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Testing times

Stuart Sutherland ("Now every degree will be second class" Education+, 4 June), fails to address positive aspects of continuous assessment.

In certain degree courses, for example medicine or clinical veterinary medicine, students are evaluated on their ability to produce written essay- style answers to exam questions, and the way they apply knowledge, assimilated over five or six years, to clinical situations. Students are assessed semi-objectively during their clinical rotations in a number of areas.

In most cases, the continuous assessment mark is a true reflection of an individual's performance during the rotation and that it correlates well with the overall marks awarded in the final written papers.

J K Dunn

Lecturer, Department of Clinical Veterinary Medicine

University of Cambridge

We introduced different forms of degree assessment not to 'placate the students' but because we realised that there was a whole range of other abilities which needed to be developed, particularly the ability to present and explain work and to demonstrate longer term consistent application to a problem.

The result was a range of different testing procedures which might, I suppose, be described by Prof. Sutherland's all-purpose Aunt Sally 'continuous assessment'.

I am sure the same considerations applied in most cases where 'traditional' unseen examinations were replaced.

Dr D.G.C. Jones

Llanwrtyd Wells


Stuart Sutherland asserts that Oxford University has decided to place more weight on continuous assessment. This is not true.

Increasing the use of extended essays as part of the overall assessment of undergraduates was merely one of the recommendations put forward by the North Commission in its report on the university, published in January 1998. The university is still considering and debating the report, and none of its recommendations has yet been enacted.

Gill Sanders

Press Officer

Oxford University

As a student of biological sciences at the University of Leicester who has just sat her final exams, I feel that Stuart Sutherland has misunderstood the purpose of continuous assessment.

The coursework I have undertaken during my final year has taken the form of problem solving, data handling, public speaking and evaluation of scientific papers, all of which are important skills for a scientist but are not tested in traditional exams.

Assessed essays in the final year are usually concerned with recent developments in the field - not the sort of questions that can be answered by copying passages from textbooks, or by consulting a friend.

Laura Wiseman


I was involved in continuous assessment for many years in Canadian universities. In general it seems to me fairer than the old exams-count-for-everything method. We haven't abolished examinations, except in a few courses, and at McMaster, the university where I spent most of my teaching career, the final grade for a course normally includes the examination mark, generally 35 to 40 per cent of the total. The remainder is made up of marks for essays, tests and seminars.

Disciplinary action is taken against students for plagiarism, but I'm sure the availability of ready-made essays (a plague throughout North America) makes a good deal of fraudulence possible. I see no effective way of avoiding this, but should one penalize hardworking students whose performance throughout the year can contribute to the grades they deserve?

James Dale

Ontario, Canada

Assessment by examinations alone has too narrow a focus. We need to ask ourselves what the mark awarded at degree level should represent. With exams alone, too often it can favour those who are good at short- term memory and exam skills. Furthermore, a year's hard work can be all but lost in the lottery of the three-hour exam. Within the workplace, many employers are not just looking for exam high-fliers, but also for people who can demonstrate an ability to work well over time and within teams.

Paul Bigmore,

Gustard Wood,


So little learned

Your recent articles on the functioning of the Quality Assurance Agency (Education +, 26 May and 4 June) give only a partial picture of this body's activities.

The QAA seeks to set out in advance the outcomes required from higher level qualifications. Recent experiences with NVQs (in common with educational theory and practice) has demonstrated that such a mechanistic attempt to predict and constrain learning turns education into a paper chasing exercise.

How sad that the QAA, which employs some ex-NCVQ staff (including the chief executive himself), seems to have learned so little from this disastrous failure.

Dr Irena Grugulis


Manchester School of



Well rid of him

I write as a third year science student, in the middle of my finals, having spent 20 years in the real world before coming to university.

Does 'Name and address supplied' (Your Views, Education+, 4 June) want a medal for the excessive study hours he put in ten years ago?

If he really thinks that academic quality can be assessed by counting how many hours students spend with a book open in front of them, then his students are well rid of him.

Peter J. Luce


Students are fed-up with having the older generation moralising that we never do enough work. I spend from 10am until 1pm, then from 2pm until 5pm and finally from 6pm to 9pm, working either in the library or at home. I hope that this will be enough to see me through my exams. I fail to see how I could work longer hours without becoming reliant on Pro-plus.

Simon Francis,

2nd Year History,

Edinburgh University.

Perhaps a four and a half hour revision timetable for my second year exams may seem "laughable" to those who attended university a generation ago, but considering I have worked consistently throughout the year on course work, class presentations, extra reading and revision note making I believe that I am justified in saying that I have worked hard and feel prepared for my examinations.

Ten years ago Finals were the only exams that really mattered. Now many degrees are examined over three years of exams, often involving course work and independent research.

How can it be possible to compare the exam stress of the two eras?

Yvette Essen

Edgware, Middlesex

As a student at Oxford revising for exams for an MSc I think it is ridiculous to expect anyone to revise for 14 hours a day, seven days a week, and still be taking in information and processing it.

From the experience of my friends doing Finals at Oxford two and three years ago, it was those who revised the most who were the least successful.

The two who got Firsts revised for a maximum of six hours a day, with frequent coffee breaks, stopping by ten each night and taking every Sunday off.

I shall continue to study for a "laughable" five hours a day, five and a half days a week; this got me four grade As at A level and a good 2i in my first degree at Oxford.

Cheryl Yardley

High Wycombe, Bucks

Tough teaching

I was very saddened by Anne Simons' letter (Your Views, Education+, June 4) but I have to admire her passion for teaching in the face of real difficulties.

I, too, have taught for 25 years - but under three head teachers who fought for higher standards, smaller classes, better discipline.

Yes, teaching can be tough - but don't overstate the case!

Andrew Houghton

Warminster, Wiltshire

Charging for data

John Izbicki in "Busk at Usk" (Word of Mouth, Education+, 4 June) is producing "absolute nonsense". If he had checked his facts with the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) we could have shown him that the allegations being made are untrue.

HSE is not denying BUSK information. Over the last three years we have answered many queries from them and supplied all the information we can - where we have it - including statistics.

It was quite reasonable for HSE to point out to Busk that if they continue to ask us for information which we have already given them or which is freely available in HSE publications, then we may have to charge them. Under the Government Code on Access to Information we are not required to continue to reply to the same questions, and can charge for further information according to how long it takes to prepare answers.

Jenny Bacon, Director General, Health and Safety Executive.

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