Archive for A-level

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…

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Credentialism and Overexamination

Posted in Biographical, Education with tags , , , , , , , , on September 30, 2012 by telescoper

Only time for a quick post this morning as I have to go into the department to get my things ready for tomorrow, when the Autumn Semester starts and I have to begin lecturing (at 9am on a Monday morning). Anyway, the text for today’s sermon is provided by Ed Smith’s Left Field column in the New Statesman, the latest issue of which I read yesterday. His topic is the rise of credentialism and the resulting excessive amount of examination in the British school system:

It is now widely accepted that British pupils are excessively over-examined. Teachers are so busy focussing on examinations that there is little time left for education. Exam-led cramming has become the year-round norm – like an election campaign that consumes the whole political cycle. Exams are obviously necessary. But there is an optimal amount of assessment and it has been far exceeded. Grade inflation – notwithstanding this year’s controversial “crackdown” – is simply accepted as a fact.

It’s well said, and it’s not just the school system that suffers from disproportionate emphasis on assessment over education. It’s rife throughout the university system too, starting with the reliance on A-level grades as criteria for assessing students’ suitability for university study, through the “modular” undergraduate degree programmes with examinations twice a year for three or four years.

We examine far too frequently and the effect of this has been to turn the entire education system into a meaningless exercise in box-ticking.

It is an unfortunate irony: in our age of credentialism, exams have never mattered more. And yet they have never been more unreliable as gauges of academic quality.

I’ve felt for some time that in my discipline, Physics (and Astronomy) A-levels are virtually useless as indicators of the suitability of a student for doing an undergraduate degree. Some of the very best students I’ve ever had the pleasure to teach came into my university with modest A-level scores; and some students who came in with perfect grades at school never adjusted to the different, more independent type of study required of an undergraduate.

As Ed Smith points out, the increased emphasis on examination grades hasn’t expanded opportunity either.  It may appear to be fairer to base university entrance or award jobs on examination results rather than, say, interviews, but this has just led to a system that can be easily gamed – private tutors, cramming, re-sits to improve grades, and so on. He rightly concludes that the “correlation between exam results and intelligence has been steadily weakening”.

So what’s the alternative? Smith mentions the admissions process at Harvard University, which famously ignores high-school grades and relies on its own interview system. Interviews can be very biased if carried out in an inappropriate way. Subjecting a young person to a 30-minute grilling  in a room with a complete stranger can be enormously stressful for applicants who are shy, and would also play into the hands of those whose educational background has involved specific training for such ordeals. But one thing I’ve found by talking to students face-to-face is that it doesn’t take very long to identify precisely those things that the examination system does not: imagination, enthusiasm for the subject,  and a flair for thinking on your feet:

One teacher told me with regret that she had to advise her most academic pupil not to display her full intellectual range: in order to secure all the ticks, first you have to stop thinking freely.

If you don’t believe this, take a look at this GCSE Science Examination. A truly intelligent student would struggle to find any correct answer for many of the questions on that paper!

This is why we still place so much emphasis on interviews in the postgraduate admissions system: we take it for granted that all applicants for PhD places will have good undergraduate degrees. What marks out an excellent candidate for a position as  research student, however, is not the ability to pass exams but a mixture of creative flair and almost obsessive determination to surmount the difficult challenges involved in independent research. The correlation between these characteristics and degree results is by no means strong.

The problem for a UK University in adopting the Harvard approach is that credentialism is now running the system. Students apply to universities largely on the basis of their predicted A-level grades, lowering their sights if their predicted grades would not be expected to get them into a more “presitigious” department. But departments that take in students with low A-level scores also get marked down in the league tables for taking in “weaker” students. We’re all aware that A-levels are basically useless, but both sides are  bound so tightly into the system that there seems to be no escape.

So what’s the answer? I don’t know if there is one, but I’d love to see what would happen if all universities abandoned A-levels and instead set their own entrance examinations and interviews. It would be a huge amount of work, but it would make a refreshing change if universities could gather useful information rather than relying on the uninformative guff produced by the national examination boards.

And here is Smith’s closing remark that rings very true to me for personal reasons,

There is a further dimension to the problem of credentialism. It encourages life’s winners to underestimate their good fortune and to over-rate the extent to which they deserve their success. Far from advancing talent over privilege, credentialism has strengthened the grip of people already at the top.

A-level Chemistry Examination (Paper 2) from 1981

Posted in Education with tags , , , on September 2, 2012 by telescoper

A few days ago I posted Paper 1 of the Chemistry A-level examination I took way back in 1981. Judging by the blog stats, that seemed to attract a bit of interest so I thought I’d follow it up with Paper 2 which, in contrast to the multiple-choice style of Paper 1, consists of longer questions and perhaps gives a better idea of whether anything has changed between then and now.

Anyway, as usual,  any comments from people who’ve done A-level Chemistry 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 Chemistry papers?

A-level Chemistry Examination Paper, Vintage 1981

Posted in Education with tags , , , on August 29, 2012 by telescoper

I don’t know how many followers of this blog are interested in Chemistry, but I thought I’d continue my irregular series of postings of old examination papers with my Chemistry A-level. This particular Paper was Paper 1 of 2 (although I did also take the “special” Paper 3). As you can see Paper 1 was of multiple-choice format, with 40 questions to answer in 75 minutes, which seems a bit stiff! Looking over the exam just now I can’t believe that there was a time when I actually knew this stuff. Nowadays I can only really do the first few questions – because they’re really physics – and I don’t even remember what most of the words mean in the other questions!

Anyway, as usual,  any comments from people who’ve done A-level Chemistry 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 Chemistry papers?

Open for Clearing in Physics and Astronomy

Posted in Education with tags , , , , , , , , on August 16, 2012 by telescoper

It being A-level results day, I thought I’d try a little experiment and use this blog to broadcast an unofficial announcement that, owing to additional government funding for high-achieving subjects, the School of Physics and Astronomy at Cardiff University is able to offer extra places on all undergraduate courses starting this September for suitably qualified students.

An institutional review of intake numbers by HEFCW (Higher Education Funding Council for Wales) resulted in the award of extra funded places for undergraduate entry in 2012. Of particular benefit are those STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects seen as strategically important by the UK government. Therefore, the School of Physics and Astronomy is pleased to announce acceptance of late UCAS applications from those candidates expected to achieve our entrance requirements.

Those current applicants who have already applied through the standard UCAS procedure and who have been offered places need not be concerned as these new places are IN ADDITION to those we were expecting to fill.

Applications can be made through Clearing on UCAS after discussions with the Admissions Team.

Course codes (for information)

BSc Physics (F300) and BSc Astrophysics (F511)

MPhys Physics (F303) and MPhys Astrophysics (F510)

BSc Physics with professional placement (F302)

BSc Theoretical and Computational Physics (F340)

BSc Physics with Medical Physics (F350)

Course enquiries can be made to Dr Carole Tucker, Undergraduate Admissions Tutor, via email to Physics-ug@cardiff.ac.uk or call the admissions teams on 029 2087 4144 / 6457.

Good luck!

More Maths, or Better Maths?

Posted in Education with tags , , on July 25, 2012 by telescoper

Interesting view from a Biosciences perspective about the recent recommendations to increase the number of students taking Mathematics at A-level.

I’ve always had a problem with the way Statistics is taught at A-level, which is largely as a collection of recipes without much understanding of the underlying principles; would more emphasis on probability theory be a better way to go?

Biomaths Education Network

The introduction of post-16 maths is in the news again with a report from the House of Lords committee on Higher Education in STEM and many of the headlines from the Guardian, Independent and Times Higher  have picked up on the recommendations regarding maths study post-16.

I have written a few thoughts here on my first impressions but would very much welcome comments.

Though I was pleased to see that some of my work showing that only GCSE maths is required for undergraduate biosciences was cited, the conclusion from this was that more students should take maths A level and this is a little worrying.

The lack, or low level, of maths requirements for admission to HEIs, particularly for programmes in STEM subjects, acts as a disincentive for students to take maths and high level maths at A level. We urge HEIs to introduce more demanding maths  requirements…

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By Gove, I agree!

Posted in Education with tags , , , on April 4, 2012 by telescoper

I never thought the day would come, but I have to admit it. I agree with Michael Gove. There. I said it.

Not with everything he says, of course. But I do think that universities should take over responsibility for the examinations required for University Entrance, currently known as A-levels. Here is an excerpt from an old post on this, and I’ve said much the same thing on several other occasions:

So what’s the solution? I think it is to scrap A-levels entirely, and give the system of pre-university qualifications over to the people who actually know what students need to know to cope with their courses, i.e. the universities. There should be a single national system of University Entrance Examinations, set and moderated by an Examination Board constituted by university teachers. This will provide the level playing field that we need. No system can ever be perfect of course, but this is the best way I can think of to solve the biggest problem with the current one. Not that it will ever happen. There are just too many vested interests happy with the status quo despite the fact that it is failing so many of our young people.

But lest you all think I’ve turned into a Conservative, let me point out that the fault with the current system is precisely that market forces have operated to the detriment of educational standards. The GCE examination boards compete for customers by offering easier and easier examinations each year, regardless of what students need to know to cope with University courses. What I advocate is renationalisation.  I bet Mr Gove doesn’t like it put that way…

Oh and another thing. I think universities should be given this task, but should also be paid for doing it just as the examination boards now are. That way it will not be treated as yet another imposition from the top, but an important task that has a similar status within a university as teaching and research.