Sound and Fury

Signifying nothing

Science and maths exams are harder?

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So apparently, science and maths exams are harder than arts subjects. Someone has done some research into differences between exam grades in science and arts subjects and found that “There were “substantial differences in the average grades achieved by the same or comparable candidates”.” This is really silly research. First, the average mark isn’t a very good indicator of the difficulty of the exam. Obviously, the difficulty of the exam contributes to the grades achieved, but the quality of teaching and probably several other factors also have an important effect. Secondly, I bet they found that the standard deviation in science subjects was much bigger too. It’s possible to do exceptionally well on more objective topics like chemistry and also exceptionally poorly. In, say, English the difference between a very good paper’s mark and a rather poor exam script will probably be smaller. And is a direct comparison of the type being made here even legitimate? “Easier” and “harder” are surely subjective and dependent on the individual pupils. Some people (myself included) found maths and science subjects at school to be fairly easy but struggled more with “soft” arts subjects. And the flipside is also true, some people who are gifted linguists for example might struggle with maths. So science and maths exams are harder for whom? I don’t think that comparing average grades across subjects and across pupils gives you any kind of meaningful conclusions.

The lower grades in science subjects is at least in part due to the dearth of properly qualified science teachers. As I said above, the quality of a teacher has a big impact on how well the students do in exams. And then there’s all the noise about dumbing down of exams; “maths exams are too easy” and so on. So what should we believe? Those who set the syllabus have the unenviable task of pushing the gifted kids, without leaving those who are struggling behind. But I think they should ignore all this noise in newspapers demanding easier/harder exams.


Written by Seamus

July 1, 2008 at 4:54 pm

Posted in annoying, maths, science

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