Will the new GCE AS and A2 chemistry specifications satisfy the wide range of students they serve, as well as UK university chemistry departments?

A-level chemistry students

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As part of the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC)-led initiative, Chemistry for our future (CFOF), funded by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE), school teacher fellow, David Read at the University of Southampton, has produced a report of his initial findings on the content of the new AS- and A-level chemistry specifications, which will be first taught in schools from September 2008.  

This work forms part of the CFOF strand which focuses on the secondary-tertiary interface and improving teachers' and lecturers' understanding of recent developments in chemical education. The overarching aim is to support chemistry students as they move from school to university by, for example, identifying gaps in their knowledge, depending on the awarding body of their A-level, and addressing these.  

The 2008 A-level chemistry core remains at 60 per cent and the specifications of all the awarding bodies now include entropy, electrode potentials and the use of energetics to predict the feasibility of a chemical reaction. In general, Read finds that there is now more consistency and overlap across the specifications. He told Education in Chemistry, 'This is good for universities because there will be fewer gaps in the knowledge of incoming students, and good for teachers because more textbooks will be relevant to all the different specifications'.  

Model for change

The revised specifications are the result of recent changes made to AS/A-level criteria by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA) and its partner bodies in Wales and Northern Ireland in May 2006. The criteria underpin the framework on which the awarding bodies build their specifications to ensure some commonality across all. After extensive consultation with the chemistry community, including input from over 1000 chemistry teachers and the RSC (see Educ. Chem., 2006, 43 (4), 86), QCA agreed a revised six-unit assessment model for science - three units at AS and three units at A2, with one from each level being internally assessed and to include the assessment of practical skills. The new criteria also called for more emphasis in the specifications on 'how science works', essential skills - communication, independent learning, team work, numeracy, and problem-solving - and material that would allow students to develop an interest in further study and careers in the subject.  

What's new?

With external assessment of practical chemistry no longer a requirement of the A-level, QCA suggested that this should open up 'creative and innovative' approaches to the assessment of practical skills. According to Read, judging by the new specifications, there seems to be a move to providing teachers with a list of experiments along with guidelines for students, teachers and technicians, and a mark scheme. While this will make it easier for teachers to administer practical assessment, removing the burden of marking coursework, there will be some teachers who would prefer to be creative and develop their own practicals. There is some variation between the specifications, but in the main the assessment of practical skills and understanding will be done by the teacher, and students will not be allowed to take related work home to do or complete.  

Moreover, there has been some attempt to incorporate 'how science works' in the written assessment of practical work with students being expected to apply its principles to suggest improvements and modifications in their evaluation of a practical. However, Read acknowledges that until all the specimen papers are available it is difficult to comment on the level and expectations of such questions, and whether or not there has been much in the way of real change from what was expected of students in the old specifications. Equally important, he says, is that the specimen papers should be a true reflection of the examinations from 2009, which was not the case when the AS-levels were introduced. 

According to Read, although 'how science works' has been brought into all the specifications, it is not clear how this will be assessed. And the idea of expecting students to apply what they have learnt to a new context will represent a different approach not only to teaching and learning but also to the sort of assessment students would have experienced at GCSE. 'The big problem', he told Education in Chemistry, 'is that today students see themselves as consumers and expect to be taught how to pass an exam, and if teachers don't know what the exam is going to be like then it gets difficult for them to satisfy the demands of their students'.

As far as the content is concerned, Read finds that while some material has been removed from the old specifications, at least as much new material has come in. Out from all the specifications, for example, is reference to Kp but Kc is still in so the important theory remains. Out, too, are the reactions of elements in Period 3, and other minor omissions, which together will reduce the amount of rote learning required. New to all the specifications, albeit to different degrees, are atom economy, green chemistry, atmospheric chemistry, and a greater emphasis on analytical techniques - all specifications now include GC-MS. Chromatography is also covered in more detail, and there has been an attempt to bring together NMR, IR and MS because this will provide an opportunity for synoptic assessment and also fits in with 'how science works'.

Generally, says Read, the specifications are more teacher friendly - they give more detailed explanation about what needs to be taught. And universities, he added, will have to understand the changes and adapt their courses. It's worth remembering, he said, that the majority of students who choose to study chemistry at A-level have no intention of studying the subject to degree level. A-level chemistry has a remit to serve a much broader cohort.