Preparing students for university

Preparing students for university


A key objective of most level 3 qualifications, taken by students aged 16 to 18, is preparation for university study. This preparation is both in terms of increasing subject knowledge and by helping students gain the skills that they will need to succeed when at university, such as problem-solving, critical thinking and independent learning. Here we examine the effect of taking two qualifications which focus on these skills - the Extended Project Qualification (EPQ) and Applied A levels - on the probability of being awarded at least an upper second class degree. The EPQ involves undertaking a substantial project in an area of personal interest, where the outcome can range from writing a dissertation or report to putting on a performance or organising an event. Applied A levels provide a broad introduction to a vocational area (for example, Applied Business or Applied Health and Social Care), and higher proportions of these courses are assessed through coursework or portfolios compared to traditional A levels. We show that these qualifications appear to provide good preparation for university study, slightly increasing the probability that students that study them obtain at least an upper second class degree.

What does the chart show?

The chart shows the effect on the probabilities of achieving a first, or at least an upper second class degree, when taking the EPQ or Applied A levels alongside A levels, compared to taking A levels only. The probabilities are plotted for students with different levels of prior attainment as indicated by average Key Stage 4 (KS4) points score.

The KS4 points score is calculated by assigning a number of points to grades achieved in all level 1 and 2 qualifications taken by a student. The points allocated to GCSEs range, in intervals of six points, from 58 for an A*, down to 16 for a grade G. Thus a student taking GCSEs only, and averaging an A grade, would have an average KS4 points score of 52.

The probabilities are calculated using a multi-level logistic regression calibrated on the performance of students taking an undergraduate honours degree due to finish in 2013, having completed their school studies in either 2009 or 2010. This captures students taking degrees of three and four years in length, as well as those taking a year out before university study. Prior attainment and other variables such as socio-economic class and gender, were accounted for in the model. The probabilities are plotted for students who were in the "reference" categories for each of the categorical variables in the model. These reference categories describe a female student with parents in socio-economic status category 1 (Higher managerial & professional occupations), who attended a Comprehensive school, finished KS4 in 2007 and went on to study at a non-Russell Group university.

Why is the chart interesting?

There is a small, but significant, increase in the probability of achieving at least an upper second class degree for students taking the EPQ or Applied A levels alongside A levels, compared with those taking A levels only. This suggests that the skills learnt in undertaking a significant project over a long period of time (e.g. planning, research, analysis) may prepare students better for university than subject based courses only.

However, it should be noted that we cannot be sure that this effect is "caused" by the qualification taken. The models only tell us that there is a significant association between the qualification taken and the likelihood of attaining at least an upper second class degree. It may be, for instance, that students who took the EPQ, for example, had higher levels of motivation to do well academically than those that did not take the qualification and it is that, and not taking the EPQ, that led to better degree outcomes.

Further information

More details on the data and methods behind this chart can be found in Preparing students for university study: a statistical comparison of different post-16 qualifications by Cambridge Assessment researcher Tim Gill, published in Research Papers in Education (2017).

For further details of our research in this area see Gill, T. & Vidal Rodeiro, C. L. (2014). Predictive validity of level 3 qualifications: Extended Project, Cambridge Pre-U, International Baccalaureate, BTEC Diploma Cambridge Assessment Research Report. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Assessment.

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