The purpose of this assignment is to examine the reasons why students decide to study science subjects at A Level. With 17% of 16 – 19 year olds taking one or more A Levels in science in 2009 and just 10,000 science graduates leaving university each year (http://royalsociety.org/uploadedFiles/Royal_Society_Content/education/policy/state-of-nation/2011_02_15-SR4-Fullreport.pdf) the reasons for understanding why students decide to study science beyond compulsory education is important to ensure that teachers, schools and institutions do all they can to encourage the next generation of scientists as well as ensure that the scientific literacy of the population is as high as possible. My initial interest in this area was sparked after reading a story in The Guardian (http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2011/nov/06/big-bang-theory-physics-boom) stating that there had been an increase in exam entries in A Level physics and this could be explained by the of Professor Brian Cox with his television series ‘Wonders of the Solar System’ and ‘Wonders of the Universe’ and The Big Bang Theory, currently the most popular syndicated sit-com in the United States (http://tvbythenumbers.zap2it.com/2012/04/17/syndicated-tv-ratings-big-bang-theory-on-top-again-dr-phil-leads-talk-shows/129421/). My initial reaction to this story was that this positive media image of physics has not been around for long enough to reflect in an increase in student numbers and that there were probably other factors that have a greater influence on student choice.
The reasons for student choice of science A Levels has been examined previously. Harvard (2009) in a survey of 175 year 12 (16 – 17yrs old) students identifies the 5 main reasons as:
- Interest in the subject
- Participation in learning
- Career prospects
- Teaching methods
- Advice from teachers & Difficulty (joint 5th)
He also concludes that there is a significant positive correlation with those who chose not to study science at A Level, the positives for science students are negatives for non-science students.
James (2007) in a mixed methods analysis of 82 International Baccalaureate students using an online survey and semi-structured interviews identified the following top 5 reasons:
- University course requirement
- Job requirement
Pike and Dunne (2011) in a study of students in a range of post-16 environments carried out semi-structured interviews on 76 students both taking science and non-science A Levels identified the dominant themes in students explaining their post-16 subject choices as:
- Past pedagogical experience
- Schools discourses of differentiation (how difficult the subject is perceived)
- Future educational and occupational pathways
A key conclusion being that “science would be more appealing if it were more weakly framed with less teacher authority, more discussion based learning and greater relevance to the everyday.”
A systematic review of 25 studies of which 12 were judged to be medium to high quality by the Welcome Trust (Newman, Bangpan & Tripney (2010)) concluded that the perceived usefulness of the subject for reasons such as further study and future careers were the main reasons for student subject choice for post-16 study. Other reasons such as their assessment of their own ability and their level of enjoyment and interest in the subject were also important. The review also stated that the most significant finding was the lack of good quality research on the topic.
So while there has been research in this area there is room for more to contribute to the body of knowledge already accumulated. From this background reading the following research questions were identified for my research.
- What are the influences that students have to studying A Level?
- Is there any difference in influence for the three main science A Levels (Biology, Chemistry & Physics)?
- At what point in their education does a student decide to study A Level science subjects?
- Is there any difference in influence between male and female students?