Achieving top grades in science subjects more difficult, proves research

June 30, 2008

SCHOOLCHILDREN studying science and technology subjects like Maths, Physics and Chemistry find it much harder to achieve the top exam grades than candidates of similar ability studying subjects like Media Studies and Psychology, proves a new report.

Durham University researchers analysed and compared data from nearly one million schoolchildren sitting GCSE and A-level exams and reviewed 28 different studies of cross subject comparison conducted in the UK since 1970.

They found significant differences in the relative difficulty of exams in different subjects with the sciences among the hardest. On average, subjects like Physics, Chemistry and Biology at A-level are a whole grade harder than Drama, Sociology or Media Studies, and three-quarters of a grade harder than English, RE or Business Studies.

A student who chooses Media Studies instead of English Literature could expect to improve their result by half a grade. Choosing Psychology instead of Biology would typically result in over half a grade's advantage. Preferring History to Film Studies, however, would cost you well over a grade at A-level.

The study found that these differences were consistent across different methods of calculation and were remarkably stable over time.

Durham University's analysis runs contrary to a report released by the exams regulator the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority in February this year which found that some exams may be harder than others, but concluded that subjects were broadly in line and no immediate action was needed to even things out.

The researchers, from Durham University's Curriculum, Evaluation and Management (CEM) Centre publish their findings in a report commissioned by the Institute of Physics and the Royal Society on behalf of SCORE (Science Community Representing Education). .

Researchers voice concerns that students will be more likely to choose to study 'easier' subjects and will not opt to study science subjects that are desperately needed by employers in the knowledge economy.

They are calling for marking for 'harder' subjects to take account of their difficulty, perhaps introducing a 'scaling' system similar to that already used in Australia so that some subjects are acknowledged to be worth more than others.

The findings come 3 years after the UK Government vowed to improve the rapidly falling numbers of students taking Physics, Chemistry and Maths. Between 1991 and 2005 figures show the numbers of students sitting A Level Physics dropped by more than a third.

Report author, Dr Robert Coe, Deputy Director of Durham University's CEM Centre, said: "This research shows that science and technology subjects are much more severely graded than subjects like media studies and art. I can't see how anyone could claim that all A-levels are equally difficult. If universities and employers treat all grades as equivalent they will select the wrong applicants. A student with a grade C in Biology will generally be more able than one with a B in Sociology, for example.

"The current system provides a disincentive to schools to promote take up of sciences while league tables treat all subjects as equal.

"It also puts pressure on students to take particular subjects which may not be best educationally. I know students and schools will try to make the right choices, but we should have a system where the incentives support doing the right thing, not act against it."

However, the Russell Group of universities has warned that pupils at some state schools put themselves at a disadvantage for accessing top Universities by studying so-called "softer subjects" like drama, art and media studies. Cambridge University has already published a list of subjects that together provide a less effective preparation for degree studies and may be a bar to a successful application.
-end-
MEDIA INFORMATION:

INTERVIEWS:

Dr Robert Coe: +44(0) 191 334 4184 or +44(0) 7913 485952. Available all day Monday June 30 and Tuesday July 1 2008.

Or contact Carl Stiansen at Durham University Media Relations Office +44 (0) 191 334 6077/46075; c.r.stiansen@durham.ac.uk

PICTURES: A jpeg headshot of Doctor Robert Coe is available from the University Media Relations Office.

SOURCE INFORMATION:

Relative Difficulty of Examinations in Different Subjects: Coe et al, published by The CEM Centre, Durham University. Copies can be emailed: contact Durham University Media Relations Office.

USEFUL WEB LINKS

Durham University's CEM Centre: www.cemcentre.org
The Institute of Physics: www.iop.org
SCORE, via the Royal Society website: http://royalsociety.org/page.asp?id=5216

Durham University

Related Physics Articles from Brightsurf:

Helium, a little atom for big physics
Helium is the simplest multi-body atom. Its energy levels can be calculated with extremely high precision only relying on a few fundamental physical constants and the quantum electrodynamics (QED) theory.

Hyperbolic metamaterials exhibit 2T physics
According to Igor Smolyaninov of the University of Maryland, ''One of the more unusual applications of metamaterials was a theoretical proposal to construct a physical system that would exhibit two-time physics behavior on small scales.''

Challenges and opportunities for women in physics
Women in the United States hold fewer than 25% of bachelor's degrees, 20% of doctoral degrees and 19% of faculty positions in physics.

Indeterminist physics for an open world
Classical physics is characterized by the equations describing the world.

Leptons help in tracking new physics
Electrons with 'colleagues' -- other leptons - are one of many products of collisions observed in the LHCb experiment at the Large Hadron Collider.

Has physics ever been deterministic?
Researchers from the Austrian Academy of Sciences, the University of Vienna and the University of Geneva, have proposed a new interpretation of classical physics without real numbers.

Twisted physics
A new study in the journal Nature shows that superconductivity in bilayer graphene can be turned on or off with a small voltage change, increasing its usefulness for electronic devices.

Physics vs. asthma
A research team from the MIPT Center for Molecular Mechanisms of Aging and Age-Related Diseases has collaborated with colleagues from the U.S., Canada, France, and Germany to determine the spatial structure of the CysLT1 receptor.

2D topological physics from shaking a 1D wire
Published in Physical Review X, this new study propose a realistic scheme to observe a 'cold-atomic quantum Hall effect.'

Helping physics teachers who don't know physics
A shortage of high school physics teachers has led to teachers with little-to-no training taking over physics classrooms, reports show.

Read More: Physics News and Physics Current Events
Brightsurf.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.