On examinations, coursework and cheating

March 6, 2017

I was shocked last week to read an article which showed how widespread the practice of buying essays online, in order to boost one’s results, has become: it’s not a cheap route to success, but one that tempts many, and is very hard to detect. The issue is somewhat different from plagiarism, ie using material from other sources in your own work and not admitting it: both are definitely cheating and severely punished when found out. Plagiarism was becoming an issue towards the end of my teaching career, and there are, as far as I’m aware, programs capable of detecting it. Indeed, I detected some in my work in the classroom. And neither of these issues is going to go away, because the internet isn’t…

So how best, how fairest to assess performance in a subject like English Literature?

When I did A levels back in the 1970s, it was all examined, and the exams were all closed book (ie you had no texts with you in the exam room). It was hard work, and there was a lot of memorising of quotations, especially: it was to enable exams in the subject to be less memory-dependent, and to spend more time assessing other skills that alternative forms of assessment were devised and tried out. I remember, for instance, preparing students for open book exams, where a copy of the text, sometimes annotated, sometimes not, was allowed in the exam room. A number of problems immediately arose: some editions of a text had better or more copious textual and critical apparatus for weaker students to waste time looking up, and if annotation was allowed, then students – sometimes encouraged by teachers – stretched this to extremes, filling up every margin and blank page with notes and even essay plans… it couldn’t be policed and wasn’t fair.

When I first started teaching, there was far less unnecessary pressure on schools, teachers and students, and a system of 100% coursework seemed to work quite well, as long as moderating processes were adequate. For a while I was group chair of a local panel of schools where we met to moderate and standardise GSCE coursework grades in English Literature. It seemed a fairer system to me, allowing students to develop and demonstrate a far wider range of analytical and writing skills, and completely removing the memory test element. Research at the time also suggested that coursework enabled girls to do better. It’s easy to see potential problems with this system, and they became more and more serious as the educational ‘reforms’ of the bean-counters in the 1980s took effect. Dishonesty was hard to detect and eliminate: teachers could instruct students on what they should write; parents or older siblings could write the essays; extracts from critics and study guides could be copied into an essay in the hope of better marks. Sometimes this might be detected: a lot of the time it surely wasn’t. The advent of the web made this all far worse, as did increasing pressure by school management and OfSTED to produce results.

For most of my teaching career a combination of coursework and examination obtained: the advantages and disadvantages have already been outlined, but the balance between the two allowed a wide range of knowledge, understanding and skills to be developed and assessed.

And now the pendulum seems to have swung back to where it was when I was at school: closed book exams. A number of issues come to the fore: league tables, and competition and comparisons between schools – the ‘market’ as it’s so quaintly called – demands ever higher results (grade inflation) when surely we should be aiming at the best for every student, and co-operation and sharing of resources and expertise between schools. This is compounded by the spread of ‘data collection’ where numbers and grades are perceived to be more important than a real understanding of a student’s strengths and weaknesses (professional judgement has gone out of the window) – how many ways are there to weigh a pig?

We do currently seem to have an education system that isn’t fit for purpose, partly because no-one’s sure of what the purpose is. We have a cumbersome exam system run by a number of competing commercial companies that pretend to be charities, who often cannot recruit enough properly qualified people to mark papers, while we have just increased the number of exams… I’ve often wondered how the French manage to get their baccalaureate marked and results out before the end of the summer term (which is earlier than ours…). And then there’s that major problem that got me started – the internet. If you can buy an essay, written to order, then you hand an advantage to the rich, and you have to turn the clock back to the exam room of forty years ago in the name of fairness. I did manage to memorise enough quotations from the eight texts I studied to help me get my grade ‘A’, but I’m not sure what good that memory test did me…

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