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New research shows freshers struggle to remember basic A-level concepts

Press release issued: 25 June 2014

University freshers struggle to remember basic concepts from their A-level studies, according to new research.

A new report from the University of East Anglia shows that even grade-A students could only remember 40 per cent of their A-Level syllabus by the first week of term at university.

Researchers tested nearly 600 students in their first week of term at five universities – three of which were in the prestigious Russell Group, including the University of Bristol.

It’s the first research carried out in collaboration with an exam board to investigate how much information is lost between students sitting their A-Levels and arriving at university three months later.

The results could also prove useful for designing undergraduate courses which are more student-focused and it’s hoped that the findings will assist the re-design of A-Levels to make them more relevant to higher education.

Researchers tested 594 first year bioscience students in their first week of term at five universities – the University of Birmingham, the University of Bristol, Cardiff University, the University of Leicester and UEA. Almost all of the students had achieved a grade A at A-Level.

They were given 50 minutes to answer 38 multiple choice questions on cells, genetics, biochemistry and physiology – all of which had been part of their A-Level core syllabus.

The students managed to answer an average of 40 per cent of questions correctly. The longer the amount of time between sitting A-Levels and starting university also correlated with poorer results. Students who scored lower than an A grade at A-Level retained the least knowledge.

Dr Philip Langton, co-author of the study and Director of Education Innovation in the School of Physiology and Pharmacology at Bristol University, said: “One of the most important principles in education is that a teacher must first seek to understand what new students know before attempting to teach.  The difficulty comes when we make assumptions about what students know based on a syllabus that has been taught and the results of exams several months earlier.  

“The research shows that a large proportion of the knowledge that is tested in A-level exams in May and June has been lost by the beginning of October.  The students are no less able but teaching staff should not make the assumption that good grades mean that students arrive with confident knowledge of key concepts.  

“Although this research focussed on the retention of knowledge of biology A-level, we think it likely that similar findings would be found in most STEM subjects.”

Further information


‘Indications of knowledge retention in the transition to Higher Education’ is published in the journal Journal of Biological Education.

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