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Why axing practicals from science exams is a bad idea

Science practical exams


By Matin Durrani

I don’t know about you, but I look back rather nostalgically on the practical exams that I took as an 18 year old as part of my A-levels in physics and chemistry. At the time, I wasn’t looking forward to them at all – they lasted three hours each and there was always the very large possibility of completely mucking up your experiment and/or dropping all your samples on the floor.

Although I’ve forgotten everything about my physics practical exam, the chemistry practical still sticks out in my mind. I remember making some needle-like crystals that, through amazing good fortune, turned out really well – certainly far better than the watery mush I’d created in my mock exams. So when I walked over to the other side of the lab to measure the temperature at which the crystals melted, they did so over a really narrow range – and presumably at the “correct” temperature too.

All in all then I was pretty relieved with that particular exam and was just glad the ordeal was over.  I’ve no idea how well I did in my practicals, but I must have done okay as my overall A-level grades were good enough for me to get me into university.

Now, though, news has broken that Ofqual – the independent body that monitors exam standards in England – is to reform science A-levels so that the final grades are based entirely on written tests, with practical exams no longer counting towards a student’s final mark. Science practicals will still take place, but the scores will be recorded separately on exam certificates as either “pass” or “fail”. Practical exams currently make up 20–30% of a student’s final score.

According to The Times, Ofqual has reformed the system because it is concerned that students use Twitter and other social-media sites to discuss assignments set in the practical exams, which – for understandable reasons – they do not all perform at the same time. As a result, those pupils who do their practical exam later can gain an unfair advantage. Other concerns are that schools teach only a narrow range of experimental skills to suit what will come up in the exam and that practicals aren’t really the best way to monitor a student’s experimental ability.

Ofqual’s decision has come in spite of a campaign by learned societies, including the Royal Society, the Wellcome Trust and the Institute of Physics, which publishes Physics World, to keep practicals as part of the main A-level grade. They fear that the change, which will be introduced from next year, will discourage schools from carrying out experiments. They are also concerned that although experimental work is recorded separately, universities will probably just ignore it – or not put much stall on it – when deciding whether to accept a student onto a course.

Worst of all, the reforms seem to say that experiments are not integral to science, but a kind of weird adjunct to it. And I’m not entirely sure how just getting “pass” or “fail” recorded separately on a certificate is going to make anyone particularly want to shine in their practical exams. I can imagine someone who fails will just shrug their shoulders and put it down to being cack-handed on the day. As for someone who is experimentally gifted, just getting a “pass” isn’t exactly a great motivation to push themselves further.

Writing in the Guardian, Jonathan Osborne defends the new system, saying the current approach does not put enough emphasis on experimental design or interpreting the data. But I’m not convinced and I’d be interested to know how practical skills are marked elsewhere in the world. The bottom line is – do you think Ofqual has made the right call?

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  1. john shale

    It’s the rigour of practical work that teaches the essence of being a Physicist. when we had more students than facilities, half were placed in purdah, until the first half had completed their exam and gone home. Plus there were a choice of papers, so we could have groups on different days. This is just cost-cutting, prior to privatisation.

  2. The current system of practical assessments is far worse than the old practical exams, which were both fair and rigorous. The current assessments are neith fair nor rigorous, with many marks gained by pure luck rather than skill. As a teacher I would love to see the practical exams come back in as marking 18 assessments each year, 9 per pupil, to a consistently high standard has become the most onerous and stressful part of the job. Why they don’t want the practical exams back is beyond me – completely fair, secure and consistent, the mind boggles. Maybe this is just a mistake, like the kinetic energy equation in the GCSE appendix!

  3. Steve

    The article is wrong – this is excellent news. The current exams don’t test any actual practical skills. Rather, they are an exercise in learning the mark scheme. I can only assume that the writer is not a teacher who has had to go through and run one. It is soul destroying, and makes me wish I was doing a different job.

    Schools spend thousands of pounds, and take weeks out of teaching to try to learn how to do these well, and in they end they do not teach or test anything useful (the examiners doing the training boast that THEIR students always get good marks). It is FAR better to get rid of them and use the time and money to actually teach some Science.

    Practicals will not disappear – why would they? They will be used to teach. Practical assessments teach nothing, test nothing relevant to actual Science and only put at risk grades of good students who don’t have teachers bending the rules to get them a good grade. No practical assessment is absolutely fantastic news!

    • Matin Durrani

      Steve — as the editor of Physics World magazine, I’m not a teacher and my personal experience of A-levels might be well out of date. While the current system of assessing experimental skills might not be perfect, I am more concerned that experimental ability should remain part of a student’s overall grade, not merely noted as “pass” or “fail” in a separate grade that no-one treats seriously.

  4. Jenny Knight

    According to the government site knowledge of practical skills and practicals completed will make up 15% of the marks in the new exams. The proof of the pudding will be how these questions are structured.
    I teach and don’t like the exam/assessment we currently have, although it is excellent if done fairly it is all too easy for students to be ‘coached’. The old exam was preferable but would require a lot of additional funding if it was to be run, so that’s not going to happen. My fear is not the effect of the exams but that unscrupulous schools will use this as an opportunity to increase class sizes and reduce funding for equipment


    “…that practicals aren’t really the best way to monitor a student’s experimental ability …” Well, honestly, I can not think of a better way than that. Labs and experimental/experiential education began to disappear from US engineering schools (as a cost saver) 50 years ago .. to a big detriment in engineering education. Jonathan Osborne’s point that current approaches do “not put enough emphasis on experimental design or interpreting the data” is, in fact, well-taken and an argument for keeping practicals … but improving them. Virtual laboratories on-line for students would cost little and be highly interesting and educational. They would also eliminate the “unfair advantage” so-caused by “social networking.”


    I wanted to add an example. Virtually everything there is to know about a “lever” is probably known by now (one says, with extreme hubris, given the history of science :). A virtual simulation of some lever experiment thus offers an infinite landscape of example experiments, replete with data and multiple ways of analyzing and interpreting it. Such a simulation is a “physics sandbox” and students can build wonderful things there, picking up some “knowledge” and experience along the way.

  7. Alfred Bhulai

    I don’t like the idea of removing the practicals. Even if the present system allows their value to be diminished, the candidate still has to do something practical in the name of science.
    The old practical examination system of the 1960s and 1970s were set by examiners who knew their stuff and could churn out many alternative practical papers with accurate ease. Schools and exam regions that cannot meet the requirements should be derated, so that we have a better idea where to aspire to send any capable children to learn to contribute meaningfully to our civilization.

  8. g-moore

    Some students wish to do practical things, rather than pure theory.

    The greatest value of practicals is in learning how to be honest, vis-a-vis Nature, and how to make and appreciate discoveries.

    I suggest that further changes are needed.

    1. Scientific calculators for school use can be so user unfriendly that students feel like abandoning science. New designs are needed.

    2. The motivation to obtain high marks and ‘correct results’ within a fixed space of time, when apparatus may not work properly, encourages data massage — not a good basis for starting a scientific career. Getting rid of this is welcome, but there’s a higher price to pay—losing out on learning rigorous scientific procedure.

    3. Students should be given more freedom of expression, particularly allowed to use any colours they wish for making diagrams in all exams.

    I have been involved in academic and industrial research, taught part-time in schools and universities, served on university committees concerning regulations, redesigned syllabuses and developed laboratory teaching methods like this:-

    Based on Science Museum exhibits where people like to push buttons and see what happens, and remember that scientists like to ask questions like children, I assess all the equipment available in a laboratory and design twenty short experiments and careful instructions. Multiple sets of the same apparatus are not required.

    Pairs of students work at their own pace, spending 5 to 20 minutes per experiment, several per session, sketching apparatus and answering questions, sometimes on specially designed sheets which they fix into their lab books – instructive and easy to mark on the basis of work actually done. My basic rule—which students firstly hate but really get to like — is no rough work on scraps of paper. What happens in the lab must be recorded at the time in lab books—no copying up ‘in best’ afterwards. This provides the most authentic record you can get, and students don’t waste time later copying other people’s work or the laboratory instructions—pure educational fun, very good attendances, and many good results—like several genuine 100% scores. They then have something great to show at job interviews, prepared by hand, in addition to exam gradings.

    Some logistics: If you have 360 students on a lab course, 30 minutes marking per student (like old times) = 180 hours. 3 minutes per student is more realistic, but this now provides little scope for scientific language practice. Politicians tend to push Shakespeare as part of education – but this directs attention into complex language usage and ‘game playing skills’, whereas aspiring scientists require instruction in how to describe things accurately, simply and objectively.

    When students can’t wait to visit the lab, you know you’re succeeding.

    Good luck everybody – I had some great times teaching!


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