2 Comments »Posted on Friday 28 November 2008 at 3:45 pm by Jacob Aron
In Chemistry, Education

I’ve been pretty hard on the Royal Society of Chemistry recently. The RSC’s seminal work on Yorkshire puddings and the Italian Job did little to impress me. Luckily for them, a recent report has got me back on the RSC’s side. In June 2008 the society ran a competition entitled The Five Decade Challenge, in which GCSE pupils from across the country were invited to tackle chemistry questions from the 1960′s to the present. How did they fair?

Pupils found modern questions much easier. (Graph from the RSC report)

Well, it seems there is definitely weight to the argument that exams are getting easier. The average score on questions from the 1960s was just 15%, rising steadily to 35% for questions from the past decade. It is possible that is due to changes in the language used in questions in the past 50 years pupils struggled with the comprehension of older questions, rather than their content – I certainly remember GCSE papers having a particularly idiosyncratic nature. It is unlikely that this provides a full explanation for the differences, however.

Pupils found questions requiring a single mathematical step (one multiplication, for example) to be the easiest, but multi-step, unprompted mathematical questions – common in older papers – were much harder. The RSC see this as evidence that mathematical education needs to be beefed up in order to further science education. As they say in their report, science teachers should not have to be teaching fundamental numerical techniques.

They Society also call for new grading standards. Although the majority of pupils taking the challenge were of A or A* standard, many failed to score well. There were exceptions however, with the top scoring pupil gaining a total of 93.8%. The report calls for the meaningful differentiation between pupils of this level – though thankfully they don’t seem to suggest the introduction of an A** grade!

So, are exams getting easier, as this report suggests? I think that a combination of factors are at play here. The science syllabus has changed greatly over the years, as one might expect. Much more importance is placed on “science-in-society” – applying science to pupils everyday lives and the world around them. I would argue that this is no bad thing. Not everyone who takes GCSE chemistry will study chemistry at university, and a sound knowledge of chemistry in the wider world will serve pupils much more than memorisation of the periodic table.

On the other hand, we must not fail the highest achieving pupils who will go on to be the future chemists of the nation. Teaching to the test means that these pupils gain high marks with ease, but leaves them ill-equipped for undergraduate chemistry. Somehow, a balance between these two interests much be struck.

I’m not suggesting that these problems apply only to chemistry – far from it. I’m sure physics, biology and other scientific subjects would show similar results. I do however applaud the Royal Society of Chemistry for this useful report, and hope that they stick more to education reform and less to silly competitions!

As a footnote, if you want to have a go at the challenge it is included in the report linked above, but the Guardian have handily stripped out both the questions and answers. Ironically, I think I found some of the 60′s questions easiest due to their highly mathematical nature, allowing me to ignore the chemistry all together!


  1. 2 Comments

  2. I’m a teacher whose students were involved in this research. While I like some of the ideas the RSC recommends, they can’t rely on any of this ‘research’, for the following reasons…

    1) Despite now masquerading as ‘serious research’, this was sold to us as a ‘fun competition’. My students (who came in during their holidays to do this) had no idea that their results would be used to judge their entire generation! Some didn’t stay for long – others admitted to skipping through the test once they’d realised how hard it was – not really scientific conditions!

    2) My school and many others had extreme technical problems with all of the computers we were using to run the test crashing at some point. Several students didn’t end up completing the test – which would of course depress the results. I can only conclude that the best performing individuals were the ones that didn’t have computer problems!

    3) More importantly, the questions were basically rigged to prove the point. They focused almost exclusively on mole calculations. The difference between the 2000 and 1960 questions was not because of language issues, lack of mathematical competence or anything else – it was because in the 1960s students were taught (‘to the test’) to answer more complex questions in this area. Since then the syllabus has evolved, not least because of new discoveries in the field. I could easily create a modern GCSE test that would have been impossible to 1960s students but trivial to today’s students (e.g. carbon is found in three forms – diamond, graphite and _________ ?)

    While they may have been trying to help with this gimmick, the RSC has simply generated lots of headlines that diminish the achievements of GCSE students and will only put people off studying science.

    By Simon on Saturday 29 November, 2008 at 11:28 pm

  3. Hi Simon, thanks for commenting – it’s good to hear from someone who was actually involved!

    So did the RSC not inform you at all that they would be publishing a report as a result of the challenge? If so, you’re right, that does bring in to question the validity of some of the results. Crashing computers are also a serious issue…

    It’s interesting to hear you say that 1960s students were taught “to the test”. I did wonder about that, but I’m afraid being of a younger generation I have no way of knowing!

    I do still think that the RSC making a good point about the need to distinguish between pupils of an A* grade. As a practising teacher, would you agree with this? So many people these days are applying to university with top marks across the board that it becomes hard to choose between candidates, some of which maybe be of higher ability than others. Don’t you think stretching the exceptional pupils (whilst still providing an interesting and engaging syllabus for those less able) is a worthwhile endeavour?

    By Jacob Aron on Saturday 29 November, 2008 at 11:38 pm

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