In Defence of GCSE Coursework

Recently, many GCSE subjects have moved away from coursework, and this trend is continuing. But is this a good thing or not?

It may be worth thinking back to the rationale of coursework being introduced in the first place. This varies slightly from subject to subject, but there are some common themes.

First of all, it allowed a different element of assessment to be introduced into the qualification, aside of an exam. Certain things are difficult to evaluate in an exam, such as how well the student is able to use and apply what they have learnt in an unfamiliar situation.

Mathematics lessons, particularly with less able students, begin to take on the characteristics of a game of Chinese whispers as pupils move through their school career. Students struggling with the subject give up asking the all important “why” and settle instead for the much less ambitious “how.”

If you teach a proof for Pythagoras theorum, some students will find that irritating. They will ask: “Is it in the exam”, and as proofs are almost never required in GCSE exams, you may answer: “no.” Unfortunately, this means the students will stop listening. They don’t want to know why something works; they want to know what to do if they see a certain type of question.

In fact, the least able students will be happiest in a Maths lesson repeating similar problems over and over again. Like an actor learning lines, they will try to memorise all the possible permutations of Maths questions and how to do them. A dedicated student of this kind will be able to get a reasonable grade in an exam, but they will gain little real understanding of the subject. Sadly, there are many Maths teachers willing to simply settle for the exam result alone. They are less interested in producing independently thinking people because exam results are pretty much all that their employers use to assess a teacher’s professional quality or worth.

In the end, the best proof of having learnt a skill is how well you can use it without help and how easily you develop it into new areas. This is precisely what coursework tries to assess.

So why is coursework being scrapped? There are two reasons. Firstly, the marking of such work is not easy and needs to be carefully moderated, so that equivalent pieces of work always obtain the same mark or something very close to it. It is time-consuming for busy teachers, and the production of coursework in class takes up valuable exam preparation time. Secondly, and most importantly, students will often submit work they have had help with, be it from friends, tutors, elder siblings or parents. This is very hard to c0ntrol unless you insist on controlled exam conditions. For the exam boards it was the decisive factor. Put simply, they suspected widespread cheating.

This issue will be discussed further in a second article, “On Retaining the Beneficial Elements of GCSE Coursework.”

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