New students ‘have forgotten bulk of A-level knowledge’

Students have forgotten more than half of what they learned in their A levels by their first week of university, a new study says

June 25, 2014

Researchers at the University of East Anglia tested nearly 600 A-grade biology students at five universities in their first week of term to see what they could remember from their A-level course.

According to lead researcher Harriet Jones, from UEA’s School of Biological Sciences, students had “forgotten around 60 per cent of everything they learned for their A levels”.

“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,” she said.

“But cramming facts for an exam doesn’t give students a lasting knowledge of their subject.”

The results of the study are published in Journal of Biological Education this month.

According to the paper, the biology students at the University of Birmingham, University of Bristol, Cardiff University, University of Leicester and UEA who took the 50-minute test, which involved 38 multiple choice questions, managed to answer only 40 per cent of questions correctly.

Researchers hope the results of the study will help to promote “deep learning” in A levels, which are being redesigned, by creating programmes which encourage the retention of key concepts.

The study also raises concerns about a tendency to “teach to the test” and how these students adapted to university study, said Dr Jones.

“School and university have very different demands,” she said. “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.”

jack.grove@tsleducation.com

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Reader's comments (3)

Thank you Jack for having highlighted the problem of "teach to test" and "learn to pass the exam". I think it is an attitude with behavioral ties in adults: they specialized to perform tasks, and focus less on discovering relevant information to correlate with what they are familiar to, to "make sense" of what they observe or study. I think learning should go beyond educational models, and accordingly teaching should evolve into tutoring or coaching one's interests and curiosity. Visual knowledge maps (or mind-maps) are often claimed to be a useful resource for learning, but they are time-consuming both for the teacher, who need to prioritize information, as well the student, who does not know yet what the subject is about. There are many innovation in IT and education, addressing the need of discovery: to obtain knowledge meaningful correlations, so to obtain, in seconds, a meaningful knowledge map about a subject, even no educational background yet. Here's a benchmark study about mobile applications for reference, learning and education. It compares knowledge correlations obtained by search and discovery engines technology, available as mobile applications. http://learnvisuallyapp.blogspot.nl
It would be interesting to see how recent graduates would perform on a simple test. I'd be surprised if many people remember more than a tiny fraction of their degree even a few months after they finish. Claiming that this is evidence of a flawed teaching approach at a level is purely speculation unless we have a control group taught in a different way.
Or how many academic staff can remember things from training courses they've done recently, if they have no need to use the knowledge. (E.g. trying to remember how to use tools in the VLE 6 months after the course, when you want to use them in a class the following day ... )

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