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Biology at UACE: How to fix high failure rates

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Added 26th September 2019 05:28 PM

Having a strong scientific background for Biology teachers is mandatory and should be administered by university level competent scientists

Biology at UACE: How to fix high failure rates

Having a strong scientific background for Biology teachers is mandatory and should be administered by university level competent scientists

By Assoc. Prof. Arthur K. Tugume 

Some of the challenges plaguing our education system are at a policy level, however, other problems are easier to solve by less effort only if we approached the problems with an open mind. In this article, I limit myself to the problem of systematic and systemic poor performance of biology at A' level and I conclude by proposing cost-free solutions. 

In February 2019 when UACE results were released, my concerns became alive again that out of the 13,061 students who sat for Biology at UACE countrywide in 2018, hardly any scored an ‘A' and only 38% scored between ‘B' and ‘E' and almost 80% failed. We can only hide our heads in the sand, wishing situation normalcy. Systematic failures in Biology at UACE are a trend over the years and only worsened in 2018. Thus, performance for this year 2019 is almost predictable. This has serious negative consequences on the diversity of professions founded on Biology. When quack medical practitioners and other biological scientists are detected in our communities, they are not necessarily a result of overnight anomalies; instead, they are a product of systemic issues "tap rooted" in some of the problems that other commentaries have raised. 

Biology provides a solid-rock foundation for the largest number of disciplines and professions downstream of UACE. Here I use an example of Makerere University (Mak) that has trained more than 98% of all Biological scientists and professionals in Uganda. Mak has 8 colleges; half of these (4 Colleges of Natural Sciences [CoNAS], Agricultural and Environmental Sciences [CAES], Veterinary Medicine, Animal Resources and Biosecurity [CoVAB], and Health Sciences [CHS]) have 67 to 100% of all their academic programs founded on Biology as the main subject. A single subject commanding such a professional lead should not be taken casually. There is no silver bullet to solve the poor performance in Biology; different problems require different solutions by different players and at different levels. Having taught Biological sciences at University for now 20 years, I hereby submit a dossier of 10 realities as a primer for problem-solving process before the failures cause irreversible damages to life-based professions: 

  1. Biology-based science applications have increased to match the current needs of our society. Although student enrolment to the subject may have increased at A' level (only as a direct positive correlation to increased student population), student performance in the subject has increasingly deteriorated. The needs downstream of the education system (due to needs in society) cannot be met because >75% of the A' level Biology candidates cannot score an "E" making them ineligible for University admission onto a Biology-based degree program. It is not correct that some University [biology-based] programs do not "attract" students, however, in many instances, the eligible candidates are not there in the first place because few score between "E" and "A".
  2. It is a valid claim that Biology is a broad subject which is also reflected into the diversity of professions founded on it. However, this does not explain the poor performance. The yardstick for defining breadth seems arbitrary and I believe other subjects are equally broad. The advantages of high diversity might dictate a need to also diversify methods of delivery an assessment at different levels.
  3. Being a practical subject, all Biological concepts should be demonstrable in the laboratory or field. Understandably, however, laboratories and personnel at our high schools may not have the capacity to demonstrate all these concepts taught in classes and it is not necessary to demonstrate all concepts. Nonetheless, carefully selected concepts should be repeatedly demonstrated, which makes an updated syllabus essential. This reminds me of how my A' level teacher at Ntare School in 1993 insisted that each of us 12 students of Biology must catch and bring own live frog for the next day's dissection practical. You should know that frogs prefer moist environs and are nocturnal.
  4. Among the science subjects, Biology has the least numbers of students at UACE, and this seems to be the same trend world-wide at higher levels. In Charles Darwin's terms, Biology suffers a strong "negative selection" at UACE. However, at a professional level, Biology enjoys a strong "positive selection" by founding numerous professions. This means that there are not enough personnel to fill the need or the need to feel them or both. Consequently, many Biology-founded programs at Universities and other tertiary institutions will continue to suffer small numbers of students and be labelled ‘less economically viable', if we continue applying wrong yardsticks and parameters. 
  5. Biology is highly dynamic subject because facts keep changing at a fast rate due to the high speeds of cutting edge discoveries. For example, since 1953 when Dr. James Watson and Prof. Francis Crick unraveled the double helical structure of DNA, we have almost lost count of cutting-edge discoveries that have changed the course of Biology based on Watson-Crick discovery. However, most of these take too long to be part of the syllabus in our schools. For example, some teachers/educators at O' and A' levels in Uganda still teach the following falsehoods: (a) All enzymes work at an optimum temperature of 36-37oC; (b) Mushrooms and other fungi are non-green plants; (c) The Y-chromosome of humans is empty; (d) There are only 3 types of RNA (mRNA, rRNA, and tRNA) in cells; (e) Viruses are both non-living and living; (f) DNA is only found in the nucleus of cells, etc. These statements are false now 20-100 years, but some [most] of them still find their ways into our syllabi. I often teach first year University students in their first semester: the littering of their Biology knowledge with several of these falsehoods is unbelievable.
  6. The Biology teacher is a key player to make the subject interesting or boring. The teacher can use certain natural biological phenomena to help the students relate well with the subject while also developing an inquisitive/analytical thinking. Cram-work styles produce "knowledge robots" that have no place in Biology. Analytical thinking helps a student when he/she is able to explain puzzles in nature. For example, questions like: Are groundnut pods part of the root or shoot system? Why do shaded plants grow tall when compared to their counterparts in full illumination? How do some organisms manage to live extreme environs like hot springs at 100oC or are there organisms at all in such environments? If the Y-chromosome in male humans is empty, why is it necessary to make a male? How are nocturnal organisms like frogs able to see in the dark better than humans? These are thought-provoking questions that also require the teacher to have a strong scientific background with competence to handle the subject at that level.
  7. It is common that many A' level Biology teachers in Uganda enjoy teaching certain subjects they find easier to handle such as Physiology, Behavior, Homeostasis, Growth, Developmental Biology and Reproduction. However, some tend to shun certain topics like Cell Biology, Genetics, Evolution, Population Biology, Ecology, Tissue structures, and Taxonomy (the Science of Classification of living organisms). In 2010, I visited a well-known school in Western Uganda when I was undertaking a campaign promoting Biology education, and while in this school, I got stunned when S.6 students could not fix a real very simple academic problem that required applying the "Hardy-Weinberg principle" in population genetics, although they had covered this concept in class. Accordingly, some schools find it necessary to recruit different teachers with ‘complementary topical abilities'. What about schools that may not afford this approach and how would you know a teacher's deficiency or competence in one topic and not the other? A Biology teacher should have capacity to handle all Biology topics.
  8. Speaking with several teachers of A' level Biology and checking relevant documents shows there are about 18 broad topics in total that are covered by A' level biology syllabus set by the curriculum development center (NCDC). However, only 8 of these topics (44%) are repeatedly and cyclically examined by UNEB at UACE without examining the remaining 56% and this has been the trend over decades. This is a major conundrum because it looks like UNEB has its own curriculum (different from what is set by NCDC) that over-examines some but under-examines other topics. This vague and selective assessment of topics (which can be seen in past papers) could be the origin of the syndrome where teachers privy to this information only cover topics that are examinable creating ‘knowledge robots' as opposed to ‘critical thinkers'. Such teachers will spend less or no time on topics that are not examinable by UNEB. However, being "unexaminable" does not mean the topic is less important or irrelevant. It is could also be the cause of the "teaching-to-pass" syndrome rampant in urban schools as opposed to deliberate effort to create in-depth understanding of concepts because our training system is too much "exam-based". In addition to the anomalous selection of topics for examination by UNEB, the same UNEB gives no "frame" concerning which topics will be covered in Paper 1 or Paper 2 which totally contrasts Biology from Chemistry, Physics, Mathematics and other subjects. Ideally, questions in Biology Paper 1 can cover everything or anything and so are questions in Paper 2; only Paper 3 (practical paper) may be moderately determined to have questions in specific areas/specimens. Therefore, candidates enter a Biology exam expecting questions from an astronomical diversity of topics in Biology and this limits their confidence given the poor concentration on numerous broad topics. This examination incoherency and mismatch between UNEB and NCDC curricula coupled with uncoordinated lumping of all topics in exam papers is has created major injuries to Biology performance. These must be addressed squarely.
  9. Having a strong scientific background for Biology teachers is mandatory and should be administered by university level competent scientists in the diverse fields of basic biological sciences of animals, plants, microbes and environment, etc. At Mak, over 99% of these competent scientists are concentrated in the School of Biosciences under CoNAS especially in the two Department of Plant Sciences, Microbiology and Biotechnology (PMB), and Department of Zoology, Entomology, Fisheries Sciences (ZEF). Unfortunately, the "tap root" problem in focus here is that Biology teachers graduating from Mak cannot to tap into this expertise available in CoNAS. I am not sure if this is also a practice in other Universities, but since Mak is like a ‘model', it would not surprise me if it is the case. Surprisingly, however, science teachers of the other subjects (Physics, Chemistry, and Mathematics) from Mak benefit from the core scientific expertise ‘concentrated' in the relevant departments of Physics, Chemistry, and Mathematics in same CoNAS. The same applies to teachers of arts subjects such as History, Literature, Geography, Divinity, Economics, etc being taught by staff in the relevant Departments with highly ‘concentrated expertise' at Mak. So, why is Biology treated differently? The traditional School of Education (now College of Education and External studies [CEES] at Mak) is mandated to provide professional teacher career development. In contrast, the academic content is the job of a different unit. At A' level, none of these subjects has bad failure rates that Biology has, and it is the same subject whose academic content is not administered in CoNAS. There could be structural or curricular anomaly that needs fixing. There are a few expert scientists in CEES, who by default are ‘thin' on ground by virtue of the huge breadth of the subject. This has a direct bearing on how modules or topics are run because there may not be sufficient curriculum space to allow in-depth expositions to student-teachers. Therefore, it is a mismatched reasoning on our part to expect better grades in Biology when we are unwilling to change how we train the teachers. Doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results is insanity as Albert Einsten said. I challenge the responsible authorities especially in Mak to start doing things differently, only then can we expect different and better results in Biology performance in Uganda.
  10. I propose four (4) alternative "models" to start fixing the problem of poor performance by changing how Biology is administered to student-teachers at University, and how the subject should be assessed at A' level. This is based on the assumption that many teachers of A' level biology have limited competence to handle certain topics. The second assumption is that ‘informal selective' assessment of the syllabus creates a disadvantage to some schools. These models, however, omit infrastructural- and resource-based parameters that could constrain the outcomes. Deciding on which model [or combination of models] to use can only be decided if we all agree that a change is necessary to save the situation.
    1. "MODEL I": A good start is to treat Biology the way other subjects are treated (i.e., run it under pure science-based unit[s] at University). This is easier, and even though its topical diversity dictate that it is run by two separate units (such as in PMB and ZEF in CoNAS at Makerere University), the scientists in CEES can be re-deployed in these units while upholding and respecting the authority of CEES on matters of teacher professional/career development.
    2. "MODEL II": Train Biology teachers by offering 2 subjects of Botany and Zoology and later do a PGDE just like the Lawyers who must do a diploma at LDC before they can practice law. Although this gives student-teachers an excellent dose of Biology, the training process is long, tiresome, and expensive. I am personally lucky that my A' level Biology teacher had been trained using this model.
    3. "MODEL III": Allow Biology teachers only specialize in Biology alone without combining it with another teaching subject. This has a disadvantage of denied exposure to Chemistry and teachers may not easily to some topics like respiration, photosynthesis, and nutrient cycling that have a Chemistry texture.
    4. "MODEL IV": Change the examination style and format by ensuring all topics are examined in a pre-determined format. Like in the case of Physics, Chemistry, Mathematics, or other subjects, the range/group of topics to be covered in a given examination paper (Paper 1, 2 and 3) should be established known to the candidates in advance using established rules.

The writer is a scientist, researcher and an Associate Professor of Plant Pathology and Virology at the Department of Plant Sciences, Microbiology and Biotechnology in the College of Natural Sciences at Makerere University

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