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July 2008 Posts
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July 2, 2008

Pupils studying science subjects find it harder to achieve top grades

File this under objective research to prove the intuitively obvious. Researchers at Durham University in England studied the relative difficulty of various subjects in secondary school education and arrived at the conclusion that getting top grades in science classes like Math, Physics, Chemistry and Biology is harder than Media Studies and Theater Arts.

Money quote:

Pupils studying science subjects find it harder to achieve top grades.

Durham University researchers analysed and compared data from nearly one million pupils sitting GCSE and A-level exams and reviewed 28 different studies of cross subject comparison conducted in the UK since 1970.

They found significant differences in the relative difficulty of exams in different subjects with the sciences among the hardest. On average, subjects like Physics, Chemistry and Biology at A-level are a whole grade harder than Drama, Sociology or Media Studies, and three-quarters of a grade harder than English, RE or Business Studies.

A student who chooses Media Studies instead of English Literature could expect to improve their result by half a grade. Choosing Psychology instead of Biology would typically result in over half a grade's advantage. Preferring History to Film Studies, however, would cost you well over a grade at A-level.

The study found that these differences were consistent across different methods of calculation and were remarkably stable over time.

The implications are that students may opt for subjects that are likely to yield higher grades since grades on A-level exams are an import metric used for admission to universities.

Researchers voice concerns that students will be more likely to choose to study 'easier' subjects and will not opt to study science subjects that are desperately needed by employers in the knowledge economy.

They are calling for marking for 'harder' subjects to take account of their difficulty, perhaps introducing a 'scaling' system similar to that already used in Australia so that some subjects are acknowledged to be worth more than others.

The report was commissioned by the Institute of Physics and the Royal Society on behalf of SCORE (Science Community Representing Education). Lead author is Dr. Robert Coe, Deputy Director of Durham University's CEM Centre.

See also July 1 report in Science Daily.

The Institute of Physics responds to the report's findings here.