Why do students continue to fail sciences?

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By Desire Mbabaali

While other people were celebrating their academic victory after the recently released Uganda Advanced Certificate of Education (UACE) examination results, Arnold, a student in Namasuba, was nursing his disappointment after passing with an E in Biology and a C in Agriculture in his BAG/ICT combination.

For about three consecutive years, statistics by the national examinations body (Uneb) continue to show poor performance in science subjects. In 2016 for example, though the general performance was a better one from a 2.2 per cent failure rate the previous year to 1.3 per cent in 2016, Biology in particular was the worst done subject, with 40.8 per cent of candidates scoring two points (Pass E). The same problem persisted through to the 2018 results.

To Arnold, the practical examinations were the most difficult and most likely, the cause of the dismal performance. “Most of us have grown up in towns and the closest we have been to a real garden is when we go for agricultural tours and visit demonstration farms such as Kabanyolo. You may know the scientific names of crops, herbs and weeds, but not know how they look in real life.

So, when they bring these in the practical examination, you are bound to fail,” Arnold hints on how unpractical the teaching of science subjects in some schools is. Furthermore, he says due to shortage of good science teachers, some schools hire part-time teachers who are often preoccupied with just completing the syllabus and only come to school to teach and leave, so there is little interaction between the teacher and the student.

“In addition, it is only a few times that you get a chance to use the laboratory. And this is moctly when you are in a candidate class. And even this is done for a few hours in a week. In the end, you do not know how to do experiments,” he explains.
Dan Odongo, the Uneb executive secretary, raised the same issue during the release of UACE 2018 examination results. Odongo noted that, “There is evidence of more theoretical teaching. Candidates showed inability to follow instructions and procedures and failure to record data accurately.”

The statistics
The Education ministry made the study of sciences compulsory to students in O-Level with the hope of building and boosting the country’s capacity in the field of science but challenges remain persistent.

As a matter of fact, fewer students opt for science subjects at A-Level and hardly pass them to continue with science-related courses in institutions of higher learning.
Odongo said only 30.4 per cent of the candidates who sat UACE exams opted for Mathematics, showing a slight increase in numbers in the subject while those who sat for Physics reduced from 13.8 per cent in 2017 to 10.5 per cent last year, Chemistry registered 15.4 per cent and Biology 13.3 per cent.

“The performance in Biology is worrying because it has been declining in the last three years,” Odongo noted.
In 2016, 40.8 per cent of candidates who studied Biology scored only 2 points, making it the worst done subject in the UACE exams that year.
In 2017, half of the 75,451 science students failed to obtain a Principal Pass, according to data by Uneb.

The 2018 results also indicated that Biology, which is a core science subject was the worst performed without a single distinction, a position worse than last year’s where 0.1 per cent candidates at least scored a distinction.
Uneb reported inadequate syllabus coverage, lazy teachers who focus on theory, and failure of students to handle questions that require explanations and interpretation as the major hindrances.

Integrate
Dorothy Najjuma, a Senior Five sciences student at Mengo Secondary School, shared that the teaching of sciences to students needs to shift from just the four corners of the classroom to the outside world.

“Sometimes, we do not have the actual picture of what science is or what it is able to do in the real world. I remember the day we visited Quality Chemicals in Luzira and saw how science can save people’s lives, from that time, I looked at the teaching of science in a different perspective,” she said adding that most of the things studied in subjects such as Chemistry are detached from the student’s reality, and so students just cram to pass.

Najjuma advocates for study trips in places where science comes alive such as factories and hospitals so that they get more inspired.

Change attitude
Andrews Bagyenda, a second year Industrial Chemistry student at Makerere University, says it is an attitude issue.

“Many science teachers believe that sciences should be done by the top performers (the cream). They believe that every student should understand what is being taught so easily and if you try to get them to slow down, they question why you came to the science class when you cannot grasp things as fast as they come, which is not right,” Bagyenda shares.

“I loved sciences but I almost gave up until a new teacher joined my school (high school). He shared more time with students. He was open to being asked and challenged, and that is how I understood most of the principles in Biology and Chemistry. I just needed that extra attention,” he says.

Following the release of UACE exam results recently, the Daily Monitor editorial called upon government to popularise sciences with well-equipped laboratories. That although government had made sciences compulsory at O-Level, popularising them involves practical interventions such as retooling the teachers, building laboratories, equipping them adequately and working on the mindset of the learners.

Dr Douglas Khaukha, a medical doctor at Mbale Doctors Clinic, shares that among issues that need to be addressed, especially in rural schools, is buying equipment to carry out experiments for students.
“Additionally, there are several experiments that can be locally done to substitute those sophisticated experiments but can help our learners understand the concept. Can’t these be introduced?” Dr Khaukha asks.

As part of the interventions, government will recruit 3,800 secondary school teachers across the country with 1,900 of them, science teachers, in a bid to improve performance of students in the sciences. John Chrysostom Muyingo, the State Minister for Higher Education, said the government has earmarked the money to finance the teacher recruitment in the next financial year 2019/2020.

Numbers
Only 30.4 per cent of the candidates who sat UACE exams opted for Mathematics in 2018, showing a slight increase in numbers in the subject while those who did Physics reduced from 13.8 per cent in 2017 to 10.5 per cent last year, Chemistry registered 15.4 per cent and Biology 13.3 per cent.

In 2016, 40.8 per cent of candidates who studied Biology scored only 2 points, making it the worst done subject in the UACE exams that year. In 2017, one in two A-Level students who sat for science subjects failed and half of the 75,451 science students failed to obtain a principal pass. 2018 results also indicated that Biology, was the worst performed without a single distinction.

Science books
In the spirit of tackling student failure of science subjects, science teachers in the country convened at the National Curriculum Development Centre in Kyambogo in 2017 to forge a new way to teach science subjects.

Through the Science Teachers’ Initiative, an association driving the cause, teachers introduced books for teachers that would aid them to address topical issues, competences, practical and inbuilt activities, with strong emphasis on language approach and topical review questions.

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Monitor.co.ug

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