First-year undergraduates ‘as prepared’ for degrees despite turmoil last year, study suggests

A detailed study of 300 biosciences students at three UK universities suggests first-year undergraduates were academically equipped for the transition to higher education

A small study of first-year undergraduates suggests A-level students were “as prepared” academically for the transition to higher education as students in previous cohorts.

The research paper – Do examinations prepare students for higher education? A lesson from the Covid-19 lockdown, led by Dr Harriet Jones – tracked 300 first-year biological sciences students at several UK universities and compared their knowledge of key vocabulary and concepts against previous years. Lecturers expect freshers to arrive with an equitable understanding of this foundational knowledge.

Dr Jones, a senior lecturer in the school of biological sciences at the University of East Anglia (UEA), worked alongside teams at the universities of Birmingham and Leicester to understand the impact of exam cancellations on incoming undergraduate students.

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
– Dr Harriet Jones, University of East Anglia

This detailed, albeit small-scale study, suggests those undergraduates arrived “as prepared” as students in previous years. The research suggests online learning and the loss of exams did not dent students ability to learn foundational A-level curriculums.

Dr Jones said the findings challenge the way examinations, which measure content recall rather than reasoning, are conducted. The senior UEA lecturer said her report is salient for teachers and assessors, who must consider how best to prepare and assess Year 13s for higher education this autumn.

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

“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.”

Dr Jones said academics would prefer A-level students to focus on learning and preparing for higher education, rather than “the grading process”. Unlike those that proceeded them, students beginning undergraduate degrees this year could face more challenges, Dr Jones said, because they may have missed a larger percentage of learning.

Universities will, again, need to focus carefully on supporting students in the transition phase, to ensure gaps in foundational learning do not become a barrier to participation.

Read more: Student hardship: government funds should increase, parliamentary committee says

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