Biology poor show worries scientists

Biology poor show worries scientists

Scientists are calling for urgent action to tackle the crisis in Biology education evidenced in perennial poor performances at both ordinary and advanced levels. Biology is a principal subject that any student wishing to undertake any bioscience course such as medicine, pharmacy, surgery, nursing, and midwifery at tertiary institutions must gain a mastery over.
Yet a dataset of results from both ordinary and advanced levels straddling five years paints a bleak picture of learners not comfortable with the principles of scientific endeavour in Biology.

“If this trend is not addressed, we shall see the enrolment of students into [bioscience] courses go down, hence a reduction in the number of medical professionals,” Prof Arthur Tugume, the Dean of School of Bioscience at Makerere University, told this publication, adding that in that event, “a reduction in the number of medical professionals” is inevitable.

Prof Tugume proceeded to note that ultimately, “institutions will resort to admitting students with poor grades.” 
He reckons “this will increase the number of quack doctors on the market” and summarily “put the lives of people in danger.”
On March 20, the Association of Surgeons in Uganda moved to voice its concerns about how downward trends in performance of biological sciences will inflict huge damage on Uganda if not reversed. This, the association added, will adversely affect prosperity and the quality of life in Uganda.

“It has come to our notice that the grades obtained in Biology at the Uganda Advanced Certificate of Education (UACE) level have greatly deteriorated. A case in point is when the entire country had only 14 As [in Biology] in the recently released results,” Dr Frank Asiimwe, the president of the association, wrote in a March 20 letter addressed to the executive director of the Uganda National Examination Board (Uneb).

Dr Asiimwe added that the performances at A-Level in particular don’t portend well insofar as growing a body of highly skilled scientists and doctors, who will act upon the consequences of advances in scientific knowledge, is concerned.
“We would, therefore, like to hear from your good office where the problem might be and if we, the alumni of the A-Level Biology class, can do anything to remedy this potentially catastrophic situation that puts the very existence of the practice of medicine in jeopardy,” Dr Asiimwe said.

Steep hurdles
The worries are hardly a figment of Dr Asiimwe’s imagination. 
Biology continues to be the worst performing subject at both O-Level and A-Level. 
This has over the years led to low enrolment of students into the subject.

According to the recent UACE results that were released in February, only 14 students attained As. Those who scored Bs were 158, and 657 pupils came in with Cs.
Those with Ds totalled 1,478, with 2,781 pupils mustering Es. The vast majority of the learners—12,265 to be exact—failed the subject. This means a paltry 28.8 percent (5,088) passed the subject.

According to the National Council for Higher Education (NCHE), students with two principal passes are eligible to be admitted to universities. However, most top government universities have always hiked the cut-off points for students admitted in most bioscience courses.
Courses like Pharmacy, Medicine and Surgery tend to admit the best students with As and Bs. 
They have always reasoned that their pursuit of the top cream is informed by the fact that they can ill afford any mistakes since they deal with human life.

Uneb explanation
A number of academics have on several occasions pointed an accusing finger at Uneb whenever the subject of poor performance of Biology comes up for discussion. 
Prof Anthony Mugagga, the principal of the College of Education at Makerere University, joined the bandwagon last month. He opined that Uneb sets complicated questions which cannot be ably interpreted by the students. It is a view that Dr Asiimwe is inclined to believe.
Mr Daniel Odongo, Uneb’s executive director, shrugged off the blame by stating that theirs is not to teach but to assess learners.

“Uneb sets questions for Biology just like other subjects. If it is Uneb with the problem, why aren’t there problems with other subjects?” he asked rhetorically, adding, “We set questions based on the curriculum and syllabus covered by learners.”
Mr Odongo instead advised the scientists to investigate the root cause of the poor show rather than playing the blame game. He further advised the scientists to visit schools, examine how teachers teach the subject, and run the rule over practical sessions.
“If these scientists want us to inform them where we think the problem is based on the comments from chief examiners, we are ready to give them a hand,” Mr Odongo told this publication.

Challenges galore
During the release of the most recent UACE results, Mr Odongo said examiners attributed the drop in performance of Biology to candidates grappling with questions on genetics.
Candidates also had difficulties in dealing with questions on ecology and application of Biology concepts to the environment, classification and inability to deal with simple mathematical computation in Biology.
The students, according to Uneb, lack skills of dissection in Biology. Some candidates, for instance, failed to execute tasks on the specimens provided as required by the questions. They instead presented textbook drawings.

“This may indicate the teachers in the schools where this happened may not have exposed the candidates to this skill that they need should they in future have an opportunity to pursue biological science-based courses,” Mr Odongo said at the release of the results.

Mr Vincent Elong, the chairperson of the Uganda Professional Science Teachers Union, nonetheless, faults Uneb for its rigidity in marking Biology papers. He said Biology teachers are the same teachers teaching Chemistry. It is, therefore, vexing in his book why students pass the latter and fail the former.
Mr Elong revealed that he interacted with various examiners, teachers and other stakeholders who revealed that the marking guide for Biology subject is “stiff” and could do with some flexibility.

“We appeal to Uneb to change the chief examiner of Biology so that the subject is treated the same way other science subjects are. Teachers cannot be blamed. This is the problem of Uneb,” Mr Elong said.
He added: “This rigidity of marking by Uneb is disqualifying students from enrolling for Medicine. You find a student is having A in Chemistry and E or O in Biology. Both these subjects are essential for medical courses.”

Education ministry weighs in
The State minister for Higher Education, Mr John Chrysostom Muyingo, in an interview with this publication on Thursday, revealed that a committee has been formed to unearth what is causing the poor trend.
“Biology has consistently been poorly performed and, as the ministry, we are very worried and concerned,” he said, adding, “Once we know the root cause of the poor performance from the study we are yet to conduct, we shall be able to come up with a lasting solution.”

The Education ministry is not the only institution planning to probe the poor performance of biological sciences. Makerere University last month revealed that it was going to commission a study to establish why students continue to perform badly in Biology contrary to other science subjects where the performance of learners has tremendously improved over time.
The study, which was intended to avert the trend, was supposed to be conducted by Makerere University through the School of Biosciences under the College of Natural Science (CONAS) in partnership with the College of Education and External Studies (CEES).

Prof Tugume said last month that the study will be done in two phases, starting with identification of the root causes of poor performance. He added that this will be undertaken through analysing qualifications, competence, and availability of Biology teachers and technicians, the Biology curriculum, how topics are segregated, the state of laboratories, the state of  field infrastructure for teaching Bology at A-Level and attitudes of learners towards the subject.
Prof Tugume said on Tuesday that this study has not yet been undertaken as they await funds and the green light from the office of the deputy vice chancellor, academic affairs.
He, however, said they have made several attempts to conduct studies on this trend, but they have hit a dead end due to funding.

Lab shortage threat
Teaching of life sciences in schools is greatly aided by well-equipped laboratories. In Uganda, however, schools have to come up with a number of workarounds for dealing with shortages of laboratory equipment such as microscopes, pipet tips and reagents, to mention but three.
Laboratory equipment and learning materials for biological sciences are in scant supply largely due to lack of funds. Some schools do not entirely have laboratories. A 2009 report, for instance, indicates that only 406 out of the 1,067 government-aided secondary schools have science laboratories.

This implies that science practical lessons in the schools without laboratories are conducted in unauthorised settings. Most of these places lack attendants, as well as facilities like water and heating sources, the report noted. This hampers teaching of life sciences like Biology, which is an experimental discipline.

It has not helped matters that schools with laboratories have equipment that are reduced to museum pieces. There is also a shortage of laboratory space, especially at O-Level, where numbers of those studying life sciences are a tad too overwhelming.