A portfolio of exciting practical experiments as part of new Biology, Chemistry and Physics A Levels is unveiled today by OCR.
In each subject, experiments will be grouped into 12 different skills, such as dissecting animal or plant material in Biology, measuring light and sound wavelengths in Physics and making aspirin in Chemistry. If a student takes all three subjects at A Level they will now have to complete a minimum of 36 experiments.
OCR’s portfolio of practical experiments has been created in collaboration with leading Science teachers at schools and universities, many of whom were inspired by unforgettable experiments in their own school days.
Dr Steve Evans, OCR’s Head of Science Development, says: “The new emphasis is about ‘thinking like a scientist.’ It isn’t just about following a recipe to bake a cake, what is much more exciting is to begin with some ingredients and see what you can create. We are at the starting point in this new approach and OCR will continue to work with teachers and university academics to build a good library of practical activities that can be carried out in schools and colleges.”
OCR’s draft specifications for Biology, Chemistry and Physics A Levels have just been submitted to Ofqual for accreditation, with a decision expected in early August. Subject to accreditation, the specifications will be available for first teaching in schools from September 2015.
From September 2015, students studying an A Level Science subject will be required to do a minimum of 12 practical experiments during the two-year course, adding up to a minimum of 36 experiments for students taking all three Science subjects. The new structure is a requirement set for all exam boards by Ofqual. OCR will be trialling the new approach during autumn 2014.
Under the current A Level coursework system, students are required to do only four practical experiments, and there are reports of students arriving to start Science degrees at university with no laboratory experience whatsoever. There is a consensus that the current coursework system is not achieving what it set out to do. With the new A Levels some students will be doing three times as many practical experiments as in the past.
OCR has been in contact with many teachers through its extensive networks, who have made clear that they welcome any increase in the amount of practical work undertaken by students. Under the new system, practical experiments will no longer contribute to the final exam grade. Instead, students will receive either a ‘pass’ or ‘fail’ once they have completed the minimum 12 experiments per subject. Fifteen per cent of marks will be allocated to students' understanding of practical experiments, which they will have to demonstrate in written exams.
Lawrence Herklots, Head of Science at King Edward VI School, Southampton says: “In future, written papers will ask questions which test students’ practical skills, based on the knowledge that they have gained during practical experiments, so of course the practicals will have to happen in order for them to be able to answer the questions.”
Ian Harvey, Head of Biology at Hills Road Sixth Form College, Cambridge and Member of the Education Committee of the Society of Biology argues that practical work is essential, saying: "It brings to life the theory, develops students' skills and helps them work in teams, as does fieldwork which I also consider to be crucially important." Ian recalls dissecting a shark that had been donated by the local fishmonger for his A Level Biology, an experience he will never forget. He also vividly remembers his two biology field courses which fuelled his life-long passion for ecology.
David Read, Principal Teaching Fellow at the University of Southampton observes that: “In recent years there has been a drift away from investigative practical work towards shorter experiments with already defined outcomes, because those are required by the current controlled assessment method of testing a student’s ability.” He continues: “Over the last six years at the University we’ve seen a noticeable decline in students’ practical skills when they arrive to start their degree course. But if you’re writing research papers at university the traditional approach (apparatus, method, results, discussion, conclusion) is still the standard format, and for that, you need to have experience of doing practical experiments at A Level.”
Concerns that the new approach could lead to marginalisation of practical work are dismissed by Harriet Jones, Senior Lecturer in the School of Biological Sciences at the University of East Anglia who says: “If the experiment is not assessed then the student doesn’t have to ‘prove’ anything and can explore and investigate, which is much more fulfilling. The idea that the results of experiments should always be pre-determined is crazy – it misrepresents the very essence of what science is about.”
Find out more about OCR’s proposed new Science A Level specifications.