Saturday, August 16, 2008

Has the UK's A-Level Physics Been Diluted Over The Years?

I don't know since I have no first-hand knowledge of it. But this letter-writer to The Telegraph seems to think so.

I have taught physics at A-level since 1988, having taken the exam myself in 1983. In the past 25 years, the material on the syllabus has been diluted, with most of the mathematical requirements removed. We are left with a subject more akin to “physics studies” than “physics”.

The style of questions has changed so that there are continuous prompts. The questions frequently occupy more of the paper than the spaces for the answers. The marking has become more lenient and forgiving of terminological errors.

If you are in the UK and have some knowledge of this, I'd like to hear your opinion.



Neil said...


I have experience of A-Level physics in the Uk from a couple of years ago, and I'm now an undergraduate Physics student. Whilst at Sixth Form, taking my A-Levels, I knew I wanted to do Physics at university and was encouraged by my teachers. One way to get my interest was giving me some old physics A-Level text books from the mid-80s. And all I can say is that there is no doubt to the dilution of physics. In fact, a lot of the subject which used to be taught at A-Level is now 1st/2nd year undergraduate level.

Not only this, the main problem with A-Level physics is the decision to make it accessable to students not taking A-Level mathematics. This wipes out any hope of using Calculus in A-Level physics, for that is no longer taught in mathematics until A-Level. It also wipes out the use of logarithms, natural logarithms, exponents, and even anything beyond basic trigonometry. So students are presented with material which resorts to memorising simple harmonic motion (SHM) displacement, velocity and acceleration, as this has to be taught without the use of calculus. Such examples are rife - not being taught Newton's Second Law is anything to do with Calculus, being taught to find the area under a graph by counting squares. It's preposterous.

I took Maths, Physics, Chemistry, Psychology, Further Maths at A-Level, and to be blunt physics was by far the easiest of any of them (even Psychology - which is seen as an easy subject). Physics certainly has been reduced to learning some wishy-washy concepts, and Physics Studies would be a much apter name. In the hope of broadening participation, the physics itself has been sacrificed.

Through-out my time at University lecturers, tutors and professors have been amazed firstly at how little we have been taught of anything advanced (alot of which is assumed as known due to not having looked at the syllabus in a few years) and amazed at how well we cope with this lack of knowledge, and catch up. But undoubtedly this makes life harder as a student.

Anonymous said...

Physics is not easy. On the whole, it is not popular plus the grade boundaries are so low because its hard to get anything above half. The teachers are not that good so who is to say its easier? Speak for yourself people.

David said...

Unfortunately I cannot comment directly on the question, as I only have experience of the most recent physics A level.

However, Neil is correct. University admissions tutors have explained that physics undergraduate courses are all 4 year courses as the mathematical understanding is too low for students entering. One lecturer in engineering, who taught freshers maths for engineering, despaired as he had students who knew how to perform techniques, but no idea when, where, why or how they worked. Admittedly, this is the fault of mathematics teaching.

However, the most advanced mathematical technique in the physics A level was (last year) perhaps simultaneous equations involving kinetic energy and momentum in perfectly elastic collisions.

The biggest problem is, in my opinion, even more simple. The concept of 'significant figures' i.e. precision, is a brief side note.

Unfortunately, the AEA (the only hard physics exam) is being scrapped, and 'social concerns' receiving increased prominence in the specifications. This would be fine for chemistry, if 'environmentally friendly' principles were taught, although that does not appear to be the case. Physics, however has no such potential resource. It is disgraceful.