Exams Debate: Is it right for English GCSEs to be Closed Book? I Oxford Open Learning

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    Exams Debate: Is it right for English GCSEs to be Closed Book?

    At present, GCSE English Literature exams does not allow students to take their textbooks in with them. The AQA exam board requires them to have learned the following:
    • A Shakespearean play
    • A 19th century novel
    • A modern text
    • 15 poems belonging to the anthology of Power & Conflict or Love & Relationships

    That’s 18 texts – and other examination boards have similar requirements. Students are expected to have an in-depth understanding of each, be able to analyse them and remember quotations. This raises the question, is the exam a test of skills or memory (or both)? And which should it be?

    Granted, being able to memorise can be a skill-for-life. For instance, doctors need to be able to think on their feet and recall information, often with no time to check a textbook. Surely, though, this skill doesn’t need to fall on subjects like English. It leads me back to my original question – is the English Literature exam a test of memory or skills?

    In my view, it is both. As a teacher, however, I often see how the pressure to remember everything overshadows the time invested in understanding texts and practising analysis skills.

    I’m sure that the thinking behind the decision for the exam to be closed book stems from the idea that it makes it easier for students. Or perhaps there is the idea that they could cheat. But would making the exam easier be a bad thing? After all, it would be making it easier for good reason – the pressure to remember would be alleviated, without compromising on the application of skills and understanding of texts. And, if there is the belief that it could lead to cheating in exams, I ask – how?

    Even if students brings an annotated book into an exam, they can’t cheat. They won’t know what the question is, for a start. And they still need to know the book, cover to cover, to know where to look and what to reference. Yes, they may have notes about the writer’s methods but they will still need to analyse this in the context of the question.

    In addition, there are questions on unseen poetry and on set texts, that dictate which extract students must place their initial focus on. My opinion is that the exam should allow students to bring their texts in with them. What’s yours?


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    Sumantha is an education and training specialist with over ten years' experience in developing and delivering adult and secondary level education. Her professional journey includes a six-year stint as a secondary school teacher. She is currently a freelance content writer and learning and development consultant. Sumantha also has a portfolio of private students who she teaches up to GCSE level.