What’s so bad about coursework?

Coursework enables students to demonstrate they can work on a task over a period of time and bring it to completion

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I imagine many teachers breathed a sigh of relief yesterday after Michael Gove abandoned his plans to scrap GCSEs in key subjects in England and replace them with English Baccalaureate Certificates.

However his announcement made it clear he still plans to phase out coursework and modular learning in favour of traditional end-of-year exams, despite coursework nowadays being carried out under staff supervision in the classroom.

There seems to be a generally accepted view that GCSEs are the easy option when it comes to exams, and coursework is the easy option when it comes to GCSEs.  This is nothing new – mine was the third school year to sits GCSEs in 1990 and, even back then, I can remember feeling a bit deflated, once I’d received my grades, at all the talk in the press about standards slipping.

To be honest, I absolutely hated coursework when I was at school as it made me work much harder.  For once I couldn’t rely just on my wits.  I was one of those irritating kids who could cram loads of information in my brain over a short period of time and then regurgitate it onto an exam paper to great success.  I once got 97% in an exam during the final year of my degree. Of course, a few days later I’d forgotten pretty much everything I’d memorised. If I’d had to resit the exam on the spot, I’d have been lucky to scrape a pass.

But it seems that the further someone progresses through further and higher education, the more assessments rely upon coursework and “bite-size” modules over end-of-year exams.  My MA was assessed entirely on essays written over the course of a couple of years.  Similarly my PhD was judged almost solely on the basis of a 100,000 word dissertation that took four years to write, with only a short oral ‘viva’ examination at the end.  Yet no-one was complaining that I was benefiting from lowering standards or accusing me of cheating when I finally passed these qualifications.

I guess it all comes down to what is the purpose of qualifications.  If they are genuinely to prepare people for the world of employment and demonstrate the skills they’ve acquired, then written exam papers seem a strange, narrow-minded way of going about this.  I struggle to think of a single profession where you are required to work day-to-day under exam-type conditions without interacting with anyone else or using a computer or the internet. 

In many ways, I suppose for me stand-up comedy was a good career choice for me given my ability to think on my feet in written examinations.  Each comedy gig is like a mini-exam where I pass or fail according to how many people laugh at me; and every summer I take my material to the Edinburgh Fringe in order to be graded by faceless reviewers.  In fact it almost feels like I’m doing my GCSEs all over again, year after year.  I imagine this to be some people’s worst nightmare!

In contrast to exams, coursework enables students to demonstrate they can work on a task over a period of time and bring it to completion.  It’s more inclusive, catering for different learning styles.  For practical subjects such as drama, it’s a much more suited method of assessment.

Put it this way, if you were an employer, would you rather hire the person who could demonstrate they can undertake a project and bring it to completion; or the person who could demonstrate they can cram loads of facts and then regurgitate them on cue?

After all, if coursework is good enough for post-graduate level then why not GCSEs?

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