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30 March 2021

Student transitions to higher education - the impact of changes to the school experience of A Level biological science students



Professor Jon Scott
Higher Education Consultant and Emeritus Professor of Bioscience Education

In this blog, Professor Jon Scott introduces a longitudinal study of bioscience students’ experiences transitioning to higher education during the COVID-19 pandemic. If your university bioscience department would be interested in supporting this first-year survey, please contact Dr Harriet Jones or Professor Jon Scott for more information.


The majority of UK students who entered university in October 2020 had experienced very different educational backgrounds to those entering in the previous years as a result of the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. As well as disruption of teaching towards the end of their school/college education, there was also the cancellation of almost all public examinations, such as the A Levels, which are normally used as the basis for determining entry to higher education.


Not surprisingly, this level of disruption and the lack of consolidation at the end of the academic year through revision for the public examinations raised significant concerns regarding the academic transition of the students to higher education.


In previous research, we explored the levels of understanding and knowledge retention of bioscience students during that initial transition from school or college to university. Whilst we observed that there was a correlation between knowledge retention and A Level grade, there was generally a low level of retention of knowledge from A Level through to the first year of beginning university for all students. Also, students retained less knowledge the longer they spent between taking the examination and beginning university.


As with a number of A Level courses, the biological science course is heavy on content and subject specific vocabulary such that the A Levels may be perceived as much an exercise in memory as in understanding and internalisation. In our latest study, we compared the knowledge of vocabulary and understanding of key biological concepts of a group of students who started higher education in October 2020 with their predecessors who began in October 2019 and had not experienced any prior disruption. Initial findings show there was no significant difference between the two cohorts. One conclusion is that while the end of year examinations afford a grading opportunity, they do not foster deep learning that is retained.


Our findings indicate that disciplines such as biological sciences retained knowledge and understanding derived from the months of study during years 12 and 13 and is not significantly enhanced by the examination processes. This suggests that whilst the 2020 entrants were not significantly disadvantaged as a result of the examinations being cancelled, there must be significant concerns regarding the transition and preparedness of those students who will enter university in 2021 and 2022 whose progressive build-up of study will have been disrupted.


A further consideration must be the differential impact of study at home for different social groupings, in particular the challenge for A Level students working at home who don’t have ready access to effective IT in terms of laptops and internet provision, and who don’t have appropriate quiet space to study. It will therefore be important for universities to reflect on their first year curricula to support all students and, in particular, those from disadvantaged backgrounds in enabling effective transition to higher education, otherwise there is a significant risk of a negative impact on retention rates.


The project team, under the leadership of Harriet Jones from UEA, is planning to continue our longitudinal study of bioscience students and would warmly welcome expressions of interest from university bioscience departments who would be willing to run the first-year bioscience survey. We are also engaging with schools in the current year to explore the learning experience of year 13 students currently preparing for university.


If you are interested in assisting with the study, please email Dr Harriet Jones or Professor Jon Scott.


QAA is actively looking to expand its engagement in programmes that focus on provider and student needs to support positive transitions into higher education during the pandemic.