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Physics exams go from the lab to the real world

By Hamish Johnston

Anyone who has lived in the UK for more than a few months knows that the British are obsessed with exams.

Indeed, this morning one of the lead items on the news was the resignation of “exam watchdog chief” Ken Boston (yes, the UK has an exam watchdog!) over the chaos that ensued earlier this year when many national tests called Sats were incorrectly marked and the results returned late.

A common theme in the discussion of exams is the “dumbing down” of the tests that some allege has occurred over the years — an allegation that often comes across as a variant of the familiar “youngsters have it so easy today”.

Now Cambridge Assessment, a firm that was set up 150 years ago to administer exams, has shed some light on this crucial national debate by releasing a study of physics exams for 16-year olds from 1867 to 2007.

Interestingly, there actually was no “physics” paper before 1927 — up until then a candidate’s knowledge of physics was covered in tests on topics such as “natural philosophy” and “mechanics”.

I wonder if the new topic “physics” was greeted with the same derision that “media studies” garners today?

The study also found that there was little change in the style and content of physics exams from 1927 to 1977 — which is sure to be seen by some over the age of about 47 as evidence of more recent dumbing down!

In that first 50 years, the exams were more focussed on performing practical experiments than papers today. The study also found that older exams “required a slightly greater level of mathematical ability, a much greater level of recall of facts and theory, and a greater ability to communicate in written English”.

More recent papers look for the ability to apply physics to “everyday contexts”.

However, if you are feeling smug because you sat your exam in 1957, you may have forgotten that supervisors that year were permitted to “give a hint to a candidate who is unable to proceed” with the practical physics test. I wonder how many physicists out there are still living with the shame of needing a hint!

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  1. JHConnell

    Hints on Ordinary Level physics exams were permitted in 1952, but the invigilator (who was the physics teacher at the same school) had to report them in detail. Not many people asked for hints.
    One of the exam papers consisted of a required experiment and a choice of another experiment.

  2. Steve Scholnick

    As a recently retired physics teacher, I can confirm that ‘hints’ are in effect allowed in current A-level practical exams. If a student is stuck, or obvioulsy doing the wrong thing, he/she can be helped, within limits. I can’t remember the exact wording, but the invigilation instructions clearly explain this. Of course, full details must be recorded. I’d guess it occurs with an incidence of a few %.
    However, the exam stucture is changing this year and ‘hints’ will be less relevant.

    • Viresh

      Dear Steve,

      I’m looking to get in touch with a former physics teacher with the same name as yours! The person I’m thinking of taught at Claremont High School and I’m wondering if it’s you.

      Many thanks.

      Viresh Patel

  3. JerryHsi

    I was born in the mid eighties of last century and finished engineering degree two years ago, I often wonder what did I really learn in my four years of study? Manipulating variables and shifting them around without actually understanding the underlying meaning. The educational standards are dropping in every country. I think its because the fundamentals are ignored. Students nowaday never get to study Euclids Elements, and really understand the logic behind physics and mathematics.

  4. YL

    I believe this is the Mr. Schonick from Claremont too! If you happen to stumble upon this. You were my favorite teacher! Bless you!


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