Is coursework a fair way of assessing pupils?

Francis Gilbert's picture
A version of this article appeared in the Times, Tuesday 8th May.

When a pupil of mine, Gerry, presented me with his English Language A level coursework, I couldn’t believe my eyes.  It was A* with knobs on! “Blimey, Gerry, how did you do that?” I asked, “Your last piece scarcely scraped a D grade.” Gerry, who was a bit of ‘wide-boy’, winked at me, “I re-booted my brain sir!” I had to admire the craftsmanship of the essay;  it wasn’t a ‘generic’ copy, the work was personalised and clearly had not been copied from the internet. Much later, I was to learn that it was the work of a personal tutor. There was no way I could prove plagiarism because the tutor had re-worded Gerry’s personal responses. Furthermore, knowing that it was technically a ‘legitimate’ piece of work, I was pleased that my results would be boosted -- teachers’ career are on the line if they get bad results now.

It’s fairly obvious it’s the system that’s at fault. When you have very ‘high-stakes’ testing like we do in this country, pupils are bound to find ‘quick fixes’. So much is riding on the marks for both teacher and pupil. The former’s pay packet now depends, in part, upon their pupils’ performances in their GCSEs and A Levels, while the latter’s whole career and future can hinge upon a grade.

Coursework has always been a problem because unscrupulous students can so easily cheat. In my experience, most  egregious offenders now get caught; the ‘copy and paste’ jobs from the internet are always spotted. But coursework like Gerry’s can still get through, particularly if competitive parents get involved. I’ve come across parents who have written essays for their children because their child’s grades have been more important to them than their integrity.

The last government tried to stop the Gerrys of this world with the introduction of what is termed ‘Controlled Assessment’  (CA) at GCSE whereby all ‘coursework’ is done in the classroom under the supervision of the teacher; this doesn’t necessarily weed out the cheats because notes can brought into the exam. That said, these notes have to be brief and clearly the cheating has drastically dropped from previous years. However, unsupervised coursework still forms a major part of A Levels.

However, the current government is saying that it’s going to stop coursework entirely and have only end-of-course exams. While this may stop the cheating, it’s also unfair because the vast majority of students I’ve taught have benefited from doing coursework and haven’t been crooked. Perhaps we need a more continental system of assessment where presentations and speeches are factored in to the overall marks. I think this would make our courses more educative, more fun and fairer.

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Ricky-Tarr's picture
Wed, 16/05/2012 - 11:13

Why are so many of the words and phrases in this post in scare quotes?

..... 'generic'.... 'legitimate'..... 'high-stakes'..... 'quick-fixes'..... 'copy-and-paste'.....

Are there multiple ironies I'm missing?

eJD8owE1's picture
Wed, 16/05/2012 - 12:27

The other problem with continuous assessment via controlled assessment is the time it takes. In a two year GCSE course, it is easy for ten weeks (ie, more than an eighth) to be consumed by controlled assessments. The work that would previously have been done outside contact time is now being done with teachers having to invigilate, and as the content of the course has not been reduced, this represents a major increase in the amount of content to be covered in each teaching hour.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Wed, 16/05/2012 - 12:37

It's often easy to look at the problems with a system and to miss its huge benefits.

So for example at a recent consultation I was at which compared maths results of student around the world, the UK achieved exceptionally high results in statistics questions.

Could this be anything to do with our forcing all students to do statistics coursework at GCSE? In five years time we'll be able to tell as we'll have data on the effect of abolishing coursework.

Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 16/05/2012 - 16:22

In the years BI (Before the Internet) I used to ask parents to sign a slip saying that any coursework was the pupil’s own unaided work. However, this would not stop an unscrupulous parent conniving with their child to send in coursework which had received a great deal of help.

Coursework is a valuable component of pupils’ work. It shows research, comprehension and analysis. However, the temptation for pupils, parents and teachers to cheat in order to gain extra marks rises when tests are high-stake.

The answer isn’t controlled assessment. As eJD8owE1 says, this is time-consuming and wastes valuable lesson time. Part of the answer might be in the questions set for coursework and the type of responses. Why not an oral presentation which could be recorded? Or setting a question based on research which involved some kind of field work (in Business Studies for example this could be a devising a marketing strategy for a product or running a mini-business, complete with business plan, accounts etc)? These things are hard to cheat.

It’s more difficult in English because this requires responding to the text. This limits the type of question that could be asked.

It doesn’t help children if parents and teachers collude in cheating. It doesn’t reflect a pupil’s true ability, neither does it prepare them for work or higher education.

Ben Taylor's picture
Thu, 17/05/2012 - 00:19

Some personal reflections.

In my life science degree most of the individual courses of the degree involved significant work during the course but were mostly assessed by examination. For example, maybe you had an individually assigned essay of several thousand words or write ups of experiments which required a lot of time and effort, but were worth only 5 to 10% of the final course mark. So you benefited from the formative work of the course, had an incentive, but still had to really get a grip of the content and ideas to do well in the exam.

Personally I got much satisfaction and learnt a great deal from this coursework. But it was scammable, there were photocopied personal notes of students from former years knocking about, mostly with regard to lab work which was re-run, which could be studied or outright plagerised. This was in the mid 90s prior to the scale and usability of the internet of today and at one of the better rated English universities.

I think back to my years of GCSE which were only in the second year of GCSE (1989), I greatly enjoyed the coursework aspect of GCSE English which included creative writing tasks and I believe that we did our own work. That was way before mass internet and our work was still handwritten. Most people didn't have computers or word processors, even schools didn't have widespread access. All references were books (mostly) or offline computers. There weren't even many books apart from the class textbooks.

I think there is a technological challenge to the integity of coursework today, add in the social effects of resource from class (tutoring, home internet, contacts etc.) and there is no doubt it favours the better resourced. But the poorer and determined student can still do well.

I don't have an answer to coursework. We need satisfaction in learning, real personal discovery, and true achievement, which is genuinely assessed against objective and peer group standards. How that is squared with examination I don't know.

I don't agree with strict payment by results for teachers, this is also scammable and unfair. But I do agree with letting schools manage themselves including what they pay their staff, and letting the children and teachers choose whether or not they go there.

The only solution I can see is some massively progressive function in funding of education linked to income (school vouchers?), alongside technological measures such as highly individualised one off coursework.

Daniel's picture
Fri, 18/01/2013 - 16:49

Plagiarism is a grave issue and it will be difficult to combat the issues of copied content unless you start using a reliable plagiarism check tool that can detect whether someone is cheating on you.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Fri, 18/01/2013 - 16:55

Do you use a plagiarism check to check your OH is faithful Daniel? By the way how do you get hyperlinks into posts?

Daniel's picture
Fri, 18/01/2013 - 17:26

@Rebecca : Yes, its a reliable tool, and it's a trick to add hyperlink :)

houghton's picture
Tue, 22/07/2014 - 15:59

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