Plodders prefer coursework, study finds

September 2, 2005

The least intelligent students favour coursework instead of exams because it allows them to hide their limitations, a leading university psychologist has found, writes Phil Baty.

The study, co-authored by Adrian Furnham, professor of psychology at University College London, is set to renew concerns over the increasing use of continuous assessment and assessed group work in universities. Some academics claim these methods are devaluing degrees with "grade inflation", as they allow weaker students to get through courses they might otherwise fail.

Professor Furnham will shortly publish a study in the journal Learning and Individual Differences with Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic of Bath University. It concludes that students' IQ scores clearly correlated with their preferred method of being assessed.

The most intelligent wanted to be assessed by unseen, timed exams but those with the lowest level of ability preferred continuous assessment and group work.

"The bright students always want traditional exams because they know they are capable of performing well," said Professor Furnham. "The less able prefer continuous assessment or group work, because they can pool resources, freeload and get their friends or parents to help, or can plagiarise. It is not a rigorous form of assessment."

He said that although continuous assessment had a valid role in higher education, as different forms of assessment assess different attributes, "it should always be supplemented by timed tests where the person works alone".

He called for a restriction on continuous assessment to differentiate between students' performance and to address employers' inability to judge growing numbers of students graduating with first or upper-second class degrees. Last year, 55 per cent of graduates obtained a first or upper-second class, compared with 25 per cent ten years ago.

Middlesex University caused a furore last year when The Times Higher revealed it was abandoning exams for first-year students after concerns about failure rates. The university said the move to 100 per cent coursework was for sound educational reasons because formal exams were not always appropriate, for example, with competence-based subjects. It also allowed quicker feedback.

Alan Smithers, professor of education at Buckingham University, said:"It is good to have evidence for what people have long suspected. Intelligence shows itself in both depth and speed of thought, and tests under standard exam conditions do a much better job of identifying the really talented people. It is not surprising that plodders prefer coursework."

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