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.”