Our Biology specifications have been developed to give your students confidence with core mathematical tools, including statistics, that will enable them to become better scientists and achieve their future aspirations. Whatever their future career path, they will have gained valuable, highly transferable mathematical skills and the knowledge that they can successfully engage with these kinds of methods which is as important as the specific set of methods they have learnt. Overcoming fear of maths and the spoken or unspoken belief that ‘I just can’t do it’ frees students from limitations on future attainment.
Students sometimes get the idea that statistics are there to tell them all the kind of things that are not significant (even though at first glance we might think they are). It can seem like the boring grown-up telling us we haven’t proved anything yet, maybe it’s just chance. And of course that is often true – avoiding unsupported conclusions is a key benefit of stats - even better, it allows us to decide what probability of being wrong we are willing to accept!
But there is a vital positive side to stats too. By applying the most appropriate technique we can often identify significant differences even in quite small samples where the absolute differences might not look very big. Paired t tests are a great example of this. Statistics allow us to have real confidence in, for example, drug efficacy, without requiring unfeasibly large sample sizes in our clinical trials, or to discern ecological impact in field studies without having to spend forever gathering data.
The history and development of statistics is closely bound up with biology, indeed all the methods included in the OCR Biology AS and A Levels arose in whole or in part from biological work.
Higher Education institutions have said they are keen to receive students with greater levels of confidence and competence in maths, especially for entry onto biological sciences courses. The announcement at the end of 2014 of new post-16 Core Maths qualifications shows the political will behind increasing mathematical literacy, and statistics specifically features in some of these new qualifications. The Royal Statistical Society (RSS) and the Advisory Committee on Mathematics Education (ACME) recently co-published a report on embedding statistics at A Level across a range of subjects, including biology, and follow-up meetings have been held at the RSS in London. The Wellcome Trust has also helped promote discussion of statistics in biology by hosting a discussion around issues raised in an article by Neil Millar, an A Level biology teacher, in the March issue of School Sciences Review.
The common theme across all these stakeholders, in addition to a conviction that mathematical literacy could and should be increased, is the desire to have the skills learned and exercised in real ‘hands-on’ contexts, with a clear purpose.
In practice the Department for Education’s additions to the existing list of maths requirements, and the mandatory inclusion of at least 10% level 2 maths in AS and A level Biology assessments, are manageable changes. However, the need for AS students to cover almost the full range of A Level maths requirements, and in particular statistics, represents a genuine step up for year 12 students.
At OCR we are convinced of the importance of statistics, and mathematical skills more widely, in biology. The concept of statistics ‘for a purpose’ is one we are continually focusing on when preparing course materials. Through feedback from teachers and students, stakeholders more broadly and our own aspirations we will continue to work on this in the future.
Look out for our upcoming support resource covering all the required maths skills, including statistics, which we are developing with the University of East Anglia.
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Richard Tateson - Subject Specialist - A Level Biology