Manyatsi, Bradley & Rollnick




Sabelo Manyatsi1, John Bradley2 and Marissa Rollnick2

1University of Swaziland & 2University of the Witwatersrand, SA


The aim of this study was to identify the nature and extent of a perceived gap between junior secondary and senior secondary science in Swaziland with a focus on chemistry. This gap has been identified at both a micro and macro level, the former with regard to classroom interactions and the latter, with regard to performance in examinations and policy issues. The study involved analyses of syllabuses and examination papers at both levels, interviews with teachers, classroom observations and the administration of diagnostic tests of specific content to pupils. Finally a teaching package was designed to attempt a narrowing of the gap. A justifiable gap was found in the level of the examinations but this difference between the two levels was not being matched by the demands that the teachers were making on the pupils. Some improvement was noted when the teaching package was used.

1. Introduction

In educational systems stakeholders frequently identify a gap between two levels of the system, e.g. between primary and secondary. However, the perceived nature of this gap varies between stakeholders. Frequently the public (and educational administrators) base their perception on performance in public examinations. This can be characterised as a gap at the macro level. On the other hand, practitioners reach their perception on the interaction they have with the learners in class. This can be characterised as a gap at the micro level.

In Southern Africa there has been a focus on the perceived gap between the secondary school and the university level. This has resulted in the mounting of bridging science programmes in universities, e.g. the Science Pre-entry Courses in the ‘BLS’ countries - Botswana, Lesotho and Swaziland (Makhurane and Turner, 1985), the College of Science at the University of the Witwatersrand and The Science Foundation Programme at the University of Cape Town (Pavlich and Orkin, 1993).

In the BLS countries a gap has also been perceived in science and maths between the junior secondary level and the senior secondary level (Chisman, 1985). Although this problem has been perceived for a long time, there have been no empirical studies carried out to identify the nature and extent of the gap between the two levels. Thus, the aim of this study was to identify the nature and extent of the gap between junior secondary and senior secondary science in Swaziland with a focus on chemistry.

2. Rationale

In Swaziland school education is considered to be a ‘doorway’ to future opportunities in life i.e. it is perceived that educated children will have a better life and will be able to improve not only their own quality of life but also that of their families and the nation. As a result, parents (and government) spend a lot of money on school education. Also, presently about 30 per cent of the national budget is put into education (Sinclair, 1996). A large part of the education allocation goes to science for the construction and equipment of science laboratories, training of science teachers and the employment of science teachers. Thus, to have pupils from one level not performing well at the next level is a waste of much needed national resources hence the rationale for investigating the perceived gap between junior secondary and senior secondary science in Swaziland.

3. Background to school education in Swaziland

School education in Swaziland is divided into primary and secondary levels. Primary schooling lasts seven years. At the end of the seventh year pupils write a primary school leaving examination known as the Swaziland Primary Certificate. Secondary school education is divided into junior secondary and senior secondary levels. The junior secondary level lasts three years and the senior secondary level (high school) two years. Each of these levels has a public examination in its final year. Thus in the third year of the junior secondary level (Form III) pupils sit for a Junior Certificate Examination (JC) administered locally.

In the fifth year of the secondary level (Form V), pupils write an examination known as the Ordinary level (‘O’ level). This examination is administered by the University of Cambridge Local Examinations Syndicate (UCLES) in the UK.

3.1 The Science curriculum in Swazi secondary schools

Science is a compulsory subject at junior secondary school level. The subject is integrated and the schools follow an Integrated Science syllabus prescribed by the Examinations Council of Swaziland. In fact most schools use a local science curriculum known as the Swaziland Integrated Science Programme (SWISP) produced by the Ministry of Education (MOE).

Unlike the junior secondary level, schools can follow several science syllabuses at the high school level. Presently the ‘O’ level offers the following nine different options: combined science, human and social biology, biology, science (physics/chemistry), additional combined science, chemistry, physics, science (chemistry/biology) and science (physics/biology).

4. Methods

The perception of a gap between junior secondary science and high school science arises because of the observed ‘poor’ performance of pupils in the ‘O’ level exams (Eklund, 1979). To clarify the nature of the problem perceived, preliminary interviews were conducted with people involved in the education system. Fourteen interviews were carried out involving twenty-one people. The breakdown of the interviewees is shown in Table 1 below:

Table 1: Interviewees in problem identification



Individual/group interview

Science teachers



Senior science administrators



Form V pupils


Two groups of four and
one group of two

The interviews identified the following problem areas they perceived as causing the gap between junior secondary and high school science:

At the macro level

the differences between the contents of the science syllabuses used at the two levels

the ‘O’ level exams being more demanding than the JC exams

At the micro level

teachers at high school not taking cognisance of what pupils from junior secondary school know

the differences in teaching approach between the two levels

It was then decided to collect data on the nature of this gap by analysing syllabuses, examination papers, interviewing teachers, administering a diagnostic test and by direct observation of teachers in action. The analysis of the syllabuses and examination question papers was validated by three educationalists: one in Swaziland and two in South Africa. Finally the collection of this data informed the design of a teaching package tried out by three teachers. The data was collected as follows:

Analysis of syllabuses: A content analysis was carried out on syllabuses at the two levels. The chemistry content of the junior secondary science syllabus was compared with that of the two ‘O’ level science subjects done by the majority of pupils. This method was used by Norman and Elliott (1993) when comparing the contents of a Science, Technology and Society materials to a recommended science standard. The sources of data for the comparison in this study were the official documents issued by the MOE and the Examining bodies, viz. the curriculum materials and science syllabuses.

Analysis of examination papers: These were analysed for balance of coverage of topics and cognitive level of demand. The following categories were used for classifying the cognitive levels of the questions: recall, knowledge with understanding and handling information. These categories were adapted from the ones given by the UCLES science syllabuses (UCLES, 1994). The analysis of the question papers was validated by other professionals. The method of using other professionals to validate an analysis has also been used by Lewin (1990) for analysing exam question papers. In the present study this method was also used to validate the content analysis of the syllabuses.

Interviews with teachers: To find out what teachers in high school assume pupils from junior secondary school know, four high school chemistry teachers in four schools were interviewed. All the schools used were within a radius of 15 kilometres. The choice of schools was dependant on the willingness of the teachers to be involved.

Diagnostic Tests: To find out the actual knowledge possessed by pupils, a diagnostic test covering the four basic chemistry topics of the ‘O’ level syllabuses was developed. The items of the test were based on validated items from a test prepared by Coenders (1994) and a knowledge survey test administered to College of Science students at the University of the Witwatersrand. The test was administered to 317 new high school pupils who had not yet been taught any chemistry at this level. The results of the test were then compared with the knowledge that the high school chemistry teachers assume new high school pupils possess.

Classroom observation: In studying the teaching styles employed by science teachers, six science teachers in three secondary schools were observed teaching. Three of the teachers taught integrated science at the junior secondary level and the other three taught chemistry in high school. The recording of the lessons was by audio tape and note-taking. Six lessons representative of the teaching styles of the teachers were fully transcribed and then analysed. The method of analysis was adapted from Rennie (1990) and Kelly (1995). Both of these researchers observed science lessons and did not use observation schedules in the process. In their analysis they created their own categories from field notes they had taken and they used these categories to focus their descriptions of the lessons. In the present study the categories which were used in the description of the lessons were: general features of the lesson, questioning style of the teachers, directives and/or statements made by teachers and the nature of pupil engagement.

Development of a teaching package: The results of the analysis of the diagnostic test and observation of lessons for teaching styles informed the development of a teaching package which aimed at narrowing the gap between junior secondary science and high school chemistry in the basic chemistry topics that were identified. The teaching package was tried out by the three chemistry teachers who had been observed teaching during the observation for teaching styles. Recording of the lessons was by note-taking only.

5. Summary of findings

5.1 Syllabuses and curriculum materials

In the analysis of the official documents, it was found that there was no gap between junior secondary science and high school chemistry. Instead it was judged that there is perhaps an overlap between the two levels and also that the junior secondary science materials satisfied the prerequisite knowledge needs of the four basic chemistry topics.

5.2 Examination question papers

In balance of coverage of topics it was found that some topics were barely tested by the JC exam. On the other hand, it was found that the ‘O’ level exam provides a fair testing of most of the chemistry topics in the syllabuses studied.

In the analysis for cognitive level demand, it was found that most of the testing in the JC exam was at the level of recall and knowledge with understanding. It was also found that there was little consistency in the weighting of the cognitive levels in the JC exams in different years. With the ‘O’ level exam it was found that there was consistent testing of all three cognitive levels. It was also found that the weighting of these was approximately the same for the different years reviewed. This was attributed to the fact that the ‘O’ level syllabuses offer specific guidance to the chief examiner on the weighting of the different cognitive levels in an exam paper.

5.3 Expected versus actual content knowledge

In the interviews carried out with Form IV chemistry teachers it was found that the teachers expected incoming pupils to have extensive factual knowledge. None of the teachers expressed a need for higher skills like synthesis of material. The expectations of the teachers were in line with the demands of the JC exam and so it was also concluded that there was no gap between the expectations of the teachers and what was tested at the junior secondary level.

The chemistry teachers also expected new Form IV pupils to know the Periodic Table, a topic not found in the JC syllabus. This indicates a gap between what the teachers expected the pupils to know and what the pupils were likely to know.

In the investigation of what pupils actually know, the results of the diagnostic test showed that pupils were able to recall the factual knowledge and this tallies with what the teachers expected the pupils to know. The diagnostic test also showed that the pupils did not understand the concepts taught in the basic chemistry topics. These topics are fundamental to understanding other topics in the syllabuses and a lack of comprehension implies that the pupils will have difficulty in understanding later concepts.

5.4 Teaching styles

The teaching approaches used at both the junior secondary and high school level were basically the same. The teachers were mainly concerned with the acquisition of factual knowledge exemplified by their asking of low cognitive level questions in class. It was also noted that at the junior secondary level the teaching was dictated by the SWISP curriculum materials supplied for the teachers’ use in class. On the other hand, at the high school level there are no prescribed teaching materials and the teachers in their teaching do not direct pupils to any resource materials but instead rely on giving notes to pupils. This is in spite of the fact that in many cases pupils actually have text books.

5.5 Narrowing the gap

The teaching package developed aimed at changing the teaching approach of the teachers and attempts were made to make it user-friendly without over prescription of teaching methods. Piloting of these materials showed that it is possible to influence the teaching approach of high school chemistry teachers by making available to them user-friendly teaching materials. The teachers employed a greater than usual variety of teaching methods and had more individual pupil involvement. They also taught at a higher cognitive level, e.g. they grouped pupils and instructed them to come up with a theory to explain what they had observed in an experiment. The result of this approach was an improvement in the understanding of some basic concepts by the pupils as shown by their improved performance in the diagnostic test that they wrote after being taught using the teaching package. The pupils’ performance in those questions that were on material not covered by the teaching package was virtually the same as that of the pupils who had written the diagnostic test the previous year and had not been taught using the teaching package.

6. Discussion

This study set out to identify the nature and extent of the gap which leads to pupils performing below expectation in ‘O’ level science examinations. The gap was considered to be at two levels: the macro level and the micro level. At the macro level the gap was identified in the examination process. Related to this was the gap at the micro level, identified during classroom observation which had to do with teaching at a low cognitive level in high school.

This study made an analysis of past examination question papers, but it did not consider the validity of the questions set and whether they measured what they are supposed to measure. According to Johnstone (1988), questions in an examination may be set such that they measure intelligence (a psychological factor) instead of measuring the knowledge of chemistry. It is thus possible that the under performance in ‘O’ level examinations may also be due to the nature of the question which may be measuring either chemistry or intelligence. This is one factor which needs further investigation.

Questions in the JC examination mainly test the recall and knowledge with understanding cognitive levels. The ‘O’ level examinations test both these cognitive levels as well as handling information. The teachers at the high school level teach at a low cognitive level and when they set their class tests also test at a low cognitive level. The pupils are thus not prepared to tackle questions that test at a higher cognitive level, leading to the appearance of a gap.

The examination questions were also analysed for scope of coverage of the chemistry topics. In the JC examinations, it was found that more than seventy per cent of the chemistry marks were contributed by three topics of the syllabus namely experimental techniques, metals and non-metals. The other seven topics contributed the remaining thirty per cent. On the other hand, the ‘O’ level chemistry examinations provided balanced coverage of most of the topics of the syllabuses. Although this is not confirmation of a gap between the two levels, it implies that science teachers at the junior secondary level may not concentrate or even teach some topics which they know are not extensively tested in the JC exam. It is thus likely that pupils will have little grasp of these topics on completing their junior secondary school.

At the micro level a gap was identified between the knowledge teachers expected with the topic the Periodic Table and what the pupils actually knew. A situation like this is likely to result in a rote memorization of facts since the new material to be learned at high school might not connect with anything in the pupils’ cognitive structures (Ausubel, 1963). It is possible that with experience, the high school teachers have found the ‘transmission of factual knowledge’ as the easiest way to ‘cover’ the chemistry sacrificing in the process the development of the understanding of concepts that are vital to success in chemistry.

In classroom teaching, it was noted that the teaching approach at the junior secondary level is influenced by the curriculum materials that are used. At high school, there are no such materials and teachers are likely not to vary their teaching styles. Employing one kind of teaching style might contribute to a gap at the micro level since pupils have different learning styles and hence prefer different ways of teaching. As Entwistle (1981) puts it: "If teachers adopt too extreme a method of teaching, perhaps reflecting their own learning style, one group of students will find the approach alien to their way of learning". It would seem that there is a need for versatile teachers who would be able to vary their teaching styles so as not to always alienate a particular group of pupils when teaching.



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