Examine ideas, not exam skills

September 30, 2005

Coursework may be the plodder's option, says Maria Misra, but it can also favour originality over the glib elan that exams too often reward

A recent study has claimed that plodder students most favour examination by coursework - propped up by group effort and freeloading on the more able. The more intelligent, it is said, prefer to be examined conventionally. The author of these findings, Adrian Furnham of University College London, has called for a restriction on the use of coursework assessment. Coursework, he suggests, has contributed to grade inflation - 55 per cent of students obtained firsts or upper seconds, compared with merely 25 per cent ten years ago. These conclusions seem to be confirmed by Middlesex University's decision to abolish timed exams for all first-year courses on the grounds that assessment is more appropriate for "competence-based" subjects and allows quicker feedback - but also that the failure rates under conventional exams were too high.

Coming from a department that has traditionally favoured timed exams and has only recently introduced coursework, I feel ambivalent about these conclusions. Having marked hundreds of exam scripts over the past decade, I am increasingly convinced that what they principally test is the ability to pass exams. They also, of course, reward a good memory and the ability to structure an argument, but often at the cost of encouraging superficiality. The ticking clock limits the scope to really explore a topic, garlanding confidence and elan instead. Genuinely profound knowledge is hard to demonstrate in these circumstances, so the impression of profundity is rewarded instead.

We all know of undergraduates who have idled their way through more than two years, only to mug up furiously in the three months preceding finals. They question-spot furiously, badger tutors for exam technique tips and cadge the notes of more conscientious peers, to be rewarded with a respectable, if low-end, upper second. This approach seems just as likely as assessed work to end in grade inflation. Students identify a 2:1 as the target to aim for, work out the techniques required to obtain it and go for it in a dauntingly focused way.

Coursework, on the other hand, when done well, is enjoyable, allows students to engage with the subject and encourages originality. Sessions with students doing coursework are much more satisfying than the exam-coaching sessions that conventional tutorials can degenerate into.

Coursework does indeed have its own downsides - plagiarism being prominent among them - and it can be difficult to ensure that the work students present is all their own. Of late, some students have gone so far as to purchase bespoke essays from agencies. But I wonder how long-term a problem this will be. The quality of this made-to-measure scholarship is apparently very low, so surely our rational-actor students will soon withdraw their custom. Even so, it is hard to ensure that friends and family are not mucking in.

Clearly the ideal assessment system would feature both exams and coursework. Underlying the whole debate, though, is a bigger question: what are we trying to do with a university education? While exams are clearly more effective than coursework in assessing progress, the latter seems to be closer to the ideal of higher education - to pursue ideas for their own sake. Doubtless, however, Oxford, always behind the curve, will find that it is embracing the joys of coursework just as everyone else begins to forsake them.

Maria Misra is a lecturer in modern history at Oxford University.

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