Nuffield Advanced Science: Physics

The organisers of Nuffield Advanced Physics set out to build a course that could reveal the structure of physics: the kinds of arguments physicist use, and the nature of the problems they tackle. The team wanted students to become more thoughtful. They pointed out that, in physics, the ability to think effectively depends on having some rather definite skills and knowledge, including some mathematical understanding. (A detailed history of the project has been published on-line.)

Course design 

As the organisers point out, the making of a curriculum begins and ends with judgements of value. In constructing the course, they asked themselves what it was that they valued most among the many things which a person might be led to know, to feel, to understand, or to experience. One of their principles was to sacrifice a wide acquaintance with many ideas for a deeper understanding of fewer ideas. The team also believed that it was important that the course should show that physics is useful, and should illustrate the kinds of impact which discoveries in physics have had on the way people live.

Novel features

The first edition of the course included a unit featuring a systems approach to electronics to allow students to do some engineering of their own. The unit about electromagnetic waves ended with a brief look at relativity - partly for interest, and partly to show how new and fundamental questions can arise from seemingly innocent ideas. The unit about 'Change and chance' was based on a creative approach to statistical thermodynamics presented, with the help of computer simulations on film, in ways that used very little mathematics. The unit on waves and particles hinted, towards the end, at the scope of wave mechanics.


The team worked with the then Oxford and Cambridge Board to come up with an assessment scheme that was well-matched to the aims of the course. Assessment items included coded answer, short answer, long answer and comprehension questions. The practical exam was a circus of short tasks to test intellectual and hands-on skills. About ten per cent of the teaching time was set aside for two individual investigations - one in each year of the course.


There were many publications in the first edition (1971), including one small students book and a teachers' guide for the first eight units; then a single volume combining teacher guidance and students material for the last two units. The main feature of the student books was the questions. Lots of them. Answers were provided too. Each guide included some readings but little or no exposition.



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Nuffield Advanced Physics publications included resources to help teachers and students with the course as a whole. Teachers and students needed support in their approach to the novel content, new apparatus, investigative teaching methods and innovative methods of assessment.

The authors of Nuffield Advanced Physics were alert to the fact that the sixth form pattern for which the course was to be designed might vanish almost as soon as the materials were published. What was not clear at the time of writing was the form a new pattern would take.

The authors responded to this...

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