The #DryLabsRealScience community heard from three A-level teachers discuss the challenges that they and their students have faced over the past 18 months and the considerations that academics may need to make come September as the next cohort of students arrive at university after a very different school education experience. I am very grateful to Ms Leah McClure (Colton Hills Community College, Wolverhampton) and Ms Hannah Harrison Hughes (Howells School, Cardiff) for giving up their time to talk to the network.
The following summary was written by Dr Chris Wilmott (University of Leicester) and was published on his blog The Left-Handed Biochemist.
8 Things (Science) Lecturers Need to Know About the Students Arriving at University this Autumn
At the end of April, the regular #DryLabsRealScience online Community of Practice meeting was given over to presentations about the experience of current Year 13 (A level) students. Three secondary school Science teachers (two in person, and one in absentia) provided fascinating, and at times depressing, insights into the students who are going to be joining university courses in Autumn 2021. The following reflections and observations inspired by the event may prove useful in shaping our plans to offer them the best opportunity to flourish.
- Universal statements about students and their abilities are going to be even less valid than usual. Let’s face it, treating students as an amorphous blob with identical characteristics has never been warranted, but the pandemic has exacerbated the differences. All the following points should therefore be read with due caution.
- Disparities we already knew about will be larger than ever. I don’t think this is the same as the first point (and if it is, then it’s so important that it is worth re-iterating). Schooling has never offered an identical foundation for students. However, the past 18 months have accentuated the disparities. Schools have applied very different educational strategies during the pandemic. Some have adapted successfully to delivery of online and hybrid teaching, others less so. Factor in time lost when individual “bubbles” or whole year groups have been forced to self-isolate, and you produce a very uneven experience. Some of the specific areas of difference will be highlighted in subsequent points.
- Students have had less experience of laboratory work. Inevitably, the most difficult aspect of Science A levels to replicate online has been laboratory work. Many schools have prioritised Year 11 (GCSE) and Year 13 (A level) classes when lab time has been possible. Despite this, nobody has had anything like the opportunities that they would have received in normal times. This lack of opportunity is going to seriously undermine not only a student’s practical skills, but also their data handling, critical thinking and group-working. As one of the teachers at the meeting pointed out, students would generally have used a particular bit of kit multiple times throughout the two years spent in Sixth Form, which enables them to move on from considering the “How” questions to the “Why”. Where they have had the chance to do experimental work this year, they are unlikely to have encountered any piece of equipment more than once.
- Grades awarded in 2021 will have very little correlation with understanding. By all accounts, the Government and OfQual have made a right dog’s breakfast of assessment for the current Year 13s. The system used for grades in 2020, which led to chaos when the results were published, is going to look fair and warranted compared alongside the version being applied this year. This is not the place to fully rehearse the flaws in the current scheme. In essence, assessment has been switched to a Teacher Assessed Grades (TAG) model, based upon an extremely narrow range of sanctioned test materials. In at least one case, potential questions can only be drawn from three years’ worth of exam papers for that subject.
Holes in the content: Alongside this, removal of the obligation to teach the complete content of a subject means that schools/departments have been left to make a tactical decision. Some have decided to consolidate the topics that had already been covered, leaving whole areas of the curriculum untouched. Others have felt a moral obligation to send their pupils out with as broad an understanding of their discipline as possible, aware that they will not be as primed for the assessed tasks as students whose schools have plumped for the more selective strategy.
A combination of these factors means that TAG scores are going to be very high, and not very discriminating. As one teacher put it, “We are going to end up rewarding the ‘learners’ not the ‘understanders-and-appliers’”. Some schools may attempt generosity in order to exploit the situation (though this will be penalised is scores across the board are wildly outside their historical range). Some teachers will be generous because TAGs means they personally are left in the invidious position of having to wield the axe that will end the university aspirations of their pupils. It has been identified that this is going to be a huge source of guilt, and potential animosity. The most significant contributor issue, however, derive squarely from poor decisions about the assessment model itself.
- Many students will have a very unhealthy relationship with assessment. The model of revising by attempting all of the past exam questions for a topic has been prevalent at A level for many years. With the substantial restriction of the pool of papers from which formally assessed questions can be drawn, however, this trend has become transparently distorted into remembering the specific answer (and, if applicable, memorising the workings) rather than progressing through prior questions to reinforce understanding.
Equally, teachers are frustrated that the whole raison d’être for assessment has been altered. Those who have successfully persuaded students in the past that assessment was a key tool for their learning, have seen Assessment-for-learning become Assessment-for-reporting-to-exam-boards. This will likely mean that new students are even more fixated on marks rather than feedback than their predecessors have been.
- Many students are going to manifest higher levels of anxiety and a lack of confidence in their own abilities. Anecdotal observations suggest that first year undergraduates in 2020-21 have been more anxious than their predecessors. Teachers contributing to the DryLabsRealScience meeting all predict that this trend is going to be far more prevalent in autumn 2021.
For some, a contributory factor to their anxiety will be a lack of contact with large numbers of people during the pandemic. Even when Schools have re-opened, life has not been normal – students don’t mix freely with others across their own and different year groups. For the most part, their contacts have been restricted to a very small number of people in their ‘bubble’ for teaching, but also for lunch breaks and other social times. Sudden immersion into crowds of people they did not previously know is going to be unsettling.
For many more, however, the anxiety is going to emerge from their self-awareness that their grasp of both the content and the skills associated with A levels is going to leave them less well equipped than expected for university education. This lack of experience, will manifest as a lack of confidence, and is likely going to translate into a plethora of anxious emails and conversations checking “Is this right?”, “Can you just look at…?”. Despite the complexities and busyness of their own lives, staff are going to have to be very patient and understanding.
- Students will likely be more familiar with online models of learning and may have better digital skills than previous generations. Let’s end on a couple of more positive notes. Firstly, and notwithstanding both point 1 about generalities, and the debunked notion that today’s teenagers are all computer-savvy “Digital natives”, it is highly likely that the new intake in autumn 2021 will be more comfortable with online/blended/hybrid delivery of material, whether synchronous or asynchronous. Many have observed that the 2020-21 first years adapted better to online learning than the existing second and third years, because they had never experienced the model of university-level teaching that had previously prevailed. New students will not only be more open to this, but they feel that this is a natural continuation of modes of teaching they have already encountered.
Whether or not they will be more willing to have cameras on and to contribute verbally is a moot point; school policies have varied in regard to the pedagogical merits versus safeguarding/privacy conundrum associated with camera usage in people’s homes.
- Students’ capacity for independent learning may be enhanced. And finally, the cohort starting university in 2021 may be better at independent learning. This may include aspects of self-motivation as well as online search skills. If it helps to break the poisonous notion that “education is something done to you, rather than something you do for yourself” then this will be a major step forward.