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Physics students 'unprepared for university'

Physics students are leaving school unprepared for their degree courses because A-levels do not give them the skills they need, academics have warned.

The restricted syllabuses in both maths and physics A-levels were blamed for encouraging "learning by rote", meaning even high-performing pupils often lack the understanding needed to study science and engineering at university.

Some undergraduates "go bonkers" when faced with the high maths content in their degree courses because they have not been taught how to handle it, according to a report.

The findings come from a survey of academics and undergraduates by the Institute of Physics (IoP) following concerns that schools are failing to equip pupils for degree study.

University tutors have previously complained they have to waste time teaching new undergraduates the maths they ought to have mastered at school before they can make progress.

More than half of the physics and engineering academics surveyed by the IoP said their first-year undergraduates were not very or not at all well prepared to cope with the maths content of their degrees.

One engineering tutor quoted in the report said: "Deep down, the problem is mathematics is a language that they don't speak because they are not taught to speak it.

"When you present physics material, which is all equations, they just go bonkers. You need to have competence in mathematics to explain the concepts."

And a physicist said: "If they haven't really got to that level of fluency of understanding what somebody else is writing, let alone writing it themselves, they are at a serious disadvantage."

Only a fifth of undergraduates felt ill-prepared, but in interviews many acknowledged a gulf between what they did at school and what was expected of them at university.

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