I’m sorry I haven’t a clue

July 3, 2014

Students, not just those studying A levels, do indeed forget a large proportion of what they have been taught (“New students ‘have forgotten bulk of A-level knowledge’ ”, 25 June).

It happens at all the major school transition points. In part, I agree that teaching to the test, “examination drilling” and league tables are to blame, but it cannot be explained simply as a result of these things.

The culture of regular and repeated testing in schools, in a bid to provide “evidence” of pupil progression and achievement, also may be a key factor. Many students (myself included when I was in my late teens) see learning in a utilitarian way. If the learning is always geared towards a test or examination, once the examination has been taken and the knowledge “used”, students feel that it can be dispensed with.

Michael Gove’s reforms place “knowledge” (rather than knowledge and understanding) at the centre of the curriculum, with examination results the key measure of school success. As a former teacher, I am well aware of the pressure on schools to deliver results – often at the expense of understanding. Gove’s reforms to the A level, with a linear approach and a single end of course examination, may afford teachers the opportunity to engage students in “deeper learning”, but those same students will have had 12 years where “test results” will be prized over conceptual understanding. Reforms to the curriculum should concentrate on getting students to develop conceptual understanding and retain factual knowledge and should abolish damaging and pernicious school league tables.

For the record, even new graduates training to teach their subject can suffer a substantial loss of knowledge, requiring them to “brush up” before they enter the classroom to teach.

James D. Williams
Lecturer in science education
School of Education and Social Work
University of Sussex


The report that suggests that students cannot remember much of what they learned at A level shortly after sitting them caused me to wonder how much I remember from my first degree, which I completed 35 years ago.

The answer, perhaps surprisingly, is quite a bit. This could be because one of the lecturers was a Maoist, another a Trotskyist and a third a Tory. I didn’t necessarily agree with what they said, or even on occasion pay attention to it. However, their distinctive take on life meant that engagement took place, and that surely is central to any learning process.

Keith Flett

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