First year students have forgotten basic A-level material by the time they arrive at university

Students in a lecture theatre

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'Students are arriving at university with fantastic A-level grades, but having forgotten much of what they actually learned'

A new report published today shows that even grade A students could only remember 40% of their A-level syllabus by the first week of term at university.

Researchers tested 594 first year bioscience students in their first week of term at five universities – the University of Birmingham, the University of Bristol, Cardiff University, the University of Leicester and the University of East Anglia. Almost all of the students had achieved a grade A at A-level. They were given 50 minutes to answer 38 multiple choice questions on cells, genetics, biochemistry and physiology – all of which had been part of their core A-level syllabus.

The students managed to answer an average of 40% of questions correctly. The longer the amount of time between sitting A-levels and starting university also correlated with poorer results. Students who scored lower than an A grade at A-level retained the least knowledge.

Lead researcher Harriet Jones, from the school of biological sciences at UEA, said: 'This is the first research carried out in collaboration with an exam board to investigate how much information is lost between students sitting their A-levels and arriving at university three months later. Universities expect their students to arrive with a high level of knowledge. What our research shows is that students are arriving at university with fantastic A-level grades, but having forgotten much of what they actually learned for their exams.

'This is undoubtedly a problem caused by secondary schools gearing all of their teaching towards students doing well in exams, in order to achieve league-table success. But cramming facts for an exam doesn’t give students a lasting knowledge of their subject. School and university have very different demands. In higher education, students cannot rely solely on memorising information so it is important that students can adapt to a more in-depth approach to learning.'

It is hoped that the findings will assist the re-design of A-levels to make them more relevant to higher education. The results could also prove useful for designing undergraduate courses which are more student-focused.