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We must not give up on coursework

Coursework was never meant to be an extra burden. The way to save it, says Mike Cresswell, is to use what is done naturally as part of learning

The recent Qualifications and Curriculum Authority report on coursework for GCSEs and A-levels confirmed its value in many subjects. However it also raised the issues of candidates getting help with this work and of plagiarism, especially involving material lifted from the internet.

My exam board, AQA, is committed to initiatives that will address these issues, including issuing guidance about what constitutes acceptable assistance.

The reaction from government to the report has been to seek to reduce considerably the amount of coursework, particularly for GCSEs. (The reduction in units in A-level for courses starting in 2008 will inevitably reduce the coursework involved in those.) But is cutting coursework the best policy? To answer this question, we need to understand how we have arrived at the current position.

Most GCSE and A-level coursework now consists of a well-defined piece (or pieces) of work which students complete during their course, which is marked by their teacher, and is subject to rigorous external moderation by awarding bodies.

However, exam coursework was originally intended to be carried out during the course, not as an additional requirement such as an extended essay or project. For example, the early coursework in English literature required teachers to assess assignments done naturally as part of the study across a range of genres, periods, etc. Such an approach leads to a wide range of work being produced and assessed and requires significant professional participation to standardise assessment and moderate the work, and external checking.

However, since the 1980s, coursework has changed. This was in response to concerns expressed, but never justified with substantial evidence. An unwillingness to trust the professionalism of teachers led policy-makers to seek more control over the nature of the work and carry out more checks on the marks awarded.

The consequence is the present situation: a more formulaic and controlled approach that is less motivating for students and more of a burden for teachers. The attempt to reduce risks relating to teacher professionalism, by increased amounts of control, has created different risks relating to the authentication of coursework as the work of the student themselves.

The question is whether it is now possible to move back towards a system in which examination coursework arises more naturally as part of the student's learning and is assessed by teachers working under a framework of quality assurance, rather than control.

Interestingly, at the same time that the Government is trying to reduce coursework in GCSE, the new specialised diplomas will involve a raft of subjects which, by their very nature, require assessment by teachers of vocational activities, many of which involve hands-on practical work. The resources required to externally examine these activities would be prohibitive and they do not lend themselves to re-marking after the event by an external moderator.

This shows that alternatives to reducing the amount of coursework in examinations are possible and fit in with current policy.

If we are preparing our young people for the world beyond school, then they should learn to do activities that require independent study and research, and sharing and cross-referencing with others.

Balance is everything. It would be wrong to return to an era where examinations were solely written papers; it would also be wrong not to try to ensure that plagiarism is identified and penalised; most of all, it would be wrong to create an educational and examination experience for young people that does not prepare them for later life.

It would be a seriously backward step to remove work done during the course from the evidence used to assess students for GCSEs and A-levels. Such a move would be demotivating for students and teachers. It would also appear perverse when, for increasing numbers of students, working towards specialised diplomas, such assessment by teachers will be the norm.

Urgent and serious consideration should be given to redefining the idea of examination coursework and returning its meaning to that originally intended: work carried out during the course.

Every subject should have an element of teacher assessment, so that the way students have performed and contributed during their course of study plays a role in their final assessment.

Mike Cresswell is director-general of the Assessment and Qualifications Alliance exam board

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