Preparedness of new undergraduates for degree level study

At Cambridge Assessment, which is a department of the University of Cambridge and the parent organisation of three awarding bodies, researchers have been exploring the perceived preparedness of new undergraduates for degree level study.

Three strands of research have been completed:

  • A questionnaire survey of 633 university lecturers (including 179 mathematics lecturers) on the impacts of qualifications for 16 to 19 year olds on higher education
  • Focus groups on lecturers’ views about the effectiveness of curricula for 16 to 19 year olds as preparation for university
  • A literature review on the pedagogical differences between A Level and university.

The research focuses primarily on mathematics, biology, and English. Both qualitative and quantitative methods were used as part of a ‘mixed methods’ approach.

Summaries of the research are available at:

http://www.cambridgeassessment.org.uk/ca/Viewpoints/Viewpoint?id=139723

Full reports can be requested from the same website.

There are several key findings relating to mathematics:

  • There is a healthy appetite among mathematics lecturers for engagement in research exploring the transition from A level to higher education.
  • Over half of mathematics lecturers think that mathematics undergraduates are underprepared for degree level study.
  • ICT, teamwork, intellectual curiosity are the skills and attributes likely to be considered strengths of typical mathematics undergraduates when they begin degree level study.
  • Most lecturers think that academic writing, self-directed study, independent inquiry and research, and critical thinking skills are weaknesses of typical undergraduates when they begin degree level study. Depth of subject knowledge is also a concern for most mathematics lecturers.
  • Mathematics, further mathematics, and physics are the A level subjects considered by mathematics lecturers to provide the best preparation for a mathematics degree.
  • Biology, chemistry and mathematics are the A level subjects considered by biology lecturers to provide the best preparation for a biology degree.
  • More generally, history, English and mathematics are the A level subjects considered to provide the best preparation for degree level study by lecturers across a wide range of subjects.
  • According to almost 60% of mathematics lecturers, their institutions provide additional support classes for underprepared 1st year undergraduates.
  • Over 60% of mathematics lecturers have had to adapt their teaching approaches to teach underprepared 1st year undergraduates.

The research received considerable media attention at the start of April, when emerging findings were presented at a UCAS conference in Birmingham. The presentation coincided with an exchange of letters between the Secretary of State for Education and the national regulator, Ofqual, setting out a new policy in which Higher Education is to have more influence on the development of future A levels.

The three strands of research form part of a wider research programme which extends over several years. This work is an important means of restoring and strengthening links between qualifications developers and HE.

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