Science pupils couldn't handle O-level questions in online challenge

09 July 2008

A unique online national competition run by the Royal Society of Chemistry, with a top prize of 1,000, revealed that even bright 16-year-olds found the 'O' level chemistry questions of the 1960s much tougher than the GCSE questions used today.

But some exceptional pupils could still answer the challenge's 1960s questions correctly, with the winner Nathan Brown of King Edward VI Camphill Boys School, Birmingham, scoring a remarkable 94% by answering 40 questions drawn from five decades of chemistry exams in two hours.

The RSC is in the process of notifying the nine runners up in the competition who will each receive a 500 prize.

The schools at which the winner and the runners-up study also receive 1,000 and 500 respectively.

The RSC will also soon be contacting all schools which participated in the challenge to thank them for their co-operation.

Richard Pike, Chief Executive of the RSC, said: "There is no doubt that the clever pupils are as sharp as they ever were, but most are being stifled by an educational system that does not encourage more detailed problem-solving and rigorous thinking."

The paper, set two weeks ago, drew on the numerical parts of previous 'O' level and GCSE examination papers from the last five decades from the 1960s-2000s.  Eight questions were selected from each decade, and mixed up in the examination paper itself, so that students could not readily identify the source date.

From about 2000 entries, nationally representing 450 schools, the average mark was 25%.

Significantly, the average mark for the 1960s questions was 15%, and for each subsequent decade, this rose steadily, reaching 36% for the 2000s.

Dr Pike added: "The feedback we have had is overwhelmingly positive, even though we know that the pupils were put under extreme time pressure and would have been unfamiliar with the content or structure of some questions.  It was the novelty of the experience that excited those taking part, both teachers and pupils. 

Detailed analysis of the results will be completed over the summer, and a report issued to the educational and science communities.  A preliminary finding is that pupils are unused to more complex problem-solving involving a number of steps in completing calculations, without the prompting that is prevalent in some modern examination questions."

The present education system, instead, assesses using questions that require only one or two lines of working.  This remains a major issue for universities and employers, who say the country needs better problem-solving skills to remain at the forefront of an increasingly competitive world. 

The results of the competition also shed light on the students' knowledge and opinions about important current affairs issues, such as nuclear power. Around 25% incorrectly suggested that nuclear power was a sustainable fuel, and around 50% considered "radiation leaks" or "nuclear explosions" major risks of nuclear power, many citing the 1986 Chernobyl disaster. The majority were aware that carbon emissions were significantly lower compared with coal-burning power stations, and that waste storage is a considerable issue.

There were a few unwarranted concerns from the students: one cited the risk of a "radioactive leek" [sic] from a nuclear power station. Others had a slight problem with answer validation and scale: a laboratory-based electrolysis experiment required currents of up to 10,000,000 amps according to some students; another suggested a handful of baking soda weighs almost 10,000 times the weight of the Earth.

Five-decade exam challenge completed

Nearly 2000 students have answered chemistry questions from across five decades

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