Most A-level assessment is now based on exams at the end of a two-year course.

More work needed to help students make successful transitions from revised A-levels to university, study finds

The reformed A-level system is not effectively preparing students for aspects of their university studies, a new report has found.

According to initial findings of research carried out by the University of Exeter’s Education Incubator, first-year study practices such as group work, frequent coursework and regular examinations are causing increased difficulty for some students because their A-levels were focused on exams at the end of a two-year course.

The freshers arriving at university this week are the first cohort to have completed the new-style A-levels across the majority of their subjects which were introduced in stages from September 2015 in England, starting with subjects such as biology, chemistry, physics, English and history, and ending with ancient languages and modern foreign languages.

In 2012 Michael Gove, then Secretary of State for Education, wrote to the Office of Qualifications and Examinations Regulation (Ofqual) saying that “the single most important purpose of A-level qualifications is to prepare young people for further study at university”.

Proposals were drawn up the following year and, subsequently, a wide-ranging reform of the exam system saw the majority of A-level assessment being based on exams at the end of a two-year course, with modules abandoned. A further change meant AS-levels no longer counted towards A-level grades.

But the new study, by the University of Exeter’s Exeter Education Incubator, has found that the A-level changes don’t prepare students effectively for university assessment, and its authors have made a number of key recommendations to help bridge the gap between further and higher education.

The Exeter Education Incubator research was led by Dr Matt Finn with the support of student researchers Katie Boyd-Lee and Anastasia Marsden (Biosciences), Finlay Simmons and Connor Spence (English), Alice Clarke, Scott Lewis, Bella Tull and Sarah Tyrrell (Geography).

Dr Finn said: “A-level reform proposals were made in 2013 with an explicit purpose of providing better preparation for university study. The revisions mean assessment is now mainly by exam at the end of the two-year course, and courses are no longer divided into modules.

“Our study investigated how the reformed exams, which included changes to content, assessment and the skills taught, have impacted on students’ transition from A-levels to undergraduate study.

“We found that the changes, fully introduced to A-levels from this month [September 2018], are more rigorous in terms of content, but aren’t preparing students as effectively as they could for the assessments they will face at university.

“At university students face more frequent coursework, group work and often more examinations, and the difference is leading to some challenges, according to the feedback we’ve received from our focus groups of A-level students hoping to go to university and those who were completing their first year.”

“Some initial anxiety is a normal part of the transition process as students adjust to the demands of university study. However, the A-level reforms mean that students are less ready for university assessments than they might have been.”

The report’s authors have made a number of key recommendations to help bridge the gap between further and higher education.

Dr Finn explained: “The reformed A-levels include highly independent non-examined assessments such as essays and fieldwork. While this does appear to prepare students for more independent working at university, it does lead some to assume they should not need to access available support.

“In setting student expectations about independent study, schools, colleges and universities can instead emphasise ‘supported independence’ which recognises that working out when one needs to access support, and doing so, is a necessary part of the learning process.”

The study also revealed that some students struggle with “going beyond the textbook” at university as a result of a reliance on A-level textbooks which are aligned with exam specifications.  Dr Finn said: “While this may be effective, it doesn’t encourage students to use and integrate wider sources and pursue independent reading – something which, perhaps, should be rewarded in the marking criteria.” 

As a result of the study, the Exeter Education Incubator unit has made a number of key recommendations. These include:

  • The Department for Education should commit to a review of A-levels to assess the effectiveness of the reformed qualifications in preparing students for university.
  • Universities should be aware that students may feel unprepared by the reformed A-levels for assessments in the first year, and ensure high-quality guidance and support for group work, managing multiple deadlines, and regular assessed coursework.
  • Universities should heed the research evidence (e.g. Jones, 2017) that the school a student attended, and their social background, shape their expectations about accessing support – with some students strongly internalising messages about independence as meaning they should not access support.
  • The Department for Education should investigate the number of schools that are entering students for AS-levels and then A-levels against the intention of the reforms, and the number of students who are ‘off rolled’, or transferred, to other qualifications.

The report also suggests that further research is needed on student perceptions of the new A-level courses and the effect on particular subjects that have seen significant drops in university applications following the introduction of the reformed A-levels.

Date: 20 September 2018

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