V-c seeks to end first-year exams

October 19, 2007

Gloucestershire plan would emphasise coursework and cut module choice. Melanie Newman reports. Gloucestershire University is consulting on "radical" plans to abolish exams for all first-year students as part of a new teaching and learning strategy.

Patricia Broadfoot, the vice-chancellor, confirmed that she is also pushing for a "substantial reduction" in the number of exams for students at all levels across her university amid mounting questions over the value of the traditional form of assessment.

She told The Times Higher that she believes that exams are not the best way to promote students' learning.

"Students have an instrumentalist attitude to study, and we want to move away from that. We want to see them excited by study, and exams contradict that," she said.

Professor Broadfoot is the most high profile of a number of educationists who have argued that other forms of assessment, such as assignments and presentations, are more suitable for today's students. Middlesex University abolished first-year exams in 2004, moving to "100 per cent coursework", arguing that it was the best way to "facilitate learning".

But although some academics argue that timed exams alienate some students and test only the ability to pass exams, a study last year by Adrian Furnham, a professor of psychology at University College London, found that the least intelligent students favour coursework because it allows them to "freeload" from others and hide their limitations. He blamed the rising use of coursework for grade inflation.

Under Professor Broadfoot's plans, formal exams for first-year students would be "restricted to those required by professional bodies", and grades would be restricted to a simple "satisfactory/unsatisfactory".

Professor Broadfoot, a professor of education, said she wanted "to challenge taken-for-granted assumptions" about exams.

Staff in the university's focus groups agreed students needed to change their perception of assessment, to stop seeing it as a hurdle and to see it rather as a valuable exercise that is central to learning. Research in one school found that students did not collect 20-30 per cent of marked assignments.

"Much time is spent on marking and feedback," Professor Broadfoot said, "but this suggests that the latter is not perceived as valuable by a significant minority". Noting that this year's National Student Survey highlighted concerns about a lack of formative feedback, she said that "this is a challenging and urgent agenda for all universities".

Gloucestershire University's ongoing student survey found that 35 per cent of students said they paid more attention to their marks than to tutors' comments, and 42 per cent were not in favour of abolishing exams.

Professor Broadfoot said she would like to see "a substantial reduction in the use of examinations at every level" and their replacement by "21st- century approaches to assessment".

"New types of feedback to students have developed in line with technological developments - for example, podcasting, electronic criterion-referenced sheets and Questionmark Perception (interactive quizzes). All these provide personalised and formative feedback matched to learning objectives," she said.

Gloucestershire's new teaching and learning strategy also includes the promotion of "active learning" throughout the university, or learning through practical activities. "We want students to learn through their own research and to get more involved with teaching each other," Professor Broadfoot said.

In a bid to improve cohesion among the student body, Professor Broadfoot is also cutting the choice of modules.

"We want to build a strong cohort of students who identify with and support each other."

"Students at collegiate universities are very happy with their experience. We want to rebuild some of that sense of identity, which has been lost in higher education. Research on learning shows that students' ability to learn relates to their relationship with their social group," Professor Broadfoot said.


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