Easier? Maybe it's better taught 1

September 10, 2004

Some A levels are easier to obtain than others, according to research by Peter Tymms, ("Study calls for grading reform", September 3). In particular, sociology is identified as "easier" than 16 other A-level subjects.

This is a surprise to me as a teacher of A-level sociology and as a researcher. I have gathered and published evidence that suggests that the reverse may be more plausible. There is a tendency for students to say that sociology is rather a hard A level to do compared with others. This is based on asking 159 A-level students from four further education institutions to say which subjects they see as "difficult" or "easy". This involves taking the students' subjective perceptions seriously, rather than establishing statistical relationships between variables.

Maybe sociology A level is better taught than many others? Maybe students find the content of a sociology course more relevant to their lives, more interesting and more motivating than the content of other A levels? Maybe sociology teachers are more demanding about the work their students do? Maybe sociology courses are better designed than many other courses? All of these questions might be relevant to explaining why sociology A-level students tend to achieve higher grades than comparable students doing many other subjects. All merit careful empirical attention. Tymms' evidence is interesting and provides a starting point for debate, not a conclusion.

This debate is especially important given the possible consequences that may follow from accepting Tymms' claims. If universities start to "weight" applicants' results according to some debatable notion of "ease" and "difficulty" then we may be doing large numbers of students and their teachers a considerable disservice.

As a teacher of sociology, I know how demoralising it is to be told by your headteacher that you teach an "easy" subject. I wonder what experience of teaching or learning A-level sociology Tymms has?

Alan Hutchison

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