quizcustodiet: (Default)
[personal profile] quizcustodiet
The RSC was on the Today programme yesterday, lamenting the lack of mathematical rigour (and indeed science, they claim) in modern science exams. Reading a bit more about that story let me to this story, about a study the RSC ran last year setting modern pupils questions from a variety of eras. They did not do well - an average of 25%.

I had a look through the questions and was pleased that I'd be able to answer most of them (I seriously fall down on organic chemistry!) If I'm ever very bored, I may sit down to attempt the whole thing and see how I do. Just looking through it, though, I was struck by the fact that almost all of the questions are set in units of decimetres-cubed but want answers in cm-cubed.

This seems rather pointless to me: a student who can do the unit conversion will be able to do it throughout the paper while a student who can't will fail throughout. Thus quite a significant fraction of the marks are essentially binary - you get all or none. From a pedagogical point of view, it would seem more useful to have one set of marks allocated to a number of different unit conversions and then to allocate the rest of the marks to concepts in chemistry. (It may be that I was captured by the system - I worked for a few months at the National Foundation for Educational Research, who set the SATs being criticized by the RSC)

I discussed this with [livejournal.com profile] shreena, and her contention was that this is useful preparation for further science and life because it teaches you to read carefully for units. This is a fair point, but would surely be better managed if the paper used a variety of different units throughout - meters cubed, litres, even millimetres cubed.

What do other people think? I must confess that I may be partially biased because decimetres cubed is (from a physics perspective) a non-standard unit, so it appears as if the test is being deliberately obscure. I have a feeling that chemists use it more commonly, so maybe it's just a question of scientific culture.
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