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Last Updated: Friday, 25 November 2005, 23:58 GMT
Coursework in last chance saloon
By Mike Baker
BBC News education correspondent

mike baker graphic
So, at last, something is being done about coursework.

Four years ago, I wrote here about the need for much clearer guidelines for both teachers and parents on what help should, and should not, be given to students completing coursework.

A lengthy inquiry by the qualifications regulators in England, Wales and Northern Ireland concluded the risks of cheating were undeniable.

In England, the government has now demanded a subject-by-subject review of GCSE coursework and new, detailed guidance for everyone involved.

I know from the e-mails that many of you feel very strongly about this issue.

It is also clear that many teachers still regard coursework as a very useful tool for learning and assessment.

The question is this: is enough going to be done to buttress coursework against the undermining it has suffered from allegations of cheating?

Temptations

I have experience of coursework as a parent. My elder daughter went through the GCSE coursework mill a few years ago and my younger daughter is in the middle of it now.

I can recognise the temptations to help too much. It is not just the desire to make sure your children are spending enough time on their coursework submissions and are aware of their deadlines.

Common sense says one obvious boundary not to cross is the point at which you are tempted to put pen to paper
There is also the strong impulse to correct a few spellings and tinker with the grammar.

This has to be resisted. I find the best way is not even to look at the finished piece of work (not that my daughters ever want me to anyway).

Common sense says one obvious boundary not to cross is the point at which you are tempted to put pen to paper, even for an early draft.

Yet we need more detailed guidance than that.

For example, on a recent homework exercise (not coursework, thankfully) my daughter had to compare a couple of poems. She was struggling with the meaning of one of these.

So we sat down and read it together, then discussed it. Once it had become clearer to her, I suggested she go and write up some notes on what we had been saying.

Now, if that had been an assessed piece of coursework, would that have been unreasonable help?

Extra tuition

Of course, I was doing no more than a teacher might do in class. But not all pupils can turn to a parent who read English literature at university (though that makes me pretty useless in helping at any other subject, especially anything mathematical or scientific).

These are not easy issues. Some parents will be able to offer more help than others. Yet, there is also unequal help from schools.

For example, if you know your child is in a particularly large class or has been taught by a series of "supply" teachers, you might well think it OK to try to level things up with a little home tuition.

Again, some children will have the advantage of extra tuition out of school. If some parents can afford to pay for that, why should others not do their bit by discussing work and advising on strategies at home?

Internet plagiarism

It is these uncertainties that have led me, regretfully, to turn against home-based coursework.

I say regretfully because I am aware of the great advantages of coursework, particularly in certain subjects such as history, art, design and technology, and English literature.

Indeed, I have just completed a history course in which the assessment was 100% coursework.

This was an MA and, as is usual, there was no final exam, just essays and a dissertation completed at home under unsupervised conditions.

Of course, if your topic is "Slum or suburb: the development of North Kingston 1869-1895" there are not too many places or people you can look to for help. There is certainly no chance of internet plagiarism.

Nevertheless, universities are now sufficiently concerned about the risks of plagiarism that most use software packages that can detect anything that is lifted from the internet.

My elder daughter, now an undergraduate, has to submit all her essays electronically for this very reason.

At university and sixth-form level, the risks are more from internet plagiarism than from help by parents.

Sadly, it is probably time that schools and exam boards started to invest as much in anti-plagiarism software as the universities have done.

High-pressure exams

However, the educational advantages of self-starting, coursework-based study at both degree level and in A-levels easily outweigh the risks of cheating.

I am not so sure that remains the case at GCSE. Yet I hesitate to subscribe to the view that all coursework should be banned. It can be very motivating for a student who is liberated to go into more detail on a topic.

There are issues of equity too: some students fail to do themselves justice in against-the-clock, high-pressure, exam-hall conditions.

Why should we favour one type of assessment over another when we know that real life will involve all types of tests of our abilities?

On the other hand, quite apart from the risks of cheating, there are other concerns with coursework.

The sheer number of deadlines it imposes on 15 and 16-year-olds involves almost constant pressure throughout the two years of the GCSE course.

'Scaffolding'

So, overall, there would be advantages in reducing and changing coursework. These might include permitting the background work to be done at home but requiring all the written and practical work to be done in supervised sessions at school.

In some subjects - mathematics, for example - there is a strong case for ending coursework completely. The QCA report found maths teachers were less keen on it than any other subject teachers. The same might also apply to science.

Finally there must be much clearer rules about the amount of guidance that can be given by teachers.

Is the practice of providing tip-sheets with recommended essay structures - so-called "scaffolding" - really acceptable?

The inconsistencies between schools and exam boards on how much drafting and re-drafting is allowed, with the benefits of teachers' advice, should also be ironed out.

I suspect the only answer here is to prohibit all re-drafting, while perhaps allowing an early submission of a synopsis just to ensure students are on the right lines.

Perhaps, with these changes, it will be possible to restore confidence in coursework, while benefiting from a reduction in some of the burden on pupils.

Otherwise, without swift and determined action, coursework will become another bright new educational experiment that started out well in theory but failed in practice.

Coursework is now swigging in the "last chance saloon"; let us hope the cavalry will be along soon.


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