/ GCSEs versus A levels - Comparison of Difficulty

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Out of idle curiosity I found an A level Russian paper on-line, and thought it was nails. I struggled to understand the questions and I'm sure I couldn't pass it. I then found a GCSE paper and it was an absolute piece of piss.

Of course this could just be a reflection of the stage I'm at in my learning, but I thought the difference in complexity was massive.

I'm interested in what those who have recently done GCSEs and the A levels, or those that teach, think about the difference - is it as great as I perceive?
Cappa - on 23 Jan 2013
In reply to Submit to Gravity:

I think the AS levels you do in your first year of college act like a stepping stone to the final year, at least in the subjects i did. So i never noticed a big jump in complexity.
balmybaldwin - on 23 Jan 2013
In reply to Submit to Gravity:

Similar jump in Maths and physics between GCSE and A level when I did them.

Maths especially went from easy to understand and predictable calculations to vast levels of complexity. Then again, it wasn't as big as the step to fluid dynamics at Uni

Physics A level seemed a kin to "you know all that physics stuff we taught you? well we missed out these fundamental principles that make most of what you've learned bollox"
a lakeland climber on 23 Jan 2013
In reply to Submit to Gravity:

I thought that the GCSE replaced the O-level so you aren't comparing like with like.

ALC
Gordon Stainforth - on 23 Jan 2013
In reply to a lakeland climber:

Yes, and O levels were much, much easier than A levels - in the mid-1960s, anyway. (I was also told be the few people I knew who had done both O levels and GCSEs that GCSEs were easier than O levels ... but that was way back in the early 70s, and things may have changed a lot since then.)
RockAngel on 23 Jan 2013
In reply to Submit to Gravity: when my son was starting his gcse's, i was told that kids only need a reading age of 9 and a half years to be able to sit the exams.
Tiberius - on 23 Jan 2013
In reply to Submit to Gravity:

When I did them (1979) I found A-levels to be the most difficult exam. Both in terms of the complexity from the previous level (O-level), and the sheer amount of work needed in the time span.

A degree was far easier, in terms of the lower level of work per year, and the fact it wasn't a big step in complexity, just needed more personal thought.
loopyone on 23 Jan 2013 - host86-154-117-235.range86-154.btcentralplus.com
In reply to Submit to Gravity: yes. gcse' s are a piece of p###, particularly in the current modular exam format (they will get a tiny bit more tricky when they go back to terminal exams)'. a levels are nails (apart from media studies which is a complete waste of time.)
Max Harms on 23 Jan 2013
In reply to Submit to Gravity: i am currently sitting my A2's and sat my GCSE's in 2011 and i find that the A levels are definatley alot harder than GCSE's. there's definatly more knowledge required about the subject, the style of questions are alot more complex usually double comand words e.g. describe then comment or outine and justify. The language you have to use to get the higher marks is also more complex as well as the detail involved.


i'll be happy when i leave school next year,hate to see what Gove try's to bring in by 2015. the constant GCSE and A levels are are a failure reported by media and politicans really does not help in exam time i.e. January and June and makes many of us feel confused about what we are doing at school and if there is any point.
Kevin Woods - on 23 Jan 2013
In reply to Submit to Gravity: I'm in my 4th year of uni. I'm north of the border so I sat Standard Grades then Highers and they seem to be pretty comparable, though of course not exactly.

I found the comparison exactly the same as everyone else has talked about. Especially maths - Standard Grade was all predictable and work out-able, and I aced that part. Higher was mental.

University, by comparison is a piece of piss. I can honestly say that my Highers were the hardest exams I've done, one of the harder things I've done, among the hardest things I've done.

I put a lot of work into uni but it's down an avenue I want to be and just doesn't compare.
winhill - on 23 Jan 2013
In reply to Submit to Gravity:

The difference is be able to show applied learning, AFAIK (GCSE's just regurgitating).

My daughter is doing Russian at university (she passed the A level a year early despite the sixth she was attending not doing it).

So if you are doing on-line exams I'm sure we could work something out for suitable remuneration ;-)
Starkey92 - on 23 Jan 2013
In reply to Submit to Gravity: Im in my second year of uni at the mo, didnt take a gap year so did me gcse's and a levels 2/3 years ago. Your right, Gcse is easy, AS is much harder and A2 harder again, then first year of uni is just a wee bit harder than A2's and second year is harder! Not overly looking forward to my third year haha
andic - on 23 Jan 2013
In reply to Submit to Gravity:

I was/am thinking about doing some private tutoring cue a trip to Waterstone's to peruse the revision guides with my good lady in tow.

Now my girlfriend is Chinese and when she opened up one of the GCSE maths revision guides she gave a derisory snort and just started to laugh. I think that says it all.
kbow265 - on 23 Jan 2013
GCSEs: Really easy looking back, but stressed about them a lot for some reason. Not stretched or really inspired by any of the subjects (and I did 14 of them).
A Levels: Found biology easier than at GCSE as the questions were written in plain English. For German we had much more time and a very small class so learning the grammar and vocab wasn't too hard. The first module of chemistry was fairly straightforward but the rest was all taught too fast and left big holes. I had a good enough grade in GCSE maths to do A level maths but spent most of it learning very key concepts I hadn't for GCSE and dropped it after a year.

IMHO too much is crammed into the A level years - one of my friends described it as "choose two of the following: sleep, good grades, or a social life". Lots to learn in the two years, module exams, coursework, UCAS, interviews, getting work experience to impress the interviewers etc.

First year of university in Scotland, having done A levels, is much less stressful in comparison. Although already this term the modules have picked up the pace and I expect it'll be getting harder again next year.
andic - on 23 Jan 2013
In reply to florence58:

>
> IMHO too much is crammed into the A level years - one of my friends described it as "choose two of the following: sleep, good grades, or a social life". Lots to learn in the two years, module exams, coursework, UCAS, interviews, getting work experience to impress the interviewers etc.
>

You could easily spend a thousand quid a year in coffee shops but barely notice.

I think that if as a country we taught our children a little bit more at every key stage it would make such a difference to our country. Instead of high schools Uni's having to pick up the baton when it is already too late.

My GF {see above} was learning about integration at 16 I did not get onto that until 'A' level, so she had much more advanced mathematics by the time she went to Uni. I had to teach myself about partial differentials, matrices and imaginary numbers and vectors.

Robert Durran - on 23 Jan 2013
In reply to Submit to Gravity:
> Out of idle curiosity I found an A level Russian paper on-line, and thought it was nails. I then found a GCSE paper and it was an absolute piece of piss.

> Of course this could just be a reflection of the stage I'm at in my learning, but I thought the difference in complexity was massive.

Of course it's massive. If about eighty weeks of study for, say, 15 hours a week didn't allow a massive increase in complexity then something would be very wrong.
In reply to winhill:
> (In reply to Submit to Gravity)
>
> The difference is be able to show applied learning, AFAIK (GCSE's just regurgitating).
>
> My daughter is doing Russian at university (she passed the A level a year early despite the sixth she was attending not doing it).
>
> So if you are doing on-line exams I'm sure we could work something out for suitable remuneration ;-)

Ana umnitsa))) (You can't write in Russian on here)

I'm not thinking of doing any exams, I was just curious what my level was - mainly because people always ask me, and I don't know what to say. They always ask me if I'm "fluent". I don't know what that actually means, except that I'm not!
In reply to a lakeland climber:
> (In reply to Submit to Gravity)
>
> I thought that the GCSE replaced the O-level so you aren't comparing like with like.
>
> ALC

I know, one follows the other - it was just the scale of the difference that surprised me.
In reply to andic: When I did maths O level in 1987 we did calculus - integration and differentiation.
Robert Durran - on 23 Jan 2013
In reply to Submit to Gravity:
> (In reply to andic) When I did maths O level in 1987 we did calculus - integration and differentiation.

I think you will find that was Additional Maths O level, generally only taken by the brightest pupils and probably closer to today's AS in standard.

In reply to Robert Durran: Maybe - I don't remember it as such though.

It makes sense what you say about the difference between GCSEs and A levels - especially I suppose with a subject like Russian where there is a different alphabet to learn and grammatical concepts that barely exist in English to get to grips with. With that out of the way the rate at which you can learn vocabulary accelerates.
Blue Straggler - on 24 Jan 2013
In reply to andic:
>
> My GF {see above} was learning about integration at 16 I did not get onto that until 'A' level, so she had much more advanced mathematics by the time she went to Uni. I had to teach myself about partial differentials, matrices and imaginary numbers and vectors.

We just touched upon differentials and a very brief introduction to integration at 15, doing GCSE Maths in a Teeside state school. Off-syllabus stuff for the smart kids, admittedly. Oh and I was 16 all through my first year of A-level so in any case I was learning integration "officially" at that age.
All the other stuff you mention is surely standard fare on any A-level syllabus. When was it that you had to teach yourself about these things?

rockclick - on 24 Jan 2013
In reply to Submit to Gravity: Currently studying for my finals in Physics, Economics and Geography. The leap from GCSE to A Level physics was huge, and even the jump from AS to A was a big one too! Bloody tricky stuff.
Blue Straggler - on 24 Jan 2013
In reply to Submit to Gravity:

(broad brush terms)
Everyone is forced to do GCSEs, and an average of nine of them at that. A-levels are for more ambitious smart adolescents who CHOOSE to spend two years studying (in general) just three subjects.
Is it any surprise that an A-Level is a fair bit harder than a GCSE?

The New NickB - on 24 Jan 2013
In reply to Gordon Stainforth:
> (In reply to a lakeland climber)
>
> Yes, and O levels were much, much easier than A levels - in the mid-1960s, anyway. (I was also told be the few people I knew who had done both O levels and GCSEs that GCSEs were easier than O levels ... but that was way back in the early 70s, and things may have changed a lot since then.)

GCSE's examinations did not start until 1988. I found the jump from GCSE to A Level huge 20 some years ago. I did some O Level papers from the 80s when I was doing my GCSEs, I found them pretty comparable to the GCSE papers you needed to do to get decent grades.
andic - on 24 Jan 2013
In reply to Blue Straggler:

I started uni in 2001 from a decent state school in Doncaster. I had a maths fo engineers module in my first year which was a real eye opener, I got an a in a level maths (and a distinction in s level physics) but had never heard of vector cross products or the other concepts i mentioned and had to put in a lot of work to pass that course, much more than in he subject specific areas of my UG degree. I humbly suggest that my secondary education was lacking.



andic - on 24 Jan 2013
In reply to Blue Straggler:
> (In reply to Submit to Gravity)
> Is it any surprise that an A-Level is a fair bit harder than a GCSE?

but are they hard enough? Over 13 years of education a little more effort every week could really change the final product.

andic - on 24 Jan 2013
In reply to andic:

And if he student is well equipped its not really hard at all.......
Gordon Stainforth - on 25 Jan 2013
In reply to The New NickB:

I suppose I meant the CSE. All rather lost in the mists of time.
Motown - on 25 Jan 2013
In reply to Submit to Gravity:
> Out of idle curiosity I found an A level Russian paper on-line, and thought it was nails. I struggled to understand the questions and I'm sure I couldn't pass it. I then found a GCSE paper and it was an absolute piece of piss.
>
> Of course this could just be a reflection of the stage I'm at in my learning, but I thought the difference in complexity was massive.
>
> I'm interested in what those who have recently done GCSEs and the A levels, or those that teach, think about the difference - is it as great as I perceive?

English Literature GCSE - A level is a big step. The subject material is generally more complex and the breadth of comparison between texts, as well as some closed book exams provide a bit of a challenge However, it could be said that that is partly to do with the expectation that students are able to work independently after a GCSE where they are often spoonfed everything to ensure target grades are met.

English Language GCSE - AS is very manageable. But they are then hit with a final year at A2 which is really technical; close analysis of child language acquisition comes as a bit of shock to those who thought they'd be writing stories.

Science and Maths seems similar, with teachers often saying that an A at GCSE is required to be able to get anywhere with the subject ('Advanced' level, so maybe the right thing?). However, a bit of a blow for those kids who get a B, think they know their stuff and then get a U at AS.

Can't tell you about foreign languages, because nobody does them any more (cue abuse).
Fluvial - on 25 Jan 2013
In reply to Submit to Gravity:
Students fall into different catergories I have found - those that can make the step and those that can after awhile and those that can't.

Yes generally they are different due to several reasons not only the rise in academic rigour

The A level is more student centred - they have to do the work as well not so much at GCSE

Bright independant students make the transition easily more moddycoddled students who need the answers shown to them struggle and other give up as they realise this is a step too far
Jamie Wakeham - on 25 Jan 2013
In reply to balmybaldwin:
> Physics A level seemed a kin to "you know all that physics stuff we taught you? well we missed out these fundamental principles that make most of what you've learned bollox"

I frequently described teaching Physics at GCSE as peddling lies to children.

Mind you, so was teaching Physics at A-Level; it's just that these lies were more complicated ones, and by the time they found out I'd been lying again they were at a University so couldn't shout at me.
In reply to Submit to Gravity: Thanks for the replies - interesting discussion. I suppose it's analogous to the difference between grades of climbs - there's routes you can do and there's routes you can't, and if you can't you think they're nails.

I would be interested to know if foreign languages at A level are taught within a relatively prescribed syllabus which prescribes the vocabulary used - if so, they would be significantly easier.

Anyone know?
thin bob on 25 Jan 2013
In reply to Submit to Gravity:
Agree with what Max & Tibs & others have said above..I've been helping biology GCSE and A level pupils.
GCSE is more of a 'label this diagram' and 'explain what happens to food in the gut' with a bit of 'why are these features important?'. A levels are more 'apply your knowledge. explain this graph'
The marking schemes are quite specific for both i.e. 'accept <this word> but not <that word'>,
Cheese Monkey - on 25 Jan 2013
In reply to Submit to Gravity: I found the gap to be huge, I remember sitting in Maths and switching off, I just didnt get it. Also found the grammar school style of teaching to be lacking - for me personally. I ended up with C, E, E, E and U at AS. But also, I chose a mental social life, beer, 2 jobs and sleep. Good times, dont regret it at all. Went on to do an apprenticeship and did really well out of it.
subalpine - on 25 Jan 2013
In reply: i wonder how modern students would cope with this example paper from early 80s..
http://telescoper.wordpress.com/2011/09/26/advanced-level-mathematics-examination-vintage-1981
In reply to thin bob:
> (In reply to Submit to Gravity)
> Agree with what Max & Tibs & others have said above..I've been helping biology GCSE and A level pupils.
> GCSE is more of a 'label this diagram' and 'explain what happens to food in the gut' with a bit of 'why are these features important?'. A levels are more 'apply your knowledge. explain this graph'
> The marking schemes are quite specific for both i.e. 'accept <this word> but not <that word'>,

I don't remember my O levels being like that - I'm sure they were more akin to the A level paper I recently looked at.
In reply to subalpine: I've got my O level maths paper from 1987 somewhere - I nicked it. I might try to dig it out.
In reply to Cheese Monkey: I got expelled from school in the middle of my A levels. I remember at the time finding it the difference between being able to learn without any conscience effort (O levels) and having to try (A levels).

Looking back some years later I realised as well as having low motivation, no expectation, many competing priorities (mainly the need for money and running to my numerous part-time jobs) and, it turns-out, glandular fever, I didn't actually know HOW to TRY to learn things. I was used to it coming so easily.
kipper12 - on 25 Jan 2013
In reply to Robert Durran:
> (In reply to Submit to Gravity)
> [...]
>
> I think you will find that was Additional Maths O level, generally only taken by the brightest pupils and probably closer to today's AS in standard.

No, I only did maths GCE O level (in 1980), and we tackled calculus. I thought O level maths ok, but tried A level a few years later as an evening class - nails and gave up.

ads.ukclimbing.com
KellyKettle - on 25 Jan 2013
In reply to Submit to Gravity: I sat some AEA's as well as my A2's (the AEA replaced the S-level, and then were replaced in turn by the A* at A2)... I actually found them easier but much more taxing mentally, it was more about applying your learning to problems without external direction and didn't require anywhere as much tedious memorisation etc...

I'm firmly of the opinion that the current system will eventually fail because it's still based on "having knowledge" rather than comprehending and using it quickly and efficiently in a new paradigm in which information is no longer scarce.

For my part I can't remember a lot of what I studied at degree level, because I never used it; the stuff I had to use for myself in research, quickly became ingrained and it became easier to understand new concepts in those areas and adapt them to my needs.
In reply to KellyKettle:
> (In reply to Submit to Gravity)
> I'm firmly of the opinion that the current system will eventually fail because it's still based on "having knowledge" rather than comprehending and using it quickly and efficiently in a new paradigm in which information is no longer scarce.

I think you may be at odds with our esteemed Education Secretary...

EeeByGum - on 25 Jan 2013
In reply to Submit to Gravity: I always remember when I did my GCSEs in 1993 finding them rather easy. Then started A-levels and got the shock of my life!

I only did 2 years of biology at school but even I could answer all of a friends easy paper without much difficulty.
Steve John B - on 25 Jan 2013
In reply to kipper12:
> (In reply to Robert Durran)
> [...]
>
> No, I only did maths GCE O level (in 1980), and we tackled calculus. I thought O level maths ok, but tried A level a few years later as an evening class - nails and gave up.


Calculus got ditched from whichever O level syllabus I did in about 1983. I took it in 1986 by which time they were dumbing down in preparation for the GCSE...
doz generale - on 25 Jan 2013
In reply to Submit to Gravity:

GCSE = easy
A Level = Hard
Degree = not so hard
doz generale - on 25 Jan 2013
In reply to Submit to Gravity:
> (In reply to Cheese Monkey) I got expelled from school in the middle of my A levels. I remember at the time finding it the difference between being able to learn without any conscience effort (O levels) and having to try (A levels).
>
> Looking back some years later I realised as well as having low motivation, no expectation, many competing priorities (mainly the need for money and running to my numerous part-time jobs) and, it turns-out, glandular fever, I didn't actually know HOW to TRY to learn things. I was used to it coming so easily.

Funny but i had a very similar experience. No need to try at GCSE just cruised through doing bare minimum but still passed them all. I was shocked at A levels and the fact that you actually have to try! I also got kicked out of sixth form but managed to complete my a levels at a local night school (took me a year longer but managed all the same). Did you ever go back to your education?

Gordon Stainforth - on 25 Jan 2013
In reply to doz generale:

O Level - felt quite hard because we had to do so many at once (I think 9)
A Level - felt about 1 1/2 to 2 times harder than O Levels. I also did an S level, which was a bit harder, but not much.
Degree - first year exam. Not really any harder than A level
Degree - honours course finals. Felt about 2 to 2 1/2 times harder than A Levels. But loved it.
2nd degree - MA(RCA) - a formality really, but bloody hard work, in a completely different way.
tk421 on 25 Jan 2013
In reply to Submit to Gravity:
Can only really comment on Maths / Physics.
IGCSE: easy
Alevel: easy to ok (the harder parts of Further maths were fine)
Engineering Degree: hard
EeeByGum - on 25 Jan 2013
In reply to doz generale:

> Degree = not so hard
Depends what degree you are doing. I found the Electronics side of Electronics and Computing pretty difficult. EM fields are a nightmare!
In reply to doz generale: Yes, I did, but not via A levels. I ended up with a couple of MSc degrees. I was basically a swot at junior school, a lazy tw*t at secondary school and a swot ever since. I realised a while back that my main hobby is actually learning stuff.
KellyKettle - on 25 Jan 2013
In reply to Submit to Gravity:
> (In reply to KellyKettle)
> [...]
>
> I think you may be at odds with our esteemed Education Secretary...

What exactly qualifies him to make decisions on education policy?

Why does his policy look suspiciously like one that panders to popular opinion (or at least to the yearly arse-whooping that the exams system takes in the papers)?

Why is the fact that it's become incredibly easy to find out almost everything and to talk to experts in many fields ignored entirely when it comes to education prior to university?

Why do we have a primarily academic facing education system that tries to shoehorn the requirements of people who would be happier on a vocational track into an academic format until they leave school for the workplace?

What did the civil service recommend? (other than nothing, or centralisation...)
In reply to KellyKettle:
> (In reply to Submit to Gravity)
> [...]
>
> What exactly qualifies him to make decisions on education policy?

Reading Enid Blyton

>
> Why does his policy look suspiciously like one that panders to popular opinion (or at least to the yearly arse-whooping that the exams system takes in the papers)?

Because it is?
>
> Why is the fact that it's become incredibly easy to find out almost everything and to talk to experts in many fields ignored entirely when it comes to education prior to university?

Maybe no-ones thought about it?
>
> Why do we have a primarily academic facing education system that tries to shoehorn the requirements of people who would be happier on a vocational track into an academic format until they leave school for the workplace?

Ask Tony Blair
>
> What did the civil service recommend? (other than nothing, or centralisation...)

Dunno

)))
Orgsm on 25 Jan 2013
In reply to Submit to Gravity:

A levels weren't such a huge step from o levels. In our maths 'a' levels we asked to change from pure maths and stats to pure maths and mechanics because the stats option was too easy.

Maybe it's just the difference between the gcse teaching mode compared to 'a' level?
In reply to A Game of Chance:
> (In reply to Submit to Gravity)
>
> A levels weren't such a huge step from o levels. In our maths 'a' levels we asked to change from pure maths and stats to pure maths and mechanics because the stats option was too easy.
>
> Maybe it's just the difference between the gcse teaching mode compared to 'a' level?

I was commenting purely from having looked at exam papers.
Orgsm on 27 Jan 2013
In reply to Submit to Gravity:
> (In reply to A Game of Chance)
> [...]
>
> I was commenting purely from having looked at exam papers.

Ah. I was commenting from having done them both under exam conditions.

Cheese Monkey - on 27 Jan 2013
In reply to Submit to Gravity: Yeah that rings true with me too. I certainly cruised my GCSEs and the concept of trying to learn was a new one that I didnt like! I was expelled several times too, which kind of kills the motivation. Maybe one day I'll resit them all, but I dont see the need now.
Orgsm on 27 Jan 2013
In reply to Cheese Monkey:
> (In reply to Submit to Gravity) Yeah that rings true with me too. I certainly cruised my GCSEs and the concept of trying to learn was a new one that I didnt like! I was expelled several times too, which kind of kills the motivation. Maybe one day I'll resit them all, but I dont see the need now.


So are you saying you got A or A* at GCSE but struggled with 'A' levels. Surely the gap can't be that wide. If your top drawer GCSE then 'A' level should be fine...
Cheese Monkey - on 27 Jan 2013
In reply to A Game of Chance: No, what I'm saying is I got good GCSEs without trying.
Orgsm on 27 Jan 2013
In reply to Cheese Monkey:
> (In reply to A Game of Chance) No, what I'm saying is I got good GCSEs without trying.

For 'o' levels you generally didn't go forward to 'A' levels for the same subject unless you got A or B as it was considered you'd struggle otherwise. I presume it is the same for GCSE.

Cheese Monkey - on 27 Jan 2013
In reply to A Game of Chance: Yes it was exactly the same in my school, I can understand the reasoning
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tom_in_edinburgh - on 27 Jan 2013
In reply to Submit to Gravity:

If school exams had climbing grades:

GCSE - F4
A Level - F6C

Carolyn - on 27 Jan 2013
In reply to Tiberius:

> When I did them (1979) I found A-levels to be the most difficult exam. Both in terms of the complexity from the previous level (O-level), and the sheer amount of work needed in the time span.
>
> A degree was far easier, in terms of the lower level of work per year, and the fact it wasn't a big step in complexity, just needed more personal thought.

That's certainly what our teachers told us in the late 80s - A levels would be the hardest exams we ever did. I'm not sure it was entirely true (but was then an Oxbridge degree, so maybe not typical), but it was definitely seen to be a big leap between O-level/GCSE (it was just changing) and A level.
In reply to tom_in_edinburgh:
> (In reply to Submit to Gravity)
>
> If school exams had climbing grades:
>
> GCSE - F4
> A Level - F6C

That would be me buggered then!
dissonance - on 28 Jan 2013
In reply to balmybaldwin:

> Similar jump in Maths and physics between GCSE and A level when I did them.

biology had some interesting examples of this.
GCSE: a cell has three parts. A membrane, nucleus and cytoplasm.
A Level: a cell has about 20 or so parts.

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