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Media studies v chemistry - which is easier?

TV and Chemistry Lab

Different ways of seeing stats

Media studies is a doss while chemistry is an old-style rigorous academic subject, right? Well, how do you explain these GCSE results then, asks Michael Blastland in his regular column. But first, a quick exam of your own.

TIMER: 0:30

Q1. Which of the following subjects had the highest pass rate of grade C and above?

Q2. Which of the following subjects had the lowest pass rate of grade C and above?

Q3. Which of the following subjects had the highest rate of A* passes

Click finish when you're done to mark your test.

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But how would you tell if chemistry was easier or harder than media studies? You would, of course, need to base your answer on robust evidence using hard data, rather than on hunch or prejudice.

The answer? Oh, easy. We did it in the newspapers just the other day. The answer is that media studies is easiest: Mickey Mouse subject and all that, not worth the paper it's written on. Now, if only I could remember what the evidence was…

I know: easier exams are easier to pass, aren't they? So all we have to do is look up the pass rate. That's hard evidence. A colleague on the Magazine dug out the data (see below, or open the PDF for a fuller breakdown).

GCSE results
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Oh. Because it seems that the subjects most candidates pass at GCSE are physics and chemistry. Media studies is well into the bottom half of the pass rate. If we ranked the results by A* success, rather than A* to C, media studies is the seventh lowest (ie fewest A*) out of 44. So according to our first rule of argument, media studies must be considered one of the hardest subjects at GCSE and much harder than physics or chemistry.

Or maybe our chosen measurement doesn't tell us what we think it does.

Some who think media studies easy will also have made a quick adjustment to their argument. Instead of saying the pass rate is a good measure of easiness - the more who pass, the easier it is - they might now say that pass rate is a good measure of ability.

Exam hall

That is, if fewer people pass a subject, it's because only the dimwits study it. Everyone knows that media studies attracts flaky types incapable of a proper subject, that's why so few - relatively - do well. This sounds suspiciously as if the data is being reinterpreted to match any existing prejudice, but let's put that aside and ask if it could be true.

Maybe, except that look, there's mathematics down near the bottom of the pile meaning that even fewer people pass mathematics than pass media studies. To be consistent with our last argument, we now have to say that maths attracts less academically able students.

Until we remember that almost everyone has to study maths. So maybe the pass rate is pulled down by those who can't do maths but take it anyway?

Except that not everyone has to take additional maths, and additional maths is very close in success rates to… media studies.

And when you think about it, wasn't it a load of journalists who said media studies was easy. And what do many journalists do in their professional life? Ah yes, a kind of applied media studies. And for which subjects would they struggle to know which way round the exam paper goes?

Over to you

Being a swarm of humanities graduates - confession, I am one of these - my guess is that many would be most baffled by chemistry and physics. So is it a surprise if journalists conclude that media studies questions are easy and physics questions hard?

So to come back to our question, how would we know which subject is easiest? Any answer that they are all easier now doesn't help and is worth 0 marks. We want to know the easiest.

You can download an Excel file (43.5kb) with all the data here

Maybe we could look for at all the students who studied a science and media studies and see if there is a systematic bias in their results in favour of passing one of these more often than others. But what if there is a systematic bias in the kind of abilities this sort of hybrid arty-sciency student has, in favour of one side or another?

One of the fascinations about statistics is that these questions, the to and fro of arguments, are only partly prompted by knowledge of how numbers work. Mostly, anyone could think of them just by using imagination about what the real world is like.

Some who know their statistics methods might have an answer, which is a teasing way of saying that this is an underrated subject that can help solve fiendish problems. Meanwhile, over to you.

A selection of your comments appears below.

I teach Media Studies. Your article mentions that the press themselves undertake a form of practical Media Studies. Perhaps more pertinently we are teaching young people to not only understand how the media is put together, and the "tricks" used to grab our attention or put forward a message, but we also arm them with the technical skills to be confident media producers in their own rights. All my students leave with a working knowledge of industry standard video editing, desktop publishing and web creation software. "Quick, they're coming for our jobs; shout about how terrible their qualifications are!"
Martin Russell, Wellingborough

A way to discount the factor of 'dimwits' taking Media Studies and the more intelligent students taking traditional subjects would be to assess a ratio between subject grade vs average student grade across all subjects. Here a subject grade being significantly higher than the student's average grade would indicate an easier subject and being significantly lower would indicate a more difficult subject.
Dave, London, UK

The brightest pupils take separate sciences hence the positively skewed results vs 'science' GCSE which achieves far poorer results. Does this mean individual sciences are easier? No, there is just an adverse selection issue vastly skewing the statistics.
Chris, London

Interestingly, only those usually thought capable of achieving C grade or above are entered for seperate science, i.e. individual GCSE's in Chemistry, Physics and Maths. The benchmark is usually gaining Level 6 or above at GCSE. most other students study Core, or Core + additional science- which is a modern version of "combined science". This does mean that the statistics shown are a bit skewed...
Mark Langley, York, UK

Is the GCSE chemistry exam easier than the media studies exam? Possibly. Another aspect to consider is that a chemistry exam can be marked very accurately because an answer is either correct or not. I wonder how accurate the marking in media studies is - the whole subject is qualitative, surely?
Michael Cowley, York

There is a clear link between the subjects everyone has to do (such as English, Maths and Science, all at the bottom of the table) and poorer pass rates. The reason why the separate sciences and Classics are at the top, with higher pass rates, is that the students who take them are 'cherry-picked' from among those with an interest and abilit in those subjects. That and the fact that separate science and Classics courses are most associated with independent schools.
Neil, Newcastle upon Tyne

Modern Languages figures must be contaminated by students who have that language as their mother tongue.
John, Sandhurst, Berkshire

It is also compulsory for GCSE students to complete a Science Award. If we consider the 528,000 students who completed the English Literature award to be the approximate number of school-leavers taking exams in that result set (choosing this number because many students make take GCSE Maths a year early), we see that only 17-20% of those students took Chemistry/Physics/Biology single award. I should note here that there are a number of different science qualifications and the ones accepted to be the most academically rigorous are the "Separate Sciences". Often schools will only enter their top students into the Separate Science exams (Chem/Phys/Bio in your table above). Most students, again looking at the source of the table, take "Science" - about five times as many as took separate sciences. The table shows that students taking this course achieved lower results than Media Studies students - perhaps because science is harder. It would be foolhardy however to draw such a conclusion only on the basis of the numbers since there are so many other variables - quality of teaching, aptitudes of students, and so on.

You could do an IQ test for everyone and then compare the IQs to pass rates. You would expect that if the average IQ of people taking the subject is higher, there would be a higher pass rate. Also if two subjects have the same average IQ and one subject had a higher pass rate, this would suggest that it is easier than the other subject.
Blink, London

The raw numbers - the statistics - can be manipulated to say anything, as this article shows. But to say anything meaningful, rather than misleading, one needs to be aware of the reasons for the statistics and look at this issue objectively.
Martin, Lancashire, UK

Excellent! As a scientist, I too think the terms 'hard' and 'soft' subjects says more about the people who use them than the 'subjects' themselves. One area you did not seem to pick up on is the difference between subject and assessment...why should getting the 'right' answer be harder than arguing a case for 'an' answer...which is intellectually more challenging? This pass rate data just does not indicate a subject's complexity. In HE we have pass rate mania too. Low pass rates = poor teaching. Again, I think the corollary too simple, and it says more about the stand point of our so-called managers than the ability of me and my colleagues. On the other hand, it is not appropriate for academics to use the argument to their own advantage either. Poor pass rates do not necessarily indicate weaker students!
Paul Wright, Southampton

This doesn't really relate much to the article, but I noticed that Classical Studies has far-and-away the highest A* rate. Might that be because classical subjects, such as Latin and Classical Civilisation, are mostly only taught in selective schools anyway?
Ally, Leicester

There's potentially a difference between how hard an exam is, and how hard the syllabus is. A more pertinent question might be, how well does the exam test the contents of the syllabus? But the more interesting aspect is how difficult the syllabus itself is. Two subjects could be objectively measured by seeing how many hours of work it takes one person who knows nothing about either subject to learn them both. Or, we could ask teachers - who are, after all, experts in the syllabus - to tell us how long it would take an average class to learn. I am reminded of the Channel 4 series "Faking It", in which a classical cellist learned to be a club DJ in a very short space of time. As someone who can neither DJ nor play the cello, I found myself wondering whether a professional club DJ would be able to "fake it" on the cello to professional standards.
David, Gloucester, UK

I was a bright student at school, took Media Studies AS level and got a final grade D, hence why I did not continue the subject to A2 level. I believe that the exam boards are marking exam scripts harshly on purpose to stop the idea that Media Studies is a 'doss subject'. In fact it was quite demanding. In response to the argument that I must be less academically able and that is why I took the subject, I achieved AAB at A-level and a First an university.
Emily, London, UK

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