Freshers 'forget 60% of their A-level studies'

By Katherine Sellgren
BBC News education reporter

  • Published
studentsImage source, Thinkstock
Image caption,
The students were tested in their first week of term at five different universities

University freshers struggle to remember basic concepts from their A-level studies, according to research.

University of East Anglia researchers tested 594 bio-science students in their first week of term at five universities.

Almost all had a grade A*, A or B in biology at A-level. But on average they answered 60% of questions from their A-level core syllabus incorrectly.

The researchers blame an emphasis on teaching to the test.

Researchers tested students at:

  • University of Birmingham
  • University of Bristol
  • Cardiff University
  • University of Leicester
  • University of East Anglia

They were told about the test beforehand but were not given any details about its content or subject focus. The researchers said it was unlikely, therefore, that students would have revised for the test before taking it.

They were given 50 minutes to answer 38 multiple choice questions on cells, genetics, biochemistry and physiology.

Information recall

Lead researcher for the study, Dr Harriet Jones, said: "This is the first research carried out in collaboration with an exam board to investigate how much information is lost between students sitting their A-levels and arriving at university three months later.

"We found that students had forgotten around 60% of everything they learned for their A-levels.

Image source, UEA
Image caption,
Dr Jones says cramming does not widen knowledge

"Universities expect their students to arrive with a high level of knowledge.

"What our research shows is that students are arriving at university with fantastic A-level grades, but having forgotten much of what they actually learned for their exams."

Dr Jones said the trend to teach to the test, to ensure good results for schools' reputations, was the problem.

"This is undoubtedly a problem caused by secondary schools gearing all of their teaching towards students doing well in exams, in order to achieve league-table success," she said.

"But cramming facts for an exam doesn't give students a lasting knowledge of their subject.

"School and university have very different demands. In higher education, students cannot rely solely on memorising information, so it is important that students can adapt to a more in-depth approach to learning."

New A-levels

In response to concerns that A-levels were not preparing students adequately for the rigours of degree-level study, Education Secretary Michael Gove has announced changes to A-level courses.

From September 2015, A-level syllabuses in England will be linear, with all assessment at the end of two years of study, rather than the current modular style of study.

Leading universities are also closely involved in developing the content of the new A levels, to ensure students are fully prepared for university study.

The UEA report said: "If A-levels are to be redesigned to enhance their impact for students entering higher education, then creating programmes which encourage retention of key concepts should be a key factor to consider."

The report concludes: "Secondary education has become increasingly politicised, which involves greater emphasis on testing and results of tests, target setting and performance."

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