Monday, September 18, 2006

The Need for Coursework

Coursework has become one of the most maligned aspects of our regularly-maligned exam system. Stories abound of people 'playing the system' - teachers giving assistance above and beyond what can reasonably be expected (to the extent of giving pre-prepared quotes lists to all students); parents writing their kids' assignments; the spectre of readily-downloadable essays on the Internet. One of my fellow students at school is rumoured to have copied his GCSE creative writing assignment from Rumpole of the Bailey. Surely a system so open to abuse must be wrong?

Simply because a system can be circumvented, however, doesn't mean that the system is, at core, wrong. The reason that such widespread cheating happens is because the exam system isn't rigorous enough to check each and every individual. Even a sufficiently high level of random cheating - with stern penalties attached to teachers and students found to have cheated - should provide a pretty strong incentive to keep a fair system. Schools may receive bonuses if they rise in the league tables - but if there's a chance of losing your job and being struck off teaching because you tried to fiddle the system, then the teacher involved has a harder choice to make.

It is vital that a more rigorous checking system is put in place, because an effectively policed coursework system is vital in making Britain's public examination system as rigorous and effective as possible.

A system that is based entirely on examinations, whether taken as modules or as a final act of education, can only test a limited range of skills. The ability for instant recall of information, for example, is prized above other skills. In a short time, too, an examination answer rewards the person who can bulldoze through an argument. Hitting the point quickly, and drawing together the necessary facts to support your answer are all that is really possible in (say) a 45-minute essay.

A coursework project, on the other hand, demands that the student consider a wider range of evidence, and construct an argument with far more care, than can possibly be tested in any single exam. Moreover, it allows the chance for more rigorous source analysis and application of further contextual information. The ability to construct a more detailed piece of work, that requires greater depth to the argument, is absolutely vital to any system. That is why the thesis is an essential part of many university courses. It allows skills that are less to the fore in timed examinations to be assessed as part of a candidate's overall merit.

The argument applies equally to sciences, too. The recall of information, and the ability to solve unfamiliar problems are crucial in succeeding in a science. At the same time, however, there is a practical element to this knowledge that needs to be tested to gain a full picture of any candidate's ability.

Coursework is maligned because we have an exam system that does not have sufficiently strong procedures in place to identify where cheating has occurred. Because at heart, coursework assignments strengthen an exam system. They prevent candidates from being assessed on too limited a number of skills; they demand that a candidate is able to construct an argument in detail and of a far wider scope than can be answered in any single examination. It adds a fundamentally useful aspect to our exam system; if it is considered too easy to step around, it is the marking process that should be tightened.