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New university students not left behind, despite 2020 A-level chaos

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Students in England starting university in autumn 2020 were as prepared as their peers who moved into higher education the previous year – even though they had missed examinations because of the pandemic lockdown. 

That’s according to new research from the University of East Anglia (UEA), which found that nearly 300 first-year biological sciences students at several UK universities fared as well as the 2019 cohort of students with respect to their knowledge of bioscience vocabulary and understanding of key concepts.  

The paper, ‘Do examinations prepare students for higher education? A lesson from the Covid-19 lockdown’, is available as a preprint on The research was led by Dr Harriet Jones, a senior lecturer in UEA’s School of Biological Sciences, with colleagues at the universities of Birmingham and Leicester. 

Students and lecturers have been concerned about the effects of cancelled examinations and teaching moving online. In bioscience at least, that appears to have made no impact for this year’s university intake. 

There was no significant difference in knowledge and understanding of key concepts in biological sciences between those who had gone through the examination process in 2019 relative to those who had not, in 2020.  

Biological science courses require students to absorb a lot of new vocabulary and concepts, with examinations traditionally focusing on content recall rather than reasoning. But Dr Jones said the new findings raise questions about the way examinations are viewed.  

Instead of a marker of understanding or intelligence, exams “really are simply grading processes, favouring those who are better at using memory recall,” Dr Jones said. The researchers found the rote learning and use of short-term memory does not result in any increase in long-term knowledge and understanding in the students.   

Dr Jones said: “Within the sciences, examinations traditionally focus on content recall rather than reasoning.  

“By assessing the knowledge of first-year biological students who started university without having taken A-level exams, we find that cramming information for examinations has no detectable effect on the knowledge and understanding of biology that students take with them to university.” 

The researchers concluded that greater emphasis should be put on the process of learning, specifically the 18 months students spend on A-level and equivalent courses.   

Dr Jones said: “This is where the learning happens. Some may be motivated by the final examination process, but this should be seen as a grading opportunity only, not the end goal.  

“The steady build-up of knowledge and understanding over the preceding years needs greater acknowledgement. We have become obsessed with exams over learning and the balance needs to change.” 

Instead, educators and assessors will need to consider how to help students prepare for higher education in such a tumultuous time for the transition to university, the researchers said.  

Dr Jones said: “Students need to feel more positive about their studying and put less focus on the exams. This is the best preparation for higher education.  

“Learning during lockdown is very hard, but it is helping equip students with some of the skills needed to study at university. So perhaps emphasis needs to change to a positive assessment of what skills students are gaining rather than what examinations they will not be able to take.” 

The 2021 and 2022 university students will, however, have missed much of the usual face-to-face, field-based and laboratory-based teaching, which data here suggest are likely to be the effective parts of their education. These students may well need additional support in some areas, but may also demonstrate better levels of skills such as the ability to drive their own learning. 

Dr Jones said: “With the end-of-school grading process in doubt for 2021, focus needs to turn to student learning, as this is the best preparation for higher education, not the grading process.” 

The paper, ‘Do examinations prepare students for higher education? A lesson from the Covid-19 lockdown’, is published on 

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