Bridging the gap

Jamie Spurgeon

With the popularity of physics related degrees steadily increasing year on year, it is important now more than ever that schools are doing their best to prepare students for one of the more challenging degree options. So the question is what should a physics A-Level aim to achieve in this regard? This can be broken down into two main areas; firstly creating a strong level of understanding and knowledge of the core concepts of physics, and secondly, fostering a sense of intrigue and passion for the subject which will inspire students to further their studies. These two areas feed into each other and are both crucially important in developing future generations of physicists. Unfortunately the physics A-Level falls short in both of these areas and some change is due in order to improve the situation.

Understanding and knowledge

Physics can be a very difficult subject and many students struggle to grasp the concepts. Without a solid foundation in the basics of the subject it can become very frustrating and demotivating. The recent trend of declining mathematical content within the physics A-Level is creating a big problem in this regard. It is not hard to see the benefits of reducing the maths – there has been a push in recent years to attract more students to STEM subjects such as physics at A-Level and without the somewhat daunting barrier of maths, more students will be inclined to continue studying the subject. However those students who are swayed by this are not those who will go on to study physics at the undergraduate level. And further to this it penalises those students who do want to study it further. Mathematics is the language of physics. Physics students need to get used to the idea that physics and maths go hand in hand, and this process of estrangement often leads to a shock at the university level where the first year is in some respects spent assimilating the two the subjects back together.

Another problem which can be applied to a broad spectrum of subjects right through from GCSEs to universities, is the exam focussed culture we have in our education system. Examinations are a convenient way for schools to monitor progress and categorise their students’ skill levels, but are they the best suited to improving the students’ knowledge? Preparation for an exam is one of the most stressful periods for young people as their future is reduced down to how they will perform in a brief window. Exam preparation can be a hard skill to master and many students find themselves ‘cramming’ as much information as possible as the exams draw closer. This can be detrimental in the long run as most of this information is committed to the short term memory and will be quickly forgotten once the exam has passed. The exam as a form of assessment is something that is almost entirely isolated to the school system and does little service in preparing students for challenges and assessments they will face in work and other areas in life. The alternative to this is continuous assessment; coursework, essays, presentations etc. which promote interdisciplinary skills such as team-working and communication whilst continually building on students’ previous knowledge. The strong focus on exams has created a worrying cognitive shift on the very purpose of school itself; teachers are under pressure to extract the best results out of their students as it reflects on their own performance, rather than their primary focus being on giving their students the best possible education.

Intrigue and Passion

Physics is a subject that requires a great degree of personal motivation in order to overcome the frequent challenges it poses. This motivation often comes from a deep seated urge to uncover and understand the mysteries of how our universe works and this ethos should be consistently present in the teaching environment.

Understanding many of the concepts in physics requires more than just being taught; it comes from self-discovery and experience. In some respects this has been achieved, especially through the use of practical lab work which, aside from improving experimental skills, helps bring to life theory that can often be dry and difficult to visualise. However, the lab work often comes in the form of a pre prescribed task, which doesn’t involve a huge degree of critical thinking from the students. It would be interesting to see if the inclusion of brainstorming sessions where the students, with some guidance, develop their own method to test the theories they have learnt. This would allow them to inject some creativity into the subject which can be a rare and undervalued opportunity in the study of physics.

From personal experience, some of the most impacting moments of school took place during field trips and, upon reaching A-Level, I was very excited to see where we would be travelling to. However, whilst humanities students had an abundance of trips lined up, including trips abroad, the science department remained very much grounded in the classroom with no opportunity to make that important connection between science and the real world. When you are able to see the things that you have learned being applied to life outside the classroom, you are provided with the inspiration to one day contribute to the world of physics.

To think that all of the ideas put forward here can be simultaneously utilised would be idealistic and naïve. In the real world where teaching is limited by budgeting and time constraints, it simply is not possible. Like all things in life there is a balance to be found. Nonetheless it is still important to bring light to these issues and explore ways in which our curriculum and pedagogy can be enhanced and refocused on the students’ needs. After having graduated from school, many students never look back and reflect on how the system can be changed, leaving it to those already involved in education to look after it. Perhaps if more voices were heard and opinions shared then the change we need would be realised.

Bridging the gap

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