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Pupils lose art of essay writing

Too many multiple-choice questions at A-level are creating undergraduates who cannot string a sentence together, says Mike Tomlinson. Dorothy Lepkowska reports

Students are arriving at university unable to write an essay or sustain an argument, the man responsible for reforming the exams system has told two conferences.

Mike Tomlinson, who is heading a working group on reforming GCSEs and A-levels, said that pupils were being "led by the hand" through multiple-choice exam questions.

Mr Tomlinson's committee will present an interim report to Charles Clarke, the Education Secretary, in January.

He told the Girls' Schools Association conference: "If (multiple-choice) papers are allowed to dominate over other assessment measures, we risk losing skills which are important such as logical argument and reflection.

"Universities are saying that students cannot sustain an argument as much as they used to. The trend in A-level has been towards exam papers that ensure that students have covered the entire range of the syllabus. That means there are structured questions where students are led through the phases of a topic, and some multiple-choice questions."

He suggested that exams at present did not give the brightest students a chance to marshal facts and come to a logical conclusion.

The shift away from essay writing had happened because exams now focused on a detailed list of "assessment objectives" which had to be examined.

In another speech, he said that maths and science students were dropping out of university because they lacked the skills to string together more than a few sentences. At a conference organised by the National Union of Teachers he said that he had met undergraduates with a string of As at A-level who had been forced to leave universities because they lacked basic English skills.

He said afterwards: "I met two such examples recently. One had four As at A-level and was attending one of our most respected universities and the other was a veterinary science student.

"The first one left the degree course complaining that he thought it was a maths degree and could not remember the last time they had been asked to write anything.

"The other one found having to write an extended piece of writing for a tutorial the most challenging thing she had ever done."

Mr Tomlinson is considering whether to abolish GCSE and A-levels in their present form and replace them with an over-arching diploma. A dissertation might form part of the new diploma.

The conference also heard the preliminary findings of a study into teachers' attitudes towards coursework.

The study, carried out jointly with London university's institute of education, found that teachers were suspicious that their colleagues might be helping pupils with coursework.

However, the study of 2,000 teachers found that 69 per cent believed that coursework should contribute towards GCSE qualifications, and 58 per cent thought they should form part of AS-levels.

Opinion 23

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