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Subject choices based more on enjoyment than 'difficulty', Ofqual finds

Subject choices at GCSE and A level are driven by range of factors, says exams watchdog

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Pupils are more likely to choose subjects because they find them enjoyable and useful than because they are less "difficult", new research suggests.

Exams regulator Ofqual has published new analysis which shows that, in advising GCSE and A Level pupils on which subjects to take, teachers base this on what they think their students will enjoy and find useful for future education and employment.

Pupils said their perceptions of the difficulty of individual subjects were not the main basis of their decisions. They said they would often be willing to overlook difficulty where they enjoyed a subject or needed it for university or career ambitions.

Ofqual findings

The research comes after Ofqual announced earlier this year that it would look closely at six A-level subjects to see if there was a case for adjusting grading standards if the subject was more difficult. 

The exams regulator is yet to make a decision on whether to take action in physics, chemistry and biology, and French, German and Spanish – but the research study forms a part of the exercise.

Today's study did find that teachers sometimes discourage students from taking subjects that might be too difficult for them - but only in specific circumstances, based on the particular pupil.

Ofqual's research concluded that subject choices appear to be primarily driven by "a triad of perceptions: enjoyment, usefulness, and difficulty (with perceptions being mostly person-specific)."

It concluded: "Although perceptions of difficulty did have an influence on subject choices, they are perhaps the lesser of these three concerns.

The research did find, however, that entry criteria policies were often based upon general notions of subject difficulty, which served to prevent students from taking subjects they would find too difficult.

Students discouraged

In addition, some schools also chose not to offer certain subjects because they were seen to be too difficult, again preventing uptake in those areas.

And students recognised that they were sometimes discouraged by their teachers, parents, and friends from choosing subjects that were thought to be too difficult for them.

Ofqual carried out one-to-one interviews with 49 teachers and focus groups with 112 students from 12 schools across England for their analysis. 

The report concluded: "Perceptions of subject difficulty do appear to be linked with subject choices, but they are not the only, nor do they appear to be the main driver of decision making.

“By continuing research into this field, we can add to our understanding of how and why students make their decisions, potentially enhancing our ability to encourage greater uptake in ‘key’ subject areas.”

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