Changes made to A-levels may have made exams tougher, but a greater emphasis on problem solving and maths better prepares students for dealing with the demands of studying chemistry at university

In September 2015, a new A-level chemistry curriculum was introduced to students in England and Wales by the Department for Education. This change was intended to make A-level exams more ‘fit for purpose’, to ensure students are as well prepared as possible for higher education (HE) and work.

Overall the changes appear to make the A-level exams tougher, something commented on by many, including students. Modules and modular assessment have been removed; resits are no longer an option to improve overall grades; and AS exams no longer contribute towards A-level marks. There is also a greater emphasis on maths and problem solving in chemistry as well as a wider use of synoptic questions and question style.

The changes also raised concerns that less hands-on experimental work may be carried out in schools and colleges, which in turn would have a detrimental effect on those students entering HE. Moreover, students could be awarded an A-level in chemistry even if they had failed the practical components. In the new qualifications, there is no coursework or practical exams; students must gain a practical endorsement by completing a minimum of 12 practical activities and answer questions in the written exams about their practical knowledge and skills.

However, there is clearly now a focus on transferable skills development as well as maths. Surely this can only be a positive for students studying chemistry in HE? We find our students are better prepared for studying chemistry in HE compared to students who took the ‘old’ modular style A-levels. They’re more equipped at problem solving, more able to cope with the mathematical demands of a chemistry degree and feel better trained in lab skills.

The evidence

We surveyed our cohort of first and second year undergraduates with A-level entry qualifications at Queen Mary University of London (QMUL). We asked them a series of questions on how well prepared they felt for university: slightly; well; very well; or not at all.

We found 47% of our participating current first year students, those who took the linear A-level for the first time, felt well or very well prepared for studying chemistry at university. When the same question was posed to second year students only 18% felt well prepared. None of our second-year students felt very well prepared for university following their modular A-level. In fact, the majority felt only slightly prepared for HE (64%).

When this is broken down into more specific skills this trend continued. For example, we asked our students how well they felt their A-level had prepared them for problem solving. Nearly a third (29%) of first year students said they felt very well prepared for problem solving compared to none of our second-year students. Interestingly, in both cohorts, the majority of students felt slightly prepared for problem solving in HE (46% vs 72%). This is perhaps not that surprising given the more complex nature of this skill set.

A quarter of first year students felt very well prepared for laboratory work compared to just 9% of second years

However, when we asked students to reflect on their laboratory skills and mathematics capability again we observed the same trend. A quarter (25%) of first year students felt very well prepared for laboratory work compared to just 9% of second years, perhaps dismissing fears that less practical work would be performed as a result of the new practical endorsement. In terms of coping with the mathematical demands of a chemistry degree, more than half (53%) of the first-year cohort felt very well prepared compared to just 36% of second year students.

These findings may be a manifestation of the increased difficulty of year two compared with year one, but, based on our observations in classrooms and labs, we think they are a representative finding of our cohorts. Furthermore, we believe our findings are likely to be typical across other chemistry departments in the UK as A-level chemistry syllabuses are now more closely aligned than before ensuring more consistency in subject knowledge. Of course, this survey only gauges ‘feeling of preparedness’ and confidence of the students. It will be important for us to follow actual performance and compare this to earlier cohorts who took the modular A-level.

In practice, most of the changes made to A-levels make exams tougher, but a greater emphasis on the development of a key skill set appears to better prepare students for dealing with the demands of studying chemistry at university and ensures students entering HE already possess a foundation to build on.