Many new students flounder says Ofqual report


A culture of re-sits, bitesize exams and schools drilling pupils to pass tests is leaving many new students floundering at university, a report warns today.

Academics are losing faith in the abilities of first-year undergraduates, many of who have a "shallower" knowledge than in the past, according to research by the exams watchdog, Ofqual.

It indicates that some academics and teachers would like to see a return to more traditional A-levels, with pupils sitting fewer "module" papers throughout the course.

The report comes on the day that Education Secretary Michael Gove confirmed that he intends to give universities, particularly the most elite institutions, "a far greater role" in designing A-levels in the future.

The announcement was met with some concerns from headteachers and universities, with one union leader dismissing it as a "quick fix gimmick".

Ofqual's report is based on interviews with university academics and employers and discussion groups with A-level teachers.

It found that many academics do not think that new students have the skills needed for degree study, such as researching, essay writing and references, with some graduates lacking the levels of English and maths required.

Academics at selective universities told researchers that they have "less faith in the abilities of first-year undergraduates than they used to."

Despite an increase in A-level grade, and higher numbers gaining first-class degrees, universities are not reporting "a comparative increase in the abilities of first-year undergraduates," it says.

"If anything, students' theoretical subject knowledge was said to have grown broader but shallower."

The academics interviewed also raised concerns about pupils "learning to the test" - being drilled to pass exams.

As a result of this, new students fail to take control of their own degree studies because they are used to being told how to pass an exam.

Teachers told researchers that a "re-sit culture" had been damaging to students, because they approached exams believing that they will always get a second chance at it.

As a result, many academics said first-year university students struggled because they were not able to retake an exam to boost their grade.

The report said that their discussions with teachers suggested that teachers would welcome a return to more "linear" A-levels, in which pupils sit their exams at the end of their two-year course, rather than modular courses in which pupils sit exams in "bitesize" chunks or units throughout.

Some university academics also said that traditional A-levels gave pupils more time to read around their subject "without worrying about being assessed on everything that they learn."

Ofqual concludes: "A move away from modular assessment - although not necessarily to a full two-year linear model - would foster an environment where students are more able to develop synoptic learning and allow more space for teachers to focus on skills and subject narrative."

The report also found that those interviews did not usually advocate a total ban on re-sits, but did think that there should be a fixed number of times that a student could re-take a paper."