Modular Physics Courses Harm Deep Learning

The change of A Level assessment from terminal exams to modules, examined every term or so, has increased exam success for students, but at the expense of a deep understanding of Physics.

The Curriculum 2000 program introduced Advanced Supplementary (AS) courses in the UK at teh beginning of the decade, to help give breadth to the A Level choices that students made at the end of compulsory schooling. Since they were only committing themselves to nine months, many people who had an interest in Physics, but were uncertain about its reputation for difficulty, felt they could take a chance. The effect on enrollment on to college Physics courses was immediate, with class sizes swelling considerably.

So why is it that Physics and Engineering degree courses have continued their decline in popularity?

Unintended Consequences

Class Size

Larger class sizes affect the time teachers can spend supporting individual students in the first year of the course, and the amount of preparation they can do, due to the increased quantity marking and reporting needed. Many students drop out after one year, but since large class sizes have become the norm, classes are cut to keep the student-staff ratio up. With the old two year courses, the classes shrank for the more challenging second year, allowing students to get one-to-one support more often and teachers to get a better understanding of each student's learning.

Dropping Courses

Weaker students, facing the prospect of failure after two years on a course, could find the motivation within themselves to work harder as the final exams drew nearer.

Being able to drop one of their three AS courses at the end of the first year encourages students to stick with the easiest courses in the attempt to maximise their haul of grades. This is no bad thing, and has contributed to the higher grades awarded in recent years, but there are serious side-effects.
For example, soon after their introduction I had a potential Oxbridge student, close to the end of the first year, excuse his recent lack of completed homework by saying he was thinking of dropping Physics (expecting grade A or B). Instead, he was considering continuing with Religious Studies (guaranteed, apparently, a grade A) as he wanted the status of a complete sweep of grade As, awarded to 26,000 students in 2008.

Schools are also tempted to encourage students to enroll onto easier subject, limiting science course uptake, but maximising the school's league table position.


The modular structure itself, though, is the biggest problem. Instead of a two year coherent course, designed to build concepts and skills progressively, students work towards six, largely independent, work units, called modules. Although the change was supposed to motivate students by keeping up the flow of high stakes examination, most of the effects have been negative and dangerous:
  • Most importantly, modules, with their regular schedule of bite-sized exams, encourage cramming and surface learning from the students and teaching to the test by teachers.
  • Mock exams, as a safe opportunity to test your progress, have lost their power to motivate.
  • The module structure of the exams discourages exam boards from using broad synoptic style questions in the module exams, with deep questioning left until the last summer paper. But of course, the patterns of thought have been set by then, and students often fail to grasp the interconnectedness of the subject.

Drop the Modules

Modular courses act as a disincentive for students to thoroughly learn and understand their chosen subjects. The January exams, at least, should be abandoned by colleges, and the time gained put to goo use teaching the students to understand and love their subjects.

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