Tuesday, 1 July 2008

Can you compare the level of difficulty in a Physics and English exam paper?

My old friends at the University of Durham have just completed their latest assignment on behalf of the Institute of Physics, Royal Society and other members of the 'Score' lobby group. Funnily enough, it concludes that it is much harder to get an A in the sciences than drama, sociology or media studies, and a bit harder than English, RE or business studies, while history is tougher than film studies. They suggest that extra credit should be attached to tougher subjects. Now, Ofqual, which has recovered from its rubbishing of the quality of marking, has decided to take a closer look too.

But I wonder whether all this is not beside the point. As one who enjoyed history and economics more than physics or chemistry, I always found the latter subjects harder. But their questions are also usually less subjective. It is harder to measure - and agree on - what makes a good essay than whether a formula is correctly applied. This is not to say that Ofqual shouldn't try. However, if the Durham team and their sponsors are really more concerned about incentivising students to study the subjects, and government wants more people studying those subjects, wouldn't it simply make more sense to award extra credit to good grades in physics and chemistry on those grounds, rather than trying to prove their innate superiority?

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