What are universities saying about A levels and undergraduate skills?

Janet Downs's picture
“We recognise in our department that students will experience a culture shock in moving from A levels to university and we try our best to help them make the transition from being spoon-fed to being able to design a spoon and then feed themselves!” said one respondent to a survey by Cambridge Assessment*.

Lecturers from the Russell Group, University Alliance, Million group, 1994 group and non-affiliated universities, responded to a survey to find the strengths and weaknesses of first-year undergraduates and discover lecturers’ attitudes towards A levels.

Over 50% thought that first-year undergraduates were unprepared for degree level study in their subject although this varied among departments: science lecturers found it was less of a problem. Lecturers found that undergraduates exhibited these strengths: ICT, teamwork, intellectual curiosity and communication/presentation skills. However, they highlighted weaknesses in academic writing, independent inquiry, critical thinking skills and self-directed study. The latter combined with problems in note taking posed challenges in the transition from A level to university. It was important for students to realise that degree level study requires them to produce essays which don’t just regurgitate facts and figures but which illustrate original and critical thinking.

The lecturers were asked what was the most important single change they would make to A levels. Around 50% of lecturers cited improvements in pedagogy and student learning – less teaching to the test and spoon feeding, more extensive reading, experimentation, exploration, critical thinking and independent learning.

40% of the Maths lecturers wanted changes in assessment but this dropped to 19% among English lecturers. The proposed changes included less predictable examination questions, more essays and open-ended questions and a final, unseen examination with no re-sits.

The research found that most lecturers were satisfied with the content of A levels. What concerned them was a lack of certain skills needed for degree level study. They were particularly worried about “spoon feeding” which was cited by 90% of lecturers as contributing to undergraduates’ unpreparedness. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) warned in its 2011 Economic Survey of the UK** that the excessive emphasis on raw exam results in England encouraged the negative consequences highlighted by the Cambridge research: teaching to the test and neglecting other important skills. OECD also suggested that a reduction in the number of examination boards would help prevent these commercial companies from competing with each other to provide the easiest, and therefore the most popular, examinations.

Mr Gove should ponder upon that instead of making high-profile announcements about making changes which may not be necessary.

*The full report will be available on-line at the end of April.

**not available freely on the internet but details about how to get a copy are here.
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Rebecca Hanson's picture
Wed, 04/04/2012 - 22:44

It's really not long since everyone was focusing on preparing for the launch of a credible ebacc - one which addressed these issues.

This was one of the reasons why the EPQ was introduced - it was to be part of a coherent bacc which would really help students prepare for life beyond year 13 whether that life is academia or not.

I've heard wonderful personal accounts of the EPQ from students, parents and teachers involved. What has anyone else heard?

Oh why can't we just rewind and do the last two years again?

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 05/04/2012 - 06:56

Thanks, Rebecca. I'd never heard of EPQ - that seems to be offering what the university lecturers wanted. Readers wanting further info can follow the link:


Rebecca Hanson's picture
Thu, 05/04/2012 - 09:53

It's really taken off.

One Cambridge Applicant I was doing practice interviews with had his with him in which he had derived the equations of relativity from scratch.

I took two of my children to a show at our local theater a couple of weeks ago and it was great and it turned out that it had been created, produced and directed by a year 13 for her EPQ. At the end she told us about how she'd had to do all the H&S analysis and lean about the law as well as doing the practical day to day stuff.

The teachers and parents I talk to are really pleased about how their children grow up as they engage with their EPQs. Of course it's hell along the way!

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