A level vs degree level: Exams

So what’s the difference? Certainly for me, the differences between geology A level and geology at degree level seem vast. Mostly the differences are quite what you would expect, however; more in depth, more challenging, learning with people who have chosen (and pay a considerable amount) to be there with you, learning from some of the best minds in your field – especially in my department where not only are they exceptional geologists, they are passionate teachers as well, which makes learning from them much easier. But in terms of exams I was surprised at how unexpected the changes are:

A level – everything that you need to know for the exam is written in a text book, as much as my teachers said ‘to get high marks you need to do extra reading’, this was not the case. The mark scheme works so that only key words or phrases are rewarded; these key words and phrases all originate from the specification which is detailed in the textbook. Therefore if you include anything that you have learnt from extra reading it will go unaccredited, just as useless as not having read anything in the first place.
Degree – the way that university exams are marked is very different. There is no set mark scheme (but obviously if you thought Mount Everest was an ocean trench you’d be wrong), and they are marked by the lecturers that teach the modules. This means that you could write pretty much anything but as long as it looks like you know what you’re talking about you get the marks. This means that because the people marking the papers know the answers without the need for a mark scheme, extra reading gives you huge bonus points. In fact, for one of my exams this term, including evidence that you had done extra reading is the only way to get above 70% in the exam.

But don’t panic, the lecturers are very good at giving you ideas of the sorts of books to buy/read and the university library is full of online journals and articles to flick through.

An analogy:

Imagine you are standing on a beach and you wish to study it. At A level you look at the soft sand on the top, you know the soft sand well but you never know what lies below. At degree you take a shovel and dig a treacherously deep hole and you study the soft sand, the wet sand, the pebbles buried in the sand, you study the water percolating through the sand and creatures that live off the moisture. But you don’t stop at the sand; you study the waves, the rock pools, the boats in the dock, the sunbathers, the cliffs, and even the surrounding towns too. This is the door that university opens for you.

Me and a course mate on a beach in Spain during the field trip there in second year.

Me and a course mate on a beach  during a field trip to Spain (second year).

NB: this is what I found throughout my experience at a level, specifically the OCR geology course and my time at the University of Leicester. This is not a generalisation, things might be different elsewhere.  However, please don’t think that I am telling you not to do extra reading for your A levels! I’m simply comparing the relative necessity for extra reading at both levels.


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About Eleri

Eleri has now graduated from the University of Leicester. Hello! My name is Eleri Simpson and I'm a 4th (and final!) year geology student at the University of Leicester. The parts of my course that I love the most are: mapping, igneous and metamorphic processes, geochemistry and volcanology. Outside of learning I'm part of the First Aid society and the University concert band, where I play the clarinet. I enjoy evenings at the pub, cooking, walking in the countryside and a good cup of tea.

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2 responses to “A level vs degree level: Exams”

  1. Anonymous

    Hi there, I just wanted to ask about the maths, physics and chemistry aspects of geology and Leicester. I am only taking Geography, Biology and Psychology with Chemistry at AS and I know the maths/science subjects are an important factor in geology, I guess my question is do I still have a chance of getting in? Do people without those subjects at A level receive extra help? Thanks in advance, love your blog!

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