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Physics Coursework Around the World....

What with changes afoot in the teaching and assessing of physics students in the leaving cert, and the introduction of coursework, I thought it would be interesting to check out what happens in other countries.

It turns out its not as easy as typing 'physics coursework around the world' into google. That returns page after page of study-abroad programmes aimed at third level and comparative ranking of university physics departments (apparently MIT rules). Adding 'second level' to the search does little to improve things - but did lead eventually to this interesting paper published by our own NCCA, which was a help. And I made some progress by just going (English-speaking) country by country and searching for them individually. What emerged is of course very anecdotal but interesting in ways.

It seems that the A-Level system has moved away from coursework in recent years, but the Scottish Highers still require students to sit one exam and complete one coursework assessment. I couldn't find the relative weight of each to a final grade, but I did find this page which includes a guide for teachers managing the coursework: key points:

  • its 8 hours of work, including 2 to complete a written report

  • the report must be written entirely in school

  • group work is allowed, but analysis of results etc must be individual

I think Australian requirements vary state-by-state but I found this for South Australia, where students seem to go through a range of practical-work assessments: one there they have 90 mins to test a hypothesis and a week to submit a report, another where they investigate a specific topic (such as an interference pattern) and have a week to complete a 1500-word report and finally a report on science-in-society where students go in-depth on a media article of their own choosing, examining the underlying scientific issues. All that is worth 30% of their final grade.

I'm sure I came across a link somewhere that discussed coursework as part of the physics assessment for the NCEA in New Zealand - but when I went back to read it again, I couldn't find it anywhere! If anybody knows more, please let me know.

From the NCCA report, it seems Hong Kong use school-based assessments of practical work along with a written exam. And Singapore seem to carry out a practical exam along the lines once-proposed for the Leaving Cert.

But the international comparison that is perhaps most like that proposed for the Leaving Cert students is the International Baccalaureate. For their final grade at Higher Level, students need to complete 3 exams worth a total of 80%, which is then combined with 20% assessment by their school, which is mainly determined by a 10-hour investigation and report.

Of course, the main focus of students in all of this will be what they are actually expected to do in their coursework. This is will be determined to some extent by the brief/theme released annually by the SEC, but I followed a few links to see what sort of topics students investigated for some of the exams looked at above.

  • How does the radius of a toy parachute affect the terminal velocity?

  • How does the angle of release of a golf club affect the distance travelled by the ball?

  • How does temperature affect the spring constant of a spring?

  • How does the temperature affect the range of flight of an elastic band

  • How does the distance between panes of glass in double glazing affect the rate of heat loss?

  • How does the concentration of salt in water affect the specific heat capacity?

  • How does the temperature of a guitar string affect the frequency produced when plucked at a constant force and left to vibrate freely?

  • How does temperature affect the magnetic field strength of a permanent magnet?

  • How does the diameter of coil on a battery copper coil train affect the speed of train?

  • Confirm the relative permeability of free space by varying the current of a solenoid and measuring the resulting magnetic field.

These are some of the links I used: ·      

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Thanks Shane - That's really interesting. And adds to the above.


For the NZ Level 2 course there are 20 credits available in total for the year with 4 coming from the practical component. It is completely internally assessed. From what I can remember it was a 2 week block in the year.

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