Tuesday, 2 August 2011

Why I Like Coursework

My dear husband, upon reading the title of this post, will with some justification wonder if I have finally gone completely insane. He dealt with an extremely stressed little lecturer around mid-May. He helped me eat the bribery chocolates some of the little dears gave me when I allowed them to breach my internal deadline. He received the plaintive text message pleas for tequila as I sat in a classroom with four kids until nearly 5:30pm on a Friday afternoon. He soothed me as I cried big girly tears of frustration because I could not get my A2s to even show up to class, let alone bring their completed reports with them. But for all that, I still sent off my A-level coursework two days before the Edexcel deadline. Go me.

This is triggered by a post in the Torygraph by Katharine Birbalsingh, saying teachers are being put under pressure to cheat, marking non-existent coursework as students haven't handed it in, and telling them what to write. On the former, I am pleased to say I had the full backing of my manager to send off the 27 pieces of submitted coursework, and the three that didn't bother could bugger off (well, he said "Good luck to them", but the sentiment was definitely the same). On the latter, they get some ideas for suggested topics, coupled with me saying "Please, do something more interesting than sodding stem cell research or cardiovascular disease - there's a whole syllabus you could write about!" (after all, reading through 15 drafts on CVD is not my idea of a fun Easter holiday), although many of them come up with amazing topics on their own, and they brainstorm what the mark scheme means to make sure they include everything needed for maximum marks.

My colleague and I have often discussed swapping exam boards, from Edexcel, who require a 1,500-word report at AS and a 3,000-word report at A2, to OCR, who require assessed practicals and write-ups. Whichever board we go with, the non-exam component is 20% of the total grade. Coursework is hard on students from ESOL backgrounds - some of them have literally only been in the country for 6 months when they are forced to compose a well-structured literature review, and they may still be having issues conjugating verbs. They undoubtedly lose marks for communication when some of their sentences are grammatically incorrect, and I am unable to help them with that.

However, I would be sad to lose the valuable skills that coursework at advanced level brings. After all, the last paper-based exam I had was in 2002 (I don't count class tests in the US or the numerous typing speed tests that I had when working as a PA). I had a viva for my MRes in 2003. However, I have lost count of the number of reports I have had to submit for deadlines, whether it is coursework for my PGCE, course evaluations at the end of the teaching year, statistical summaries when I worked in industry, and even press releases and position statements. Clearly, as far as transferable skills go, coursework-writing is a pretty good one. I'm sure when I first started applying for secretarial work, I cited my MRes and MSci dissertations as evidence that I could work to deadlines.

But at A-level I am not just prepping them for transferable skills. They are doing biology because they want to go into the sciences, whether life, physical, environmental, medical or social. And that means they have to be able to deal with scientific literature. By the time they've finished with their coursework they have learned how to:
  • Write in the third person passive tense using formal, technical language
  • Construct a proper citation and full reference using the Harvard Referencing System (Neil's Toolbox is awesome)
  • Use Google Scholar to find useful references by subject
  • Request, or ask me to request, the PDFs of journal articles on Twitter using #icanhazpdf
  • Read a scientific paper - first the abstract, then the introduction, diagrams and conclusion, then the whole lot if it's useful
  • Condense the 5,000 words that they realise they could easily have written about the subject down to at most 2,000 words
  • Evaluate whether sources are reliable and consider possible biases
  • Formulate their own means of explaining and summarising key research because they know if I don't catch them plagiarising then Edexcel will
In the article in the Torygraph, there are commenters calling for a return to final exams and a removal of coursework components. Perhaps there is some merit at GCSE, although I would have thought everything I have said about transferable skills still applies. And if done properly, then coursework involves synthesis and evaluation, and that looks an awful lot like Bloom's Taxonomy to me. Don't we want to encourage higher order thinking? I'm a lot happier seeing a student apply their knowledge of a process, structure or relationship to a new situation, than I am seeing them parrot off a definition in an exam. At A2, the sheer number of open-ended "suggest" questions in the exam papers help with this, but I still think coursework is more effective in this. Of course, this relies on teachers and lecturers having the support of their managers to do this, and I am fortunate that my manager is one of the supportive ones. For the teachers who are under pressure to get sometimes 60-120 kids through GCSE English every year, I appreciate it may be a very different story. Data, perhaps, in support of the notion that one solution cannot be applied across the board, eh, Govey?

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