Does Having A level Maths Enhance MPharm Progression

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The aim of this project is to determine whether having A-level Maths when entering MPharm degree has any bearing on the exit qualification achieved at the end. This information can be used to better inform the recruitment department of Aston University and to advise other universities in the country which also offer the pharmacy degree. If there seems to be an increase in the degree mark received by students, this can then be used to advise Aston University and any other university offering Pharmacy to make A-level Maths an essential entry requirement. The disadvantage of making A-level Maths a compulsory entry requirement could be that fewer students would qualify to apply. However, those who do might score higher and this would enhance the university's reputation. This way, more students would secure first class degrees, thus ensuring greater chance for the University to go up the league tables in broadsheet newspapers such as The Guardian and The Independent.

If, on the other hand, no difference is seen on the exit qualification whether or not students have had A-level Maths, this information from the project can be used to reassure future recruitment to the MPharm programme.

Background

Looking at the entry requirements of all 26 universities that currently offer the MPharm degree programme, it can be seen that none of them demands A-level Maths as an essential entry requirement (Fraser, W., 2010). Not many published articles are available in the public domain which look into the entry requirements for the pharmacy degree. Hence there is no success or failure from the past which can serve as a pointer for this project.

There, however, have been various studies carried out in related topics with regard to the medical degree courses. A study completed at University College London, for example, looks at the effect of A-levels and intelligence on the career progression of UK doctors (McManus, I. C., et al., 2003). Some of the outcome measures in this study were the time taken to reach different career grades in hospital, the postgraduate qualifications obtained, and the number of research publications, etc. It concludes that A-levels do "have long-term predictive validity for undergraduate and postgraduate careers" (McManus, I. C., et al., 2003. p139). The study also makes a generalised conclusion regarding all university degrees, stating that A-levels can be used to "predict degree class, dropout, and repeated years, particularly for science" (McManus, I. C., et al., 2003. p3).

Although this study arrives at positive conclusions regarding the effect of A-levels on degree progression, only 511 participants (all of them medical students) were included. This, therefore, questions the validity of this generalised conclusion about the effect of A-levels on all university degrees. Also, the A-level subjects studied are not considered in detail.

Another study carried out at the University of Birmingham also shows that prior learning has a positive impact on Medical progression (Calvert, M. J., et al., 2009). This study compares the performance of graduate entry/fast track course (GEC) students against standard students studying Medicine. Compared to the research done at University College London, more participants are analysed in this one - 1,547 students and 19,263 examination results. It also does not generalise the conclusion for all university degrees. The outcome measure is the examination marks from all assessments in the final three years of the programme.

The conclusions made from this study, therefore, seem more valid as compared to the previous one. It shows in this study that prior learning, in the form of another degree in a life science plus A-level Chemistry, has a beneficial effect on exam performance - "GEC students performed significantly better than their mainstream counterparts (p <0.0001)..." (Calvert, M. J., et al., 2009. p3). Confounding variables such as age or maturity may have affected this result, but this is recognised in the study.

A third study was conducted at Aston University in 2004 looking into the importance of having a diagnostic tool to gain an understanding of the knowledge base of students in their mathematical ability (Batchelor, H., 2004). The participants in this study were Pharmacy students. The introduction of this article highlights the difference in mathematical ability within students with A-level Maths due to these exams, possibly, becoming easier. This suggests that there would be an even greater variability in ability when including students without A-level Maths as well. This is likely to be the case in all universities which offer the Pharmacy degree as A-level Maths is not an essential entry requirement in any of them. Therefore, students entering the course are of mixed ability.

This study suggests that Aston University considers prior knowledge in Mathematics beneficial in the degree programme; hence the study done to minimise the variability in the mathematical ability of Pharmacy students. However, this study does not shed light on how significant this benefit is. The variability in ability is reduced; however, it cannot be concluded whether this has any significant effect on the final qualification attained by students at the end of the four years or even within mathematically more demanding parts of the MPharm degree programme.

The Pharmacy Society's website outlines the requirements for pharmacy training in the UK. The new regulator of the profession, General Pharmaceutical Council (GPhC), states: "The entry requirements for an MPharm degree vary between universities, however as a guide an applicant might be expected to have A-B grade A-levels in chemistry and two of biology/mathematics/physics, although students may be also considered with chemistry or biology (and one other subject). The GPhC requires students entering an MPharm degree to hold a minimum GCSE at grade C in Mathematics and English Language." (GPhC, 2010).

Beyond GCSE, the Society sets no specific requirements to enter the degree. Each university offering the degree programme is free to fix the entry requirements for MPharm. However, from the entry requirements of universities, it can be seen that the majority of universities do stick to the guidelines provided by the GPhC - A-B grade A-levels in chemistry and two of biology/mathematics/physics (Fraser, W., 2010).

From The Guardian's UK university guide for 2011, the best university offering MPharm degree programme is the University of East Anglia (UEA) (The Guardian, 2010). For the academic year 2011, the entry requirement at this university to undertake the pharmacy degree is AAB-BBB in Chemistry and one other science subject from Maths/Physics/Biology (UEA, 2010). This University does better and has the highest ranking among others offering the degree.

Portsmouth University, which has the lowest ranking in the league table, has ABB as the entry requirement, with Chemistry being essential and Biology and/or Maths being preferred as second and third A-levels (University of Portsmouth, 2010). This university has also followed the guidelines given by GPhC, yet it appears at the lowest ranking in the league table.

These data from the University of East Anglia and Portsmouth University invariably suggest that the subjects done at A-level possibly do not affect the university ranking in the league table.

According to the complete university guide, the league table of The Independent, both universities which appear first and last in the table follow the GPhC guidelines (The Independent, 2010). The University of Nottingham is at rank 1 for pharmacy, with the entry requirements AAB at Chemistry and at least one from Biology/Maths/Physics (The University of Nottingham, 2010). Kingston University London, ranked lowest in the table, also has Chemistry as an essential entry requirement (100 UCAS points) and another science subject with an overall 300 UCAS points (Kingston University London, 2010).

This table, therefore, confirms the trend observed above - the difference in rank does not seem to be due to the A-level subjects studied. However, in both tables, universities appearing at lower ranks have lower grade requirements. This could mean that the grades achieved, rather than the subject studied, affects the university ranking. It cannot be concluded, however, from either of these league tables whether having A-level Maths enhances MPharm progression as it is not an essential entry requirement in any of the four universities.

The data used in this project will be from students at Aston University from five consecutive academic years. Aston appears at 12th and 4th ranks in The Guardian's and The Independent's league tables, respectively. The A-level entry requirements for MPharm degree at Aston is "AAB/ABB in three A-level subjects, including Chemistry and at least one other science subject (Biology, Maths or Physics)," having been increased from ABB for 2011 entry onwards (Aston University, 2010).

As can be seen, Aston prefers students with Maths A-level, and appears higher in the league table. This project will determine whether having A-level Maths has any effect on the degree progression of students at Aston. The studies done at University College London, University of Birmingham and Aston University together with the guidelines provided by the GPhC suggest that having A-level Maths will prove beneficial in degree progression. The university rankings from league tables, on the other hand, do not lead to any conclusions regarding the benefit of A-level Maths.

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Aims and Objectives

Aim: Determine whether having A-level Maths enhances MPharm progression.

Objectives:

Compare exam performance of students with and without A-level Maths in mathematically more demanding modules over the four years of MPharm degree at Aston University.

Compare the performance of students with and without A-level Maths in end-of-year examinations in all four years of MPharm degree at Aston University.

Compare overall MPharm degree mark obtained between students with and without A-level Maths at Aston University.

Use statistical tests to determine whether the difference, if any, in exam performance is statistically significant at 95% confidence interval.

Intended Design and Methods of Investigation

The null hypothesis: Having A-level Maths does not enhance MPharm progression.

The alternate hypothesis: Having A-level Maths enhances MPharm progression.

As the data available to analyse are continuous and independent, either the Mann Whitney U test or the t-test can be used to test for significance in any difference that might be found. As the Mann Whitney U test is non-parametric, degree classifications (first, 2:1, etc.) can be used to decide whether A-level Maths has any relevance on the final degree mark achieved. By using these classifications, the data will be ordinal as it will be ranked and put in order. Therefore, the Mann Whitney U test will be an appropriate tool to use in this case (Nachar, N., 2008). To make the analysis more accurate, comparison could also be made between the mark obtained for modules which are mathematically more demanding in all years between students with and without A-level Maths on entry to the course.

However, the Mann Whitney U test is not as powerful as the t-test, another statistical test that can be used, at detecting differences (Nachar, N., 2008). Using the Mann Whitney U test will not detect small differences in data as compared to the t-test. This is because all data that is available is not used when this statistics test is being applied, but only the degree classifications. For example, if two students with and without A-level Maths score 72% and 71% respectively at the end of the degree, this difference will not be picked up if the Mann Whitney U test is applied as both students achieved a first class. Even though the student with A-level Maths scored higher, this difference will not be detected with the Mann Whitney U test. The t-test, on the other hand, is more robust and sensitive to minor differences and would detect the difference in scores.

Therefore, the statistical test used in this project to decide whether to accept or reject the null hypothesis will be one-sided t-test for independent measures. Exam performance will be compared 'between' students with and without A-level Maths. This makes the t-test for 'repeat' measures inappropriate, which is used when the same group of subjects is tested before and after (within subject design) (University of New England, 2000a). Repeated measures have several advantages over independent measures such as the need for fewer subjects, increased sensitivity, etc. However, this is not an appropriate method to use in this project as it is not possible to use the same subjects to compare the dependent variable - marks scored.

The reason for using one-sided test is that the project is trying to prove if having A-level Maths 'enhances' degree progression. Therefore, significant difference in just one particular direction is of vital interest (University of New England, 2000b). The significance in difference, if any, in exam performance will be determined by comparing the 95% confidence intervals using SPSS. The data is normally distributed, with the independent and dependent variables being with or without A-level Maths and marks scored, respectively.

The dependent variable, marks scored, will be analysed in three ways - by comparing the performance in Maths-related modules over the four years of MPharm, overall mark at the end of each year and the final mark obtained for the degree between the two independent variables.

PH1CT1, PH1PP1, PH2CT2, PH3CT1 and PH3PP1 (calculations section of the exam) will be the modules analysed over all the years of MPharm as a good grasp of Maths is essential to perform well in these exams. These are the mathematically more demanding parts of the MPharm degree programme. For each module, comparison will be made between the performances of the five cohorts of MPharm to see if a consistent trend is observed between them.

By analysing the marks scored for different modules, it will be possible to detect any difference in the performance at the module-level, even if there is none observed when the end-of-year marks are compared. This analysis will also show whether there is any difference in marks scored in the first year, and whether the difference, if any, remains the same or changes the following years when variability in mathematical ability is reduced.

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