Tuesday, 11 August 2015

Is Physics hard, or hard work.

Something that I have been pondering over the last couple of months is how should we talk to students about Physics?  Should we tell them that it's hard?

As part of a summer school at Think Physics, I shared the comments from the IOP discussion workshop 'Science: It's a people thing' with some Year 12 girls who were studying A-level Physics or Level 3 Engineering.

One of the comments in the workshop is:

"Physics is really hard.  If you want to get good grades, you are better off doing biology or chemistry'.

Quite a few of the girls disagreed strongly with this comment.  We had an interesting discussion about why they thought that biology or chemistry were as hard, if not harder, than physics.  Mostly they thought that Biology could be harder because of the sheer volume of information that they had to understand, whereas Physics could be harder because you had to understand some counter-intuitive ideas.

I would tend to agree with them.  I think that by the time you have got to A-level, most subjects are hard to do well in - certainly those in the Russell group's facilitating subjects list.

On the other hand...

Back in 2008 research carried out by the CEM centre for SCORE showed that, given the same starting points at GCSE, students did better in some subjects than others.
Taken from: Relative Difficulty of examinations in different subjects. Coe et al (2008)

This data in this graph was taken from examinations taken prior to 2008, just before Ofqual was being formed.  Given the large number of changes currently working their way through the system, it would be interesting to carry out a similar study now, and perhaps in a couple of years. (There is mention in this article that the work was repeated three years later with similar results - but I have been unable to find any publications with the new data.)

So, what should teachers tell students?  Is Physics hard?  Or is it hard work?

What A-levels should schools recommend students on the basis of this graph?  When the report was published there was a suggestion that schools would encourage students to take subjects at the left hand side so that they maximised their grades (and schools maximised their average point score per entry).  That is one of the downsides of the results based accountability culture in schools.

There isn't a great deal of difference between any of the sciences, so why do some schools apparently encourage girls into biology?