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Biology A-level does not equip students with appropriate mathematical skills

Posted by on April 27, 2012

Rachel Lambert-Forsyth, Head of Education, Society of BiologyRecent reports and anecdotal evidence have highlighted the worrying trend that students entering university and employment are lacking the maths skills they need to support their progression into jobs in science.

Today, SCORE (Science Community Representing Education), a collaboration of leading science organisations including the Society of Biology, launched a report which analyses the type, extent and difficulty of mathematics  within the 2010 science A-level exams. The report highlights new evidence which shows that A-levels in a range of subjects, including biology, fail to equip students with an appropriate level of mathematical skills. This, and research revealing the differences in mathematical difficulty between different exam boards’ papers, has led the Society of Biology, as a member of SCORE, to make recommendations for the upcoming A-level reform.

The report considered whether the type of mathematics in the science exams was suitable for progression within the subject’s field, the proportion of the examination that depended on mathematical knowledge, and the complexity of the mathematical questions. Key findings included:

  • A large number of the mathematical requirements listed in the 2010 Biology, Chemistry and Physics AS and A2 specifications are assessed in a limited way or not at all within the exam papers.
  • There is a measurable variation between awarding organisations in terms of the amount and difficulty of the mathematics that is assessed in science A-levels.
  • The exam questions that did require maths are not felt to be difficult enough: too many involve only single step questions, require only simple recall, and are set only in familiar contexts. For example, in Biology A-level, across all five exam boards, only 0-2% of the A-level contained mathematical questions requiring more than simple recall.
  • Some mathematical concepts included in science exams – for example, orders of magnitude and using the slope of a tangent to a curve as a measure of the rate of change of a quantity – do not follow on logically from maths GCSE.

The report identifies the important role professional bodies, like the Society of Biology, can play in A-level design. As an independent organisation, capable of bringing together teachers, academics and representatives from industry, we are perfectly placed to ensure A-levels are fit for purpose, and we could provide the basis of a National Subject Committee for the development of A-level qualifications. Something we highlight in our response to Gove’s recent announcement for plans to enable elite universities to set A-level syllabuses and exams.

As Head of Education, I sat on the steering group for this project, and many of our members, including teachers, employers and academics gave up their time to complete surveys on expected assessment requirements or review exam papers. We are grateful to all our members who took the time to input into this valuable piece of research.

Rachel Lambert-Forsyth, Head of Education, Society of Biology

6 Responses to Biology A-level does not equip students with appropriate mathematical skills

  1. AJ Cann

    I’ve said this many times before, but the main problem with A level maths for life sciences degrees is that it takes an exclusively pure maths approach, which leaves students unprepared for the applied maths they need when faced with real data.

    • Rachel Lambert-Forsyth

      At the Society we are not advocating that all students who take biology A-level should study A-level maths as well, you rightly point out that this is often an inappropriate combination. We receive feedback that Free Standing Qualifications (FSQs) are often more helpful, particularly in areas like statistics. However feedback from both Universities and employers tells us that students do not have the right capabilities in maths for biology to cope with the increasingly mathematical underpinning required in the biosciences.

      • Nick Maragkos

        It would be great if this endeavour extended to the International Baccalaureate (IB) as well. I am an undergraduate student at the University of Edinburgh and feel that the IB should have equipped me with a more solid mathematical background related to the biological sciences. Emphasis should be placed on the fact that mathematics is not mere use of formulae but rather more hands-on and with application in the “real world.”

        • Rachel Lambert-Forsyth

          The SCORE report focused purely on A-levels as the number of students using science A-levels as entry into HE is much higher than those with IB and the the project had to limited in some way to ensure meaningful data was collected within the 2 year time scale of the project.
          Our approach to ensuring that students entering HE with any science qualifications(IB; A-levels; Pre-U etc…)have the relevant maths competencies would be the same across these qualifications, indeed one of the main recommendations from the project was that:
          • The scientific community, including SCORE organisations, should work with ACME to consider appropriate and realistic post-16 options in mathematics to support the teaching and learning of the sciences post-16.

  2. Nick

    It would be great if this endeavour extended to the International Baccalaureate (IB) as well. I am an undergraduate student and feel that the IB should have equipped me with a more solid mathematical background (for my biology studies); mathematics should be more hands-on and not mere use of formulae.

  3. Nick Ball

    It is a noticable trend among many students opting to take Biology as an A level, that their perception is one of a science with little or no mathematic involved. This appears to be a result of finding no maths in the GCSE Biology syllabus for core and additional science. This often results i students who are limited in mathematics skills choosing biology.

    It may benefit everyone, students, teachers and employers if more of the basic maths skills were introduced earlier so that the students can learn to apply their maths skills earlier and so have confidence that they can deal with the maths at A level.

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