A-level modules mean a mastery of ideas

6th September 1996 at 01:00
As sure as the first cuckoo will be announced, so the nation's examined results will be rubbished. Education, it seems, spawns countless critics who, judging by their comments, benefited little from their own education.

I would like to focus on one aspect of this year's harvest, namely modular A-levels. These are relatively new beasts and have barely evolved before being hailed as prime candidates for extinction. Their shortcoming seems to be that they offer a second bite at the cherry. The implication being that if an examination is taken enough times, anyone is bound to pass. Just like the driving test, how silly to allow people a further attempt! The second criticism is that by splitting the exam into smaller pieces, each is easier to manage.

There is a point to the second criticism. Taken to extremes, it would be possible to imagine that each week's work could be tested, and because there would be so little of it, almost anyone should be able to cope. Yet, is it that simple? As a teacher of physics with 26 years of experience, I would suggest it is far from that simple.

A-levels today concentrate far more on understanding than on memorising. The business of learning for understanding takes time, and mistakes must be made to appreciate fully the limits of one's comprehension. Perhaps a week seems too short, but my experience tells me that even in a week there will be sufficiently challenging ideas to wrestle with that only the very able student will master them first time.

Each module in the modular exam in physics, which I teach, represents a quarter of the whole two-year course. I have been blessed with an outstanding group of girls to teach this year and I have predicted excellent grades for nearly all of them. They have to reach the intellectual maturity required for A-level much earlier in order to exploit the advantages of the system. The pressure is on them more continuously than in the traditional system. If they need to resit a module, as one or two will, then their workload is increased; it is not just a matter of turning up. Then, at the end, they have to take a minimum of 30 per cent of the whole exam, which includes a synoptic paper anyway so that it is not possible to brain dump the earlier work. In the worst-case scenario they may have to take all their modules, in which case they have no real advantage other than knowing how badly they have performed in the past.

To restrict the opportunity to resit a module to two times or to abandon the idea altogether simply because it is the silly season and Sir Rhodes Boyson doesn't like it would seem to me to be foolish in the extreme. My students thought that modular exams would be a godsend before they started the course for the very reasons that Sir Rhodes dislikes them. Having now sat their first module they are not so sure of the advantages, even though they have by and large performed extremely well. Their views are now tempered with the experience that few of the critics share. Let the modular courses, which after all reflect much more what life is about, have their chance to prove themselves.

G W MAYNE 55 Poplar Road Merton Park London SW19.

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