These apparently contradictory findings have emerged from a study of 2, 000 current and post-GCSE students carried out by University of Bath researchers Keith Bishop, Kate Bullock and Sue Martin. "There is clearly an inconsistency here," the researchers acknowledge. "One interpretation might be that an individual student will claim authenticity for his or her own work: what is in doubt is the authenticity of other students' work."
The study, commissioned by the Joint Council for the GCSE, found that 66 per cent of boys and 72 per cent of girls believe that coursework is the fairest assessment method.
An even higher proportion of students (88 per cent of girls and 83 per cent of boys) consider that it develops valuable transferable skills which are not tested through examinations.
The vast majority of students also agreed that coursework is motivating because it keeps them on target (84 per cent of girls and 80 per cent of boys).
But the survey produced several findings that will be seized on by those who believe the Government was right to stipulate that coursework should count for no more than 20 per cent of the final mark, except in English where a 40 per cent maximum is allowed.
Just over half of the students (52 per cent of girls and 51 per cent of boys) admitted it is easy to cheat at coursework, and nearly three-quarters (72 per cent of girls and 74 per cent of boys) said it is impossible to be certain that a piece of coursework is a student's own work.
The majority of students (53 per cent of girls and 63 per cent of boys) agreed that coursework should contribute no more than 40 per cent to the final mark. And a higher proportion (65 per cent of girls and 70 per cent of boys) believe that an end-of-course examination is essential for the credibility of GCSE.
More than two-thirds of students felt overloaded with coursework and four-fifths complained that the amount of time they had to devote to it was out of all proportion to its share of the total marks. Nevertheless, the researchers report that students' attitudes to coursework are overwhelmingly positive. Most believe that it has a range of benefits including the development of communication and research skills.
However, the researchers say that Year 12 students, with the benefit of hindsight, had a more sceptical view of coursework than Year 11 GCSE candidates.
They also point out that there is evidently a core of boys that is not motivated by this form of assessment. "The (gender) difference is apparent at each ability level, but most notably at the lower level," the researchers say. "The middle and lower ability groups of girls clearly perceive coursework as being in their interests and giving them a better chance of success than by examination work alone."
Nearly a quarter of the boys (23 per cent) said that coursework favours girls, but only 9 per cent of girls agreed with this statement. However, just over half of the 508 teachers and lecturers (53 per cent) who were questioned by the researchers felt that there was a difference between boys' and girls' ability to do coursework, and 47 per cent commented that it favours girls.
The majority of the teachers (58 per cent) also accepted that it is easy to cheat but many of them added that they have little difficulty identifying work that is not authentic.
Student perceptions of the GCSE, by Keith Bishop, Kate Bullock, and Sue Martin, University of Bath, tel. 01225 826826, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org