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EDITIONS
Saturday, 10 November, 2001, 01:41 GMT
Your concerns over coursework
By BBC education correspondent Mike Baker

Forgive me for returning to last week's coursework theme but, judging by your responses, it is an issue that worries parents and causes difficulties for teachers.

It does seem the examination boards need to produce more definitive rules on the help that parents and teachers can give pupils at GCSE and A-level.


Thanks to all of you who wrote in - it was good to hear from teachers, parents and students

Coursework clearly raises ethical dilemmas for teachers. Many of you who wrote did not want your names used or your schools identified.

One head of department summed up a universal teachers' complaint: the workload involved in supervising and marking coursework.

He listed the extra administration it involves: "preparing, monitoring, marking, moderating and form-filling".

Cheating potential

But even more alarming was this experienced teacher's view that the coursework element in some examinations was "wonderful for cheating and high marks" with "very little chance of getting caught".


It is totally unreasonable for exam boards to expect teachers to pick up all but the most blatant cheating

Teacher
He also directly challenged the exam board's view that cheating can, and should, be spotted by teachers.

As he put it: "It is totally unreasonable for exam boards to expect teachers to pick up all but the most blatant cheating, especially when I'm under a lot of pressure to get higher marks and I don't have the time or the incentive to look too carefully."

Maybe in the days before exam league tables and performance targets it was easier to expect teachers to jump on cheating?

Clearly though if a school feels under pressure, and if that pressure is passed on from head teacher to class teacher, it is a tough decision to draw attention to improper help on coursework which, undetected, could translate a D grade into a C grade.

Encouraging improvements

Another e-mail gave further insight into the pressures teachers are under to get the best possible grades from coursework.

The correspondent described how a family member, a physics teacher, spent half-term checking "mountains" of pupils' coursework.

writing
Coursework is an issue that worries parents and causes difficulties for teachers
This teacher, said the e-mail, was "intending to pass the manuscripts back (to the pupils) with suggestions on improvements".

The e-mail went on to say that this physics teacher believed that this checking and redrafting procedure would "enable a student who had scored say 11/30 to increase their score to around 25/30".

The motivation for this half-term work was, according to the correspondent, partly that "the school's hierarchy" was keen to achieve the highest grades and partly because it would help this teacher to succeed in his attempt to get a "super-teacher bonus".

No redrafting

Other teachers take a very different approach. As it happens it was another physics teacher who wrote to say he did not allow his pupils "the benefit of a redraft" adding that he thought that was how it should be "across the board".

Yet this contrasted with yet another teacher who wrote: "I take in coursework, highlight what is missing, talk pupils through it, give it out again and repeat the process until they can take no more!"

No wonder, then, that another teacher noted how much anxiety coursework causes pupils.

As a form tutor he was aware that at this time of year, Year 11 pupils are "stressed out of their minds" by the demands of coursework.

Tough on cheats

But he did provide evidence that some teachers do look for, and catch, cheats.

One of the pupils in his tutor group had received help from a friend but the subject teacher had found out and that piece of coursework would not now count.


I do think as a parent it is very hard not to help at all

Parent
But, he wondered: "How many times would this slip through the net?"

Another teacher picked up on my point that coursework today seems to be less about individual research and more about teacher-led, collective work done in the classroom.

He said this was the inevitable result of the pressure on time which meant that "we have no choice but to limit the range of projects, lead pupils through it, and move on as quickly as possible".

Parents' dilemma

Parents seem to find the dilemmas of coursework equally difficult. Most seemed to want to help but without over-stepping the mark.

One correspondent summed it up well: "I do think as a parent it is very hard not to help at all, although I know that this immediately gives certain students an unfair advantage".

This parent worried whether even getting photographs developed was helping too much.

While that seems reasonable, what about helping with spelling and punctuation? After all, in many subjects these count for a proportion of the marks.

Some parents made the point that schools encourage parents to help with school work in the earlier stages of education and this makes it harder to suddenly withdraw help when it comes to coursework.

Boundaries

The father of a 12 year old said he currently helped with her studies but in principle he "would never cross the boundary of helping her with examination coursework".

But, he added, his problem was knowing "where is this boundary?".

Finally, while I received responses from parents and teachers, there was little from a student's perspective.

However, one undergraduate - for whom A-levels and GCSEs were still a relatively recent memory - reminded me that modular exams were, in a sense, another form of drafting and redrafting as they allowed more than one attempt to get a good grade.

'On track'

This student said he preferred modular exams as they "kept you on track throughout the year".

He thought the advent of modular courses rather than coursework "could be a reason for the rise in grades" because of the opportunities to retake modules to improve performance.

So, thanks to all of you who wrote in. It was good to hear from teachers, parents and students.

Perhaps this might even prompt some examiners to give us their views?


Mike Baker and the education team welcome your comments at educationnews@bbc.co.uk although cannot always answer individual e-mails.

See also:

02 Nov 01 | Mike Baker
16 Jun 01 | Mike Baker
23 Aug 01 | UK Education
05 Jun 01 | N Ireland
Internet links:


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