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Exam chiefs lend an ear

THE Scottish Qualifications Authority took the unusual step last week of seeking out the views of students on Higher National courses - and they received plenty.

After a lengthy gestation period, revised HN "design principles" were issued this week and some of the feedback from students will be speedily incorporated into the new arrangements, Neil Robertson, the SQA's general manager with responsibility for HN qualifications, pledged.

Among the concerns expressed was the timing of assessments. Ann Hutchison, a mature student at Kilmarnock College, told the conference that, while the modular system of the courses was ideal, it can lead to too many assessments over a short period of time.

"The workload involved when assessments are broken down into learning outcomes can be quite a lot at one time," Ms Hutchison said. "I have had as many as two or three in one day."

She also believed that making it easier to switch courses would cut the drop-out rate. Currently on sabbatical as president of the students'

association at Kilmarnock, she said doing the HN courses was not just about qualifications but about gaining increased confidence and self-esteem.

The SQA has confirmed that the new certificate and diploma principles would use integrated assessment and this was greeted enthusiastically by students at one of the conference focus groups.

The system, which will assess not only subject specialisms but core skills and is a response to criticisms that ongoing course assessment does not prepare students for undergraduate work, was welcomed by George Caldwell, a mature student from Glasgow's Stow College.

"Integrated assessment may be good for HN courses because it takes in at the end of the year aspects of everything the student is supposed to have studied over that year," Mr Caldwell said. The wide variety of forms of assessment to be used, including written exams and projects, would prevent the abuse of continuous assessment by the "cut and paste people" who often get undeserved credit.

He also felt that the style of lecturing on certain courses was sometimes "too casual", and that students who intended to go on to university would benefit from a more formal approach.

Some colleges were criticised for a lack of information with regard to the articulation arrangements between colleges and universities and for not distinguishing sufficiently between core and optional subjects at the start of courses.

Better links between FE and HE courses are constantly being urged by the Scottish Executive, the latest refrain being in the second phase of its HE review published last week. The review reiterates the need for more "2 plus 2" opportunities, which allow students who complete two years of an HND to move straight to the final two years of a degree course.

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