Could English language be the problem?
Kampala, Uganda | RONALD MUSOKE | The search for solutions to the declining uptake and rising failure rate of the three core science subjects and mathematics at secondary school exam level has until now focused mainly on the lack of adequate preparation and lack of teachers.
As a result, it has been argued that once candidates get adequate practical training and schools get more science teachers, exam grades in physics, chemistry, and biology will improve. Unfortunately, it has not happened even in schools which, on paper, appear to have both.
So, could it be that in order to improve the performance of students in science exams, it is necessary to look at something completely new – the students masterly of the English language?
According to Daniel Nokrach Odongo, the Uganda National Examinations Board’s (UNEB) executive secretary, the Uganda Advanced Certificate of Education (UACE) is designed to test the candidates’ ability to understand and apply knowledge in original situations, demonstrate logical reasoning skills, show ability in performing scientific experiments, interpret results, and draw conclusions.
But, while releasing results for 2017 recently, Odongo said many candidates still show misunderstanding of questions leading to wrong answers while many more show inability to deal with questions which require explanation, interpretation and original formulation of responses.
“These candidates also showed inability to organise their essays in a manner reflecting logical flow of thought,” he said, “Many are comfortable listing points without the kind of explanations or arguments expected at UACE level.”
He added that candidates also tend to exhibit poor mastery of the English language which affects performance in science subjects. He said examiners noticed this when, while carrying out the practical tests, the students failed to follow instructions.
Other challenges include misspellings of technical terms, writing unbalanced chemical equations, lack of mathematical skills where these are needed, failure to plot graphs, especially where negative values are included; and generally interpreting a set of experimental readings recorded.
Only candidates from the traditional government schools and the better established private schools exhibited good quality work in science subjects. Most of the other candidates appeared unprepared, Odongo said.
Masterly of the English language, question interpretation, and essay writing skills appear critical because of the way science exams are graded. While a lot of failure is blamed on lack of experience with practical laboratory work, the grading system gives the theoretical papers higher scores. According to science teachers that The Independent spoke to, some practical papers like biology at O’ Level are marked out of 60 while the theory paper is marked out of 100. This means that if a student got 50% of the answers right in the practical paper they would get 30 marks. On the other hand, if a student got 50% of the answers correct in the theory paper, they would get 50 marks. To get the students grade, however, the examiners simply add the marks for the two papers and divide by two.
This means that if a student was very good and got 90% of the answers in the practical paper correct, they would get 54 marks. And if they got 30% of the theory paper they would get 30 marks. The student’s average and final marks would be 42. On the other hand if the student was very bad and got 30% in the practical, they would have 18 percent and if they got 90% in theory, they would have 90 marks. This student’s final mark would be 54. So, it appears, a student is better off scoring higher in the theory than in the practical. And to answer the theoretical part correctly, the candidates require masterly of the English language.
In 2012, the Uganda National Council of Science and Technology’s (UNCST) human capital development unit published a report entitled, “The Quality of Science Education in Uganda,” which noted that Ugandan students are failing because of poor science infrastructure in schools and the teaching and learning methods that are basically theoretical. The reality, however, is that if the theory was taught properly and the students mastered it, they would score higher marks.
As Odongo said, even at UACE, in many schools the practice appears to be “cover the syallabus theoretically and if time allows, then do the practical lessons.” However, even the theory appears not to be mastered.
Odongo said many candidates appear not to understand something as basic as the X and Y axis not meeting at zero.
“When they see a negative value of two at Y or X axis, they do not know where to plot it and yet this is extremely important at this level,” Odongo said. He said such problems could be resolved if theory and practical knowledge is given at the same time.