Look at the pretty pictures…

Uniformity of practice seldom continues long without good reason.

So opined the estimable Dr Johnson in 1775. In other words, if a thing is done in a certain way, and continues to be done in that same way for a number of years by many different people, then it is a pretty safe bet that there is a good reason for doing the thing that way. And this is true even when that reason is not immediately apparent.

For the choice of this situation there must have been some general reason, which the change of manners has left in obscurity.

— Samuel Johnson, A Journey To The Western Islands of Scotland (1775).

Consider the following examples of “uniformity of practice”:



They are fairly bog-standard GCSE examination questions from the last two years from three different exam boards. But compare and contrast with an O-level Physics paper from 1966:




The “uniformity of practice” that leaps out at me is that the more modern papers, as a rule, have many more illustrations than the older paper. Partly, of course, this is to do with technology. It would have been (presumably) vastly more expensive to include illustrations in the 1966 paper.

Even if we assume that the difficulty level of the questions in the modern and older papers are equivalent (and therein lies a really complex argument which I’m not going to get into), there is a vast difference in the norms of presentation. For example, the modern papers seems to eschew large blocks of dense, descriptive text; this extends to presenting the contextual information in the ultrasound question as a labelled diagram.

Now I’m not saying that this is automatically a good or a bad thing, but there does seem to be a notable “uniformity of practice” in the modern papers.

Now what could the “general reason” for this choice?

Rather than leave the “change of manners” responsible for the choice “in obscurity”, I will hazard a guess: the examiners know or suspect that many of their candidates will struggle with reading technical prose at GCSE level, and wish to provide visual cues in order for students to play “guess the context” games.

Now I’m not assigning blame or opprobrium on to the examiners here. If I was asked to design an exam paper for a wide range of abilities I might very well come up with a similar format myself.

But does it matter? Are we testing Physics or reading comprehension here?

My point would be that there can be an elegance and beauty in even the most arid scientific prose. At its best, scientific prose communicates complex ideas simply, accurately and concisely. It may seem sparse and dry at first glance, but that is only because it is designed to be efficient — irrelevancies have been ruthlessly excised. Specialised technical terms are used liberally, of course, but this is only because they serve to simplify rather than complicate the means of expression. 

Sometimes, “everyday language” serves to make communication less direct by reason of vagueness, ambivalence or circumlocution. You might care to read (say) one of Ernest Rutherford’s papers to see what I mean by good scientific prose.

The O-level paper provides, I think, a “beginner’s guide” to the world of scientific, technical prose. Whereas a modern question on falling objects might tack on the sentence “You may ignore the effects of air resistance” as an afterthought or caveat, the O-level paper uses the more concise phrase “a body falling freely” which includes that very concept.

To sum up, my concern is that in seeking to make things easier, we have actually ended up making things harder, and robbing students of an opportunity to experience clear, concise scientific communication.



Filed under Assessment, Education, Physics

22 responses to “Look at the pretty pictures…

  1. You are correct:
    1) Picture publishing tech has become cheaper, monks are expensive.
    2)Kids need pics to help with literacy – I taught in FE for years; maths & english are enormous problems. We should alleviate such in high stakes exams
    3)Until I read the examples side by side I was sure that GCSE/.. had been dumbed down…. Maybe just Scotland

    I cannot see why the beauty of prose is outwith the regime of the syllabus, prior to tests. James Clerk Maxwell could write & did some poetry too – I am sure that other examples could be given

    • 1) “Monks are expensive” — one more reason to kick the habit?
      2) I agree that many kids need pictorial help with literacy — but that’s the cause for concern I was trying to highlight.

      Although it’s not really a fair comparison (see Dr Dav’s comment below), to me it seems that the O level questions are far trickier than the GCSE ones.

  2. If the point of exams is to test how well the student knows the science then it makes sense to slow down the questions and remove the “deciphering” aspect- allows the examinee to show what they know without getting overloaded by the question

  3. @DrDav

    There is also the issue that in 1966 a small proportion of the school population took O levels, with a commensurate limited ability intake. Now however, almost all students take GCSE. As a result exam papers must cater for a much wider range of student prior attainment. Hence pictures and concise questions.

    • Conceded — the examiners have a difficult job which explains the uniformity of practice. However, I do find it concerning that there seems to be a tacit admission that standards of literacy are low enough that many GCSE questions have to include visual cues. What I was trying to suggest is that, possibly, an alternative approach might be to move back to the concise phrasing of O-level…

    • Yes, a more relevant comparison might be between CSE exams and GCSEs.

      It’s also of note that the O level paper was three hours long – GCSE exams are a lot shorter.

  4. Perhaps you could also add in here the reluctance of some (many..?) students when it comes to engaging with the rather more dry examples given in prose. Extracting data from these type of questions is difficult for many students, though I’m not sure why, causing them to mentally drop out of the question before they’ve even thought about it. So to echo your earlier point students IMO don’t get enough practise at reading non-fiction or technical texts. Maybe space for maths to adopt similar tactics too. Our maths dept are adopting our science equations when they come to teaching equations, hopefully the combined a approach might lead to more familiarity when it comes to prose questions.
    Actually, just had another thought. Get students to rewrite ‘number style’ questions into prose so they can reverse engineer questions. Probably already happens but it just occurred to me.

    • You make some very good points! Regarding engagement with dry prose we may be in a cart and horse situation, as students routinely expect to be presented with visual cues to support literacy, so there is a question of how to change the culture. And also current “good practice” suggests that this should be done as a matter of course as well. I share your concern that this does not encourage serious analytical engagement with prose. I like the reverse engineering idea — I will give it a go!

  5. Requires Improvement

    It’s such a shame that so few people get the mental connections between physics and poetry; the truth told in a short space, the connections between apparently unconnected ideas. I’m suddenly nostalgic for the concept of a light inextensible string…

    It would be really interesting to study, as an exercise in educational history, when this transition happened. My hazy memories are that my science GSCEs at the end of the 1980s were in the new format (write answers in the booklet in the spaces provided, pictures to break up the text), but the A levels I did a couple of years later hadn’t changed, and still involved terse question papers and separate answer books held together by treasury tags. (Cambridge Assessment have put a few retro exams online; I’d love an eccentric philanthropist to pay to make the complete collection available electronically).
    My hunch is that it’s linked to the concept of specific assessment objectives; if a question is testing whether the candidate can select + use Ohm’s Law, then a “good” question tests whether they can do that, and all the other bobbins in the question ought to be made as transparent (easy?) as possible. For a while, the OCR Gateway GCSE went as far as including “use the equation sheet” in every question which involved an equation on the equation sheet.
    In doing this, we probably have lost something important, but hard to boil down into an assessment point; the ability to turn technical prose into physical meaning. One of the things my sixth formers get a bit fed up of me saying is that the hardest line of working to write down in a problem is the first one. In the past, I’ve got mine to build up a glossary of stories (“if there’s a playground roundabout, it’s probably a circular motion question”), but reverse engineering sounds good to try as well.

    • “Light inextensible string” — sigh! I miss that too. I think you are definitely on to something with the connection between the sudden imposition of specific learning objectives. Although at first glance they seem to be a good idea, they have always seemed procrustean to me in the sense that they over-define and (sometimes) limit the potential learning.

      I didn’t know you were also a poetry fan. Any poets in particular?

      • Requires Improvement

        “Fan” is probably putting it too strongly; I’ve never put the time/energy into getting beyond unsystematic “ooh, that’s interesting” when I stumble across things. Mostly of a 20th century seeing the unmundane in the mundane type- John Betjeman for example.

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