The Importance of Being Practical

So as part of the ever-changing modifications to English examinations, practical work is no longer to be counted towards A level Biology, Chemistry, and Physics. The current system is far from perfect but I am terribly afraid of throwing the baby out with the bath water.  Grade boundaries are very high in the practical modules and there have been many complaints about teachers coaching their students towards higher marks.  My personal opinion is that tightening security measures would be a better option than a separate teacher assessed module that doesn’t count toward the qualification (and will invariably be seen as lesser by those outwith science education).


The Complaint: Grade Inflation

In my board, the A grade for the practical modules in 2013 was 88% (versus 80% for the written papers) and 50% for the E grade (versus 40%).  I hear in other exam boards, the situation is worse.  The reason behind this seems to be two-fold – poor security measures meaning papers are leaked online and coaching by teachers.  This can be as overt as one local grammar school where a student who transferred to my centre claims that for assessed titrations, the teacher put a volume “to aim for” on the board, or the slightly more subtle doing an almost identical practical the week before with only the spectator ions changed.  My solution to this would be a return to the old-fashioned practical exam whereby all students across the country would be doing their practical exams on the same day.  Yes, we can predict the content by the requests to technicians but perhaps the use of red herrings on orders or different candidate numbers being set different tasks using similar equipment would help to rid us of teacher bias.


The Complaint: These modules don’t assess hands-on science skills

I tend to think of the practical assessments as more a skills check than a measure of whether students can follow the scientific method to plan, carry out, analyse and evaluate an extended investigation (what we would describe as “doing science”). Does it make it any less valuable? I’d say no – as a former FE teacher who taught students from a variety of educational backgrounds, I found students who had done the iGCSE abroad often didn’t know one end of a burette from the other and were playing catch-up from Day One.  If this is happening in FE, I dread to think about the basic practical skills having to be taught at university level. I will also confess that in my practical modules at university, we were rarely called upon to plan and carry out experiments, more follow the given method and analyse the product and/or results.

Many teachers would prefer a return to a long-term project, as found in the Scottish Advanced Higher or in IB but this government appears to be cancelling coursework in all subject areas for fear of cheating.  A solution would be ensuring questions based on PPA were an integral part of all written papers, and a written exam based on planning, analysis, and evaluation of given examples would make up 20% of the grade (replacing the controlled assessment).


The Complaint: Practical controlled assessment replaces high-quality practical work

The suggested 12 experiments students are expected to do for the separate practical pass-fail mark would ensure a more high quality learning experience.  I have worked in a school in London where if I even wanted so much as a beaker I had to order it a week in advance; the classrooms were bare of practical equipment.  The cynic in me believes that in a time of budget cuts, certain unscrupulous centres would advocate the teaching of these techniques by demonstration only and various publishing companies would be more than happy to step in with videos and “interactive” animations, removing our kids further from the actual manipulation skills needed for a hands-on scientist.  On a pass-fail scale on practical skills, universities will be unable to differentiate between candidates applying for science degrees, and teachers will be under immense pressure to award a pass to all students.  I think it also makes UK exams even more sellable abroad if centres need not worry about having the equipment and teachers able to teach practical work.


My conclusions

Yes, the assessment of practical work as to change to combat grade inflation but to remove it entirely risks the value of being a hands-on scientists being lost.  A candidate will still be able to achieve an A* at A level even if they fail the pass-fail teacher assessed practical certificate.  Complaints from universities about lack of manipulation skills in undergraduates will continue.

In an ideal world, I’d like to emulate the work of Advanced Higher Chemistry (SQA) where students undertake an extended practical project but the DfE seems to detest coursework of any kind.  Instead I want the twelve practicals to be embedded in the type of questioning found in the written paper to ensure practical work is seen to be the equal of theoretical.  I also want a return to an exam-style practical with a written examination based on planning, analysing, and evaluating alongside a practical examination based on the implementation of these techniques; it need not be for the same experiment but should show a broad range of skills.

I will always be an advocate of teaching science through doing science but I feel in an age of budget cuts, the decreasing value of practical work in the eyes of non-teachers will lead to me having to fight the bean-counters even harder for my share of the budget.


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