession with them is rather unhealthy. Some of the best students I’ve ever had the pleasure of teaching came to University with poor A-level grades (for a variety of reasons).

In fact I’d go as far as to say that the entire system of University admissions in the United Kingdom needs to be overhauled. As I said in a post almost a decade ago:

…if we had the opportunity to design a process for university admissions from scratch, there is no way on Earth we would end up with a system like the current one.

Of course I longer work in the UK so there’s no longer a “we”, but the system in Ireland is not that much different, with the Leaving Certificate playing the role of A-levels for the vast majority of students.

As things stand in the UK, students apply for university places through UCAS before they have their final A-level results (which don’t come out until August). Most applications are in by January of the year of intended admission, in fact. The business of selecting candidates and making offers therefore usually makes use of interim results or “predicted grades” as supplied by teachers of the applicant.

In my (limited) experience most teachers systematically overestimate the grades of their pupils, which is presumably why so many of this year’s A-level results are being downgraded, but there are lots of unconscious biases at play here and I accept that some teachers may be unduly pessimistic about their students likely performance.

But the inaccuracy of predicted A-level grades is not the only absurdity in the current system. Universities have to engage in enormous amounts of guesswork during the admissions process. Suppose a department has a quota of 100, defining the target number students to take in. They might reasonably get a minimum of 500 applications for these 100 places, depending on the popularity of university and course.

Each student is allowed to apply to 5 different institutions. If a decision is made to make an offer of a place, it would normally be conditional on particular A-level grades (e.g. AAB). At the end of the process the student is expected to pick a first choice (CF) and an insurance choice (CI) out of the offers they receive. They will be expected to go to their first choice if they get the required grades, to the insurance choice if they don’t make it into the first choice but get grades sufficient for the reserve. If they don’t make either grade they have to go into the clearing system and take pot luck among those universities that have places free after all the CFs and CIs have been settled.

Each university department has to decide how many offers to make. This will always be larger than the number of places, because not all applicants will make an offer their CF. They have to honour all offers made, but there may be penalties if they under or over recruit. How many offers to make then? What fraction of students with an offer will put you first? What fraction of them will actually get the required grade?

The answers to these questions are not at all obvious, so the whole system runs on huge levels of uncertainty. I’m amazed that each year any institution manages to get anywhere close to the correct number, and we usually get very close indeed by the end.

It’s a very skilled job being an admissions tutor, but there’s no question it would all be fairer on both applicants and departments to remove most of the guesswork by which I mean allowing students to apply to University after they have got their results. But there is the rub. There are two ways I can see of changing the timetable to allow this:

  1. Have the final A-level examinations earlier
  2. Start the university academic year later

The unavoidable consequence of the first option would be the removal of large quantities of material from the A-level syllabus so the exams could be held several months earlier, which would be a disaster in terms of preparing students for university.

The second option would mean starting the academic year in, say, January instead of September. This would in my opinion be preferable to 1, but would still be difficult because it would interfere with all the other things a university does as well as teaching, especially research. The summer recess (July-September), wherein much research is currently done, could be changed to an autumn one (September-December) but there would be a great deal of resistance, especially from the older establishments; I can’t see Oxbridge being willing to abandon its definitions of teaching term! And what would the students do between July and January?

Either of these options would cause enormous disruption in the short-term, which is presumably why they have never been implemented. However, this year everything is disrupted anyway so there’s an opportunity to redesign the whole process. Delaying the start of the academic year until January 2021 would make a great deal of sense this year in particularly, though I think it’s a bit late to be doing it now.

I don’t really imagine the Government is thinking of doing this but here are some suggestions of elements of a new admissions system:

  • Students to apply after receiving A-level* grades (i.e. implement 1 or, preferably, 2 above)
  • All university applications to be anonymous to prevent discrimination.
  • The identity of the applicant’s school to be withheld to prevent undue influence.
  • Teachers to play no part in the process.

*I don’t think A-levels are fit for purpose so here I mean grades of whatever examination replaces them.

Examination Shenanigans

Posted in Covid-19, Education, Maynooth with tags , , , on August 12, 2020 by telescoper

So here I am in my office while the first batch of our repeat examinations gets under way here in Maynooth. They seem to have started correctly so I’ve taken a break to have a cup of coffee and catch up on the news.

I find that examinations seem to be making headlines in the United Kingdom. First there was a to-do and a hoo-ha in Scotland that resulted in school examination results that had been downgraded being upgraded again. The downgrading involved using some sort of statistical model to `correct’ teacher-assigned grades and coursework but this model apparently generated significant anomalies.

Then, not to be outdone by the Scots, the English government has announced that estimated A-level grades, presumably obtained by a similar process to that deployed in Scotland, were to be upgraded too. Or not. It seems they will get the original grades but be able to appeal the results.

Writing in today’s Daily Telegraph, presumably without irony, Gavin Williamson explains the decision not to upgrade A-level results automatically:

Increasing the A Level grades will mean a whole generation could end up promoted beyond their abilities.

Gavin Williamson wrote that. Gavin Williamson.

Universities in the UK receive A-level results a few days before the students in order to make admissions decisions, but this year the results students eventually receive may differ from those the universities got. I can imagine the chaos this is causing behind the scenes.

If I understand correctly the new `Triple Lock’ on A-level results means that a student’s grade will be whichever is the highest of:

  • their mock exam result;
  • the grade estimated by their teacher;
  • an A*.

(OK, I made up that last bit.)

Some people think this approach might lead to grade inflation, but I imagine the authorities are less concerned about that than they are by the prospect of getting sued.

Another issue with the downgrading/upgrading situation is that students who took the International Baccalaureate (IB) and have received algorithmic grades have not had their grades increased, which seems to put them at a disadvantage with respect to students who took A-levels and may cause them to miss out on UK university places.

Meanwhile, here in Ireland, we await the School Leaving Certificate results. These are not due until 7th September but I think the plan is to moderate them as in the United Kingdom. Delaying these results gives Ireland the chance to learn from the UK but whether the process will end up being any fairer here is anyone’s guess!

Yet another easy physics problem…

Posted in Cute Problems with tags , , , on December 2, 2019 by telescoper

Last week I posted a little physics problem that generated a large amount of traffic (at least by the standards of this blog), so I thought I’d try another one.

The examination comprised two papers in those days (and a practical exam); one paper had long questions, similar to the questions we set in university examinations these days, and the other consisted of short questions in a multiple-choice format. This question is one of the latter. Incientally, for those of you who have asked, the multiple-choice examination contained 50 such questions to be answered in 2½ hours, which is three minutes per question.

(You can assume that the acceleration due to gravity is 9.8 ms-2.)

And here is a poll in which you may select your answer:

Comments on or criticisms of the question are welcome through the comments box…

Another easy physics problem…

Posted in Cute Problems, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on November 26, 2019 by telescoper

Many moons ago I posted an `easy’ physics problem from the Physics A-level paper I took in 1981. The examination comprised two papers in those days (and a practical exam); one paper had long questions, similar to the questions we set in university examinations these days, and the other consisted of short questions in a multiple-choice format. The question I posted was one of the latter type. I was reminded about it recently because, years on, it appears people are still trying it (and getting it wrong).

Anyway, since I’m teaching similar things to my first-year Mathematical Physics class I thought I’d put up another question from the same paper.

And here is a poll in which you may select your answer:

Comments on or criticisms of the question are welcome through the comments box…

 

 

 

Is there a role for rote learning?

Posted in Education, Maynooth with tags , , , , , , , on May 7, 2019 by telescoper

So here we are, then, back to work here in Maynooth for the last week of teaching. Or, to be precise, the last four days – yesterday was a Bank Holiday. With university and school examinations looming, it is no surprise to find an article griping about the Irish Leaving Certificate examinations and the fact that teachers seem to encourage students to approach them by by 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, there’s no question in my mind that 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, they are not sufficient. You need other aspects of your mental capacity to comprehend, translate or compose meaningful pieces of text. I’m sure this applies to many other subjects. No doubt a good memory is a great benefit to a budding lawyer, for example,  but the ability to reason logically must surely be necessary too.

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  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!

But while rote learning has a role, it should not be all there is and my worry is that the teaching-to-the-test approach is diminishing the ability of educators to develop other aspects of intelligence. There has to be a better way to encourage the development of the creative imagination, especially in the context of problem-solving. Future generations are going to have to face many extremely serious problems in the very near future, and they won’t be able to solve them simply by remembering the past.

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!

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.