Tuesday 9 April 2013

Farewell To Coursework

In just over a month I will send off the last batch of A-level coursework I will ever have to mark (or at least until the specification changes). I can't say I will be sad to see it go. After four years, I shall enjoy having some time to enjoy my Easter holiday, and will be delighted to not go through a large bottle of Gaviscon for the fortnight before the 15th May deadline.

I had two great seasons of fieldwork with the class of 2010 and 2011. Then the class of 2012 rebelled and demanded to do lab work (then went back on their demand when they realised fieldwork would have been more straightforward). And for the class of 2013, I had provisionally booked fieldwork for them before their summer break, only to discover that our departmental budget was weirdly empty... So it's been another year of living hell lab work for Unit 6.

Now, I've written about the fun of fieldwork, and how exciting the data collection could be. And I've listed the many advantages of the written work as preparation for university and beyond. But the drawbacks of coursework have superseded the benefits, and in September we changed exam boards from Edexcel to OCR. The latter examines its Unit 3 and Unit 6 through practical assessments in the laboratory.

Those disadvantages:

  • The mark schemes seem increasingly poorly applied. I've seen superb papers that I have advised students to submit for publication given low marks (including often only half of the communication marks for flawlessly formatted, perfectly spelled academic prose). I've seen awful papers that barely discuss the issues associated with the applied biology given high marks. I have been to training days, I have sought subject expert advice, I have co-moderated with colleagues internally and externally, and I have appealed outrageous marks, but the ability to predict the marks given (and therefore evidently the ability to help students do well) eludes me. Time to move on and use an exam board with prescriptive, clearly worded mark schemes.
  • Many of my students come from an ESOL background. Until last September, students did not require GCSE English in order to be enrolled onto A-levels. This had a minimal effect on the other STEM subjects, but it clearly hurt A-level biology. Some of my students only complete GCSE English alongside their A2 exams. A 3,000-word report may be doable for them by the time they get to university, but it's a struggle before then.
  • The sections in the report bear little resemblance to how scientific papers are actually structured. This limits the utility of the coursework for me. The students do this kiddy-on Disneyfied version of a science paper, then no doubt will try to submit manuscripts with full discussion of the credibility of each of the sources cited in the references.
  • Actually, despite my assertions that the process of doing coursework was a unique skill that could not be gained in any other way, I can provide opportunities for students to learn these skills throughout their two years.
  • Least importantly (since it's all about the students really), it is stressful running 17 different experiments, negotiating with the lab technicians, postponing experiments because reagents that should have been shipped next-day have not arrived three weeks later, postponing deadlines because none of the little sods could be bothered to do their experiment plans and giving up my Wednesday evenings for a month to increase the lab time available. Not to mention the fact that I gave up two days of my Easter holiday to supervise the final few experiments - trying to find everything in the prep room without my lab technicians was terrifying.

So I have 17 Unit 6 practical reports and four Unit 3 issue report resits to deal with, which is a lot better than the 14 Unit 6 and 43 Unit 3 papers I had last year. I just hope the students luck out with their examiner for the final time. And I hope the transition to the practical assessments of OCR proves to be the correct decision.


  1. So what do they do instead?

    1. It's assessed practical exams in class. They do the experiment, I mark the papers. Much like the Chemistry Edexcel ones.

    2. Biology (to borrow the phrase) is a little more complex than that.


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