Students are narrowing the focus of their studies to what will win them marks because they are having to work their way through university, a national conference on assessment heard in Birmingham last week.
Graham Gibbs, of the Centre for Higher Education Practice based at the Open University, said the volume of assessment had risen with the Quality Assurance Agency's obsession with standards. This was influencing student behaviour.
He said:"They aren't reading around their subject. They aren't putting in the hours. They're working in Tesco to get through college in three years, instead of six as in the United States."
Academic and administrative staff were also affected and assessment costs had overtaken teaching costs, Professor Gibbs said.
Referring to proposals to reform the external examiner system, he said the idea that external examiners increased the reliability of exam results was false. Research showed that the more coursework, the better students did and the more deeply they learnt.
The conference was organised by the Generic Centre, part of the Learning and Teaching Support Network for representatives of the 24 LTSN subject centres and education developers. A series of assessment guides were launched that will go to vice-chancellors, pro vice-chancellors and education developers.
Brenda Smith, director of the Generic Centre, told a meeting of the National Union of Students leaders: "Assessment influences so many things. It affects what students learn because they learn what they will be tested on. It affects how lecturers teach because they want their students to be successful. It affects the way students organise their studies and it affects how students are able to progress."