Preparing for the COVID cohort

The RSB's bioscience teacher of the year Dr Nigel Francis and colleagues explain the varied and challenging experiences of students taking A-levels this year, and how universities can help aid their transition to university

10th August 

The global pandemic has presented some unique challenges for educators, particularly those involved in teaching practical-based subjects. Current Year 13 students, who will be receiving teacher assessed A level grades right now, have had two years of their studies affected by COVID-19 and, as a result, will have missed out on some parts of their education, with a knock-on effect for universities.

These extend beyond the most obvious challenge of providing hands-on practical experience and may require universities to offer additional support for 2021 entrants and even forward plan for the next three to five years.

At a recent #DryLabsRealScience webinar, attendees heard from current A level teachers discussing the main issues that their students will face. Here we summarise these challenges and reflect on potential ways that universities can help mitigate them and aid the transition from school to university.


One of the most important aspects to highlight right from the start is that students across the UK will have had very different educational experiences over the last two years. This has always been the case, with schools and exam boards offering different approaches to subjects. Still, in previous years those discrepancies have been relatively minor compared to the broad-ranging levels of skill development and knowledge gaps that will be encountered due to COVID-19 disrupted teaching. This will be especially true where class ‘bubbles’ may have been required to self-isolate, even during periods where face-to-face teaching has been permitted, resulting in a different experience to peers. Schools themselves have also adopted diverse educational strategies, some making the transition to blended, online learning more seamlessly than others.

Additionally, the disparity between state and private education may be even more pronounced this year, with many private schools being able to maintain hands-on practical experience due to smaller class sizes and access to resources that many state schools might not be able to match.
The combined effect of all this is that HE academics will have to expect students coming into their first year in October 2021 to have had widely different experiences, and much more work is going to need to go into ensuring a level playing field as rapidly as possible. So, what are some of the specific challenges students have faced, and what can we do to ensure a smooth transition?

Assessment and grades

As noted above, assessment has been switched to Teacher-Assessed Grades (TAGs), with, in some cases, a quite narrow range of exam board assessment materials, drawn from past papers. Where these assessment materials or past papers have been utilised extensively, it may have had the effect of some students learning the answers to questions without necessarily truly understanding the concepts behind the answers.

In essence, those students that can learn by rote may do exceptionally well under the current model, depending on the assessment materials chosen by their school, but their grades may not correlate with academic ability and understanding of the subject.

Students also worry whether these TAGs will be viewed equitably in the future compared to students with traditional A level results. It will be worth reminding students early and frequently in their university career that everyone has been in the same position and that by the time they finish university, their skill sets and knowledge will have moved well beyond A level and less emphasis will be placed on these qualifications in the graduate market.

Teachers are also coming under pressure from students and parents alike to be as generous as possible in their grading to ensure students achieve the highest possible outcomes. Most, but not all, teachers are resisting this pressure, despite the immense personal cost they feel, knowing that they have been forced into the role of administering the coup de grace that could end the university ambition of some students. While most teachers, especially in the sciences, will rely on evidence-based approaches, and exam board quality assurance is to take place, it is worth noting that some TAGs may be elevated compared to previous years. Academics must therefore appreciate that the grades that students come into university with may not always accurately reflect the ability of the student and be prepared to work harder with these students to ensure they are successful.

The movement to TAGs and the need to gather evidence that would usually be provided by external exams has meant that the notion of Assessment for Learning has been replaced by Assessment for Grading. This can lead to students fixated on memorising correct answers, rather than the discussion, feedback and deeper learning that would be the focus of teacher revision, alongside this necessary content practice.

The overall result of this is that students may have an even less healthy relationship with assessment and grades than previous cohorts. In HE, we already see evidence of students fixating on the mark and never accessing the feedback on their work (be it online or paper copies left to gather dust in the administrative office). The learning potential from the feedback is lost, with the students potentially carrying similar mistakes through into subsequent work (and staff left wondering why they bothered to annotate the scripts).

It is the authors’ opinion that this trend is likely to be even more pronounced with the 2021 intake, so additional strategies to ensure students appreciate the benefit of feedback will need to be put in place early on. These might include feedback workshops or the adoption of approaches that force students to actively engage with feedback. This could be, for example, asking for a reflective statement about the feedback and how they will address the points made before the overall grade is released.

The recently released Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) Guidance Report[1] on feedback, although primarily aimed at school level, contains advice that is relevant to any educator delivering feedback.

However, as with anything, much of this will depend on the time pressures that academics already find themselves under, and there may well be a reluctance, or an inability, to take on additional responsibilities.

Knowledge gaps and lab experience

To compound the challenges associated with assessment, students may well arrive at university having covered very different elements of the curriculum, with the obligation to cover the whole syllabus removed. Some schools or departments have taken the tactical decision to solely consolidate topics that had already been taught and leave out entire sections of the curriculum. Others have felt a moral obligation to cover the whole syllabus to give their students the widest possible overview of the subject areas, but at the potential detriment of preparing them for the assessment relative to students focused on a narrower range of topics.

Provision of laboratory classes during the pandemic has been a major strategic headache for both schools and universities. With limited access to the relevant facilities, many schools have taken the entirely sensible approach of prioritising Years 11 (GCSE) and 13 (A level). Regardless of these efforts, students have not had anywhere near the same opportunities as previous cohorts, and in some cases have only used pieces of equipment once over the two years of their A level education[2]. This will inevitably result in a lack of confidence when they arrive at university, therefore a concerted effort must be made to upskill these students as quickly as possible with additional or targeted laboratory skill sessions.

An image of a red petri dish being scraped by a scientist.

It is not just the hands-on experience of using specific equipment that has been impacted; students will have had little opportunity to critique experimental design, or analyse their own experimental data, so they will likely lack proficiency in their critical thinking and data handling skills.

Lastly, which leads us to an aspect that is slightly more out of our control, but nevertheless equally important, students will not have worked in groups or have been taught in large groups, so their social skills may have been impacted.

Social skills

There is already anecdotal evidence that first-year students in 2020-21 have manifested a lack of confidence in their own ability, feel that they are less prepared than their peers and are generally more anxious about university education and life in general. It is predicted that this trend will be exacerbated for the 2021 intake. A major contributing factor to this anxiety is the lack of large-group teaching during the pandemic, compounded by restrictions on mixing freely with peers outside of their teaching bubble. Students will also have had limited opportunities to discuss ideas, concepts, or areas of confusion with their peers to reinforce their understanding of topics as a group.

The first few weeks of university are always daunting for students as they attempt to form social groups, learn the differences between school and university education and cope with significantly increased class sizes. This feeling of being overwhelmed is likely to be magnified this year, and academics will need to consider this when dealing with tutees and, depending on the strategies individual institutions take to learning and teaching next year, larger first-year lectures or laboratory classes.

This anxiety is also likely to manifest itself as self-doubt, and academics can expect a plethora of emails from concerned students needing reassurance which will require understanding and patience from busy lecturers teaching sizable first-year classes.

It might also be worth noting that current first-year students going into their second year have not had the traditional ‘freshers’ experience, and as restrictions start to ease, they may well attempt to make up for lost time, and therefore priorities may not always align with those that we, as academics, would hope for.

So far, these themes paint a pretty depressing picture. But, while there are going to be significant challenges, there are also potential benefits for students that have arisen from the pandemic.

Online learning and digital skills

Although we need to avoid making the assumptions about all students, it is likely many 2021 entrants will have experienced a sizable proportion of their A level education through online, blended learning approaches. The knock-on effect for universities is that these students are likely to be more comfortable receiving teaching material online in both synchronous and asynchronous manners. This is a continuation of the widespread observation that 2020 entrants often adapted more readily to the adapted approaches as they had not previously experienced the more traditional teaching methodologies, whereas second- and third-year students often struggled to make the transition. The 2021 entrants will likely be even more comfortable, seeing this blended approach as a natural continuation of their existing education.

A wide range of tools have been adopted by teachers to try and maximise their students’ experiences, including the use of online simulations. Online teaching tools have been used in universities well before the pandemic, but their adoption has certainly been accelerated by recent experiences. Many students coming into higher education previously had not encountered these types of teaching resources, but with schools having also expanded their use of such tools, 2021 entrants are likely to be more comfortable using digital learning platforms and will need less support and guidance to engage with them. Indeed, their understanding of some A level topics may be better than in previous years due to using these tools alongside the teacher explanation.

Independent learning

Teachers have worked exceptionally hard to support their students online, but the contact time with individual students cannot be replicated in the online environment. Therefore, some students may have had to ‘fend for themselves’ more than they might rely on teachers in a classroom answering questions, especially if they feel less confident asking questions digitally. As a result, students have had to develop independent study skills to thrive in the virtual classroom. The enhancement of self-directed learning, self-motivation and online digital skills may help break the toxic notion, held by some, that education is a passive experience rather than something the students must actively engage with. If this is the case, then the early steps of creating independent, life-long learners will have been taken.

In summary, it is important not to generalise, and no one-size-fits-all approach will be appropriate for every student. There are going to be particular challenges associated with varying levels of student experience, subject knowledge, and social skills. In consequence, university staff will need to be especially sympathetic and understanding. However, on the other side of the equation, students may be more independent and adapt more readily to blended learning approaches – a good grounding for them to become high quality, self-sufficient, scientific practitioners of the future.

The past two years have been incredibly challenging for both students and educators and the hard work and dedication this has required cannot be overstated. There is no doubt that the new academic year is going to remain challenging for school teachers and university lecturers alike, but as with all the challenges that have been presented by COVID-19, they will be overcome.

Dr Nigel Francis FRSB is the recipient of the 2021 RSB Bioscience Teacher of the Year Award. He is a senior lecturer at Cardiff University School of Biosciences and a Senior Fellow of Advance HE. 

Leah McClure is Head of Science at Colton Hills Community School, Wolverhampton and a previous winner of the RSB's Secondary School Biology Teacher of the Year Award.

Chris Willmott MRSB is Associate Professor at the Department of Molecular and Cell Biology, University of Leicester