Science students rise to new Higher challenge

2nd November 2012 at 00:00
Pupils impress the assessors with answers to open-ended questions

Scottish pupils are adapting well to alternative science Highers that demand longer and more open-ended answers - but not many sat the new exams.

Students responded impressively to questions with no definitive answers, according to external assessors' reports for the Scottish Qualifications Authority.

The revised chemistry paper put "far greater emphasis on assessing a candidate's ability to explain underlying chemistry", with more marks assigned to extended answers. Some questions assessed numeracy in "unfamiliar chemical contexts".

The 266 candidates did slightly better than those sitting the traditional Higher. Centres had taken "considerable care" to ensure they knew what was expected.

One question asked candidates to comment on the possible smells if a 3,500-year-old bottle of Egyptian perfume were opened, thus showing a wide knowledge of chemical facts and applying knowledge of chemical structure.

"Some candidates demonstrated a depth of understanding of relevant chemistry going well beyond what might have been anticipated at this level," wrote the principal assessor.

Revised Higher physics candidates also performed slightly better than those sitting the traditional exam. Markers were "generally impressed" by responses to "the first national examination to include open-ended questions".

There were some weak answers from among the 457 candidates, but markers were impressed by the attempts of most to demonstrate relevant physics facts and principles.

Stuart Farmer, chair of council for the Association for Science Education and head of physics at Robert Gordon's College in Aberdeen, said that his pupils responded well to the revised Higher's focus on astro-physics and particle physics, as well as the chance to do more open-ended research and experimental work.

Mr Farmer said the uptake of the new physics Higher - greater than for chemistry and biology - could perhaps be explained by opportunities for physics teachers to support each other through the Institute of Physics Sputnik network and the sptr.net resource.

Revised biology and human biology - which entailed about two-thirds of content changing - had only 87 candidates between them. Overall, they performed worse than those sitting the traditional Highers, but the two centres presenting candidates for biology posted similar results to previous years.

An SQA spokesman said one reason for low uptake of the revised Highers was the introduction of new qualifications at lower levels - Nationals come into being from 2014-15 - and "some centres expressed they weren't likely to change twice in that period".

henry.hepburn@tess.co.uk.

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