Want a real challenge? Try 100-year-old exam papers

27th May 2016 at 01:00
Amid claims that physics exams are too easy these days, pupils are testing themselves with decades-old questions

Physics teachers who want to challenge pupils should not use recent exam papers for revision, but those from 30, 50 or even 100 years ago, academics have found.

Mark Warner and Lisa Jardine-Wright, from the Cavendish Laboratory at the University of Cambridge, visited the archive of Cambridge Assessment, home of the OCR exam board. They studied more than 17,000 physics exam questions, dating back to 1893.

The researchers concluded that over time, the questions had become easier.

“There’s been a deliberate move towards taking high-level mathematics out of the questions,” said Tim Oates, director of research at Cambridge Assessment, who helped the academics access the archives.

“There was a large move towards introducing ‘scaffolding’: introducing diagrams, breaking questions down, giving hints. From one year to the other, you don’t notice any change. But, over time, you notice a shift.”

Despite the tougher questions, 20th-century candidates scored grades as high as their modern-day counterparts.

“These questions had a high physics content, and children were achieving a high mark and a good grade,” Mr Oates said. “In other words, they were learning a lot of physics.”

The physicists have now used their research to set up the Isaac Physics website (isaacphysics.org), offering access to some of the hardest exam questions set over the past 120 years. It is being used by thousands of physics GCSE, AS and A-level pupils every day.

Skills for university

Professor Warner said that many of his academic colleagues had complained that undergraduates were coming to university ill-prepared for degree-level physics.

“If children want to go to university to do Stem subjects, they’re asked for all kinds of skills that they’re not routinely getting at school,” he said. “So, to broaden their life chances, they need to acquire the skills and the fluency and the confidence that we offer through this web activity.”

Isaac Physics allows pupils to select questions by topic and also by difficulty level. Some of the most difficult questions are drawn from A-level papers set in the 1980s.

“It gives an extra dimension to the site – these questions that people were answering many, many years ago,” Mr Oates said. “We’ve tended to assume that our exam questions should be contextualised in modern life. But it’s not necessary.”

Each question is accompanied by up to five hints, giving pupils several chances at answering it. “If they’re isolated in their school, as the only person studying physics, this helps get them started with the problem,” Dr Jardine-Wright said. “It helps them to learn to deconstruct the problems themselves.”

The website is proving to be a hit with students. On 10 April alone – a Sunday – 9,275 questions were answered. And, on a single day during the Easter holidays, 5,487 questions were answered.

“They like being challenged,” Dr Warner said. “One is always amazed by how ambitious and highbrow students are in practice.”

The Isaac Physics staff also run professional development sessions for science teachers. And because the website collects data on each individual answer given, teachers are able to use the site to pinpoint consistent misconceptions and tailor feedback accordingly.

“The aim is, ultimately, to help to prepare students for the transition from A level to university physics,” Dr Jardine-Wright said.

“And a number of them come from schools that don’t have specialist physics teachers. We want to level the playing field for access to courses at university.”

Many universities have introduced a four-year physics course, to compensate for the fact that today undergraduates arrive with less subject knowledge than in the past.

However, Mr Oates believes that the correct place for students to acquire this knowledge is at school. “If you’re in school, you’re there and being funded by the state,” he said. “If you’re in higher education, you’re carrying a big loan. So we need to make schooling as efficient as possible.”

Charles Tracy, the head of education at the Institute of Physics, agrees. “Bridging the gap between A-level and undergraduate level studies in all subjects is a challenge,” he said.

“It is always encouraging to see academics take time to support future students and their passage into higher education.”


Read teacher Tom Richmond’s ideas for how exam boards could be reformed, on page 20

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