Friday 23 July 2010

Modular Examinations

No sooner had we got our first group of students through the new Edexcel GCE A-Level Biology course, than the Education Secretary Michael Gove (who bears an uncanny resemblance to Pob) has announced that he would very much like to ditch the current style of modular A-Levels and go back to a single examination at the end of two years to revive "the art of deep thought".

Twelve years ago, when I sat my A-Levels, I was one of the first batches to do modular A-Levels, sitting half or just under half of the qualifications in June 1997 and the remainder in January and June 1998. I don't remember when the modules came in, but it wasn't too long before I took them. I haven't been able to track down the OCEAC syllabus from all those years ago, but it was very content-heavy[1].

I remember having to memorise all the stages of the Krebs Cycle, and being expected to be able to draw it in the exam. Paul remembers similar from his Scottish Higher Biology. I am sure many of my contemporaries will vouch for there being a guaranteed 10-mark question which was essentially "Draw and label a diagram of the Krebs Cycle". My A2 students are not asked to memorise the Krebs Cycle. They are asked to understand the major processes, the generation of ATP and the relationship between glycolysis, phosphorylation, the electron transport chain and various other biochemical processes.

After my initial horror (I did come over all Four Yorkshiremen) that they do not need to be able to draw the lot, nor do they need to be able to spell "succinate", let alone say what it does, I thought about the implications of this. I and my classmates had to memorise a diagram. We needed to know very little about the science as long as we could reproduce the formulae, carry out the calculations and if necessary then compare aerobic and anaerobic processes. How much biology does that test? Very little[2]. On the other hand, my A2s had to be able to relate cellular respiration to everything else we covered in the final unit, including muscles, exercise, drug use, nerves, the eye and habituation. Then for an encore, once they'd got through those questions they had a synoptic question based on secondary scientific literature. More than I ever had to do.

I would argue now that my A2 biologists are better prepared for university than I was. I learnt an awful lot of material by rote, whereas my students have a far more holistic education. Perhaps in contrast to the students being prepared for the AQA syllabus, I have trained my students to adapt their knowledge to new situations and to try to explain phenomena they may not have seen before. Surely this sort of independent thinking that the modular A-Levels allows is what universities are after?

It would appear that my alma mater, Cambridge University, is against terminal exams too, although they see the AS exams at the end of the first year as being valuable indicators of likely achievement, and do consider the current exams to be too modular. But they don't know how to solve this problem. I know what sort of examination I would like to see, but I'm not sure this would be remotely feasible. I would like to see a combination of examinations (30%), coursework (30%) and a good old viva voce (40%)! Michael Gove wants deep thought? Examine it the way higher degrees are examined. Any student who can get an A grade after that will have truly demonstrated a deep understanding of the course material.

The students on my course do not need to know the full Krebs Cycle, nor do they need to calculate water potential in the context of osmosis. They do not do a full analysis of the operation of the kidney and there is a distinct lack of fieldwork (which I am trying to put right). However, the syllabus now contains speciation and phylogenetic analysis, forensic entomology, ethology and behavioural psychology and a lot of ecology. I would far rather be teaching Edexcel in 2010 than OCEAC in 1998.

[1] With the possible exception of an almost worthless module on "Human Health & Disease", serving only to allow the teacher to go round the class and point out everyone she thought had a vitamin deficiency or an eating disorder. It was an all-girls independent school - everyone had an eating disorder!!
[2] I feel I should clarify that despite my inadequate high school qualification in biology I did go on to do classes in biology at university, and indeed hold a MRes in the subject, so I am at least qualified!


  1. 1995 - I just asked my Mum (who reiterates her offer for you to take all her old teaching materials off her hands). There were modules and old style that year. GCSEs went tiered a few years before that though - we were in the first few years of that too.
    I barely remember what we had to learn at A-level biology but I do remember loving it and being fascinated which I suspect was in part a true love of the subject and in part a fabulous teacher. (Who is going in the acknowledgments of my dissertation because she was the first person to teach me anything about speciation all those many moons ago).
    (You're in them too)

  2. I remember there being three tiers for GCSEs - higher, intermediate and foundation. Now there are just higher and foundation tiers (and that causes enough problems)!

    I'm so pleased to see you're acknowledging your teacher - that will mean so much to her (and I'd be lying if I didn't hope that one of my students will do that one day). But I didn't make you any toast this time!!

    Must get in touch with your mum about the teaching materials! :)


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