Subject choices are guided by enjoyment and usefulness over difficulty, Ofqual research finds

Subject difficulty is “the lesser of three concerns” for pupils when choosing what to study, a report by the exams regulator Ofqual has found.

The research found that pupils focused more on enjoyment and usefulness of subjects, rather than difficulty, when choosing which subjects to take as exams.

However, some schools choose not to offer certain subjects seen as “too difficult” for pupils which limits uptake in certain areas.

Ofqual’s latest report looks at perceptions of subject difficulty and subject choices. It asks whether the two are linked, and if so, how.

The watchdog interviewed 49 teachers and 112 pupils from 12 schools across England.

The research found that subject choices appear to be “primarily driven by a triad of perceptions: enjoyment, usefulness, and difficulty”.

Although perceptions of difficulty did influence pupils’ subject choices, they are “perhaps the lesser of these three concerns”, the report concluded.

Teacher and school influence

According to the research, advice from teachers and school policies on curriculum influenced subject choices.

In some cases, schools chose not to offer certain subjects because they were “seen to be too difficult”. This prevented uptake in those areas, the report found.

Teachers also sometimes discouraged pupils from taking subjects that might be too difficult for them, but said this was mostly done according to person-specific
subject difficulty, “as opposed to more general notions of subject difficulty”.

Although subject difficulty was an important consideration for teachers, much of their advice was also based on what each pupil would enjoy and find useful for future education or employment.

Pupils also said that perceptions of difficulty were “not the main basis” of their decisions, focusing instead on “enjoyment and usefulness”.

They often said they were willing to overlook subject difficulty when they enjoyed or needed a certain subject to satisfy their university or career ambitions.

Pupils also agreed that although some subjects stood out as seeming generally more difficult than others, whether or not they found a subject difficult was dependent upon their individual strengths.

However, some pupils still based their subject choices on perceptions of difficulty. They also recognised they were “sometimes discouraged” by
teachers, parents and friends from choosing subjects that were “thought to be too difficult for them”.

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