Modular exams

Happy New Year everyone!

I was thinking idly about what’s changed since I started teaching in the early nineties, and will probably be doing a few more posts on that theme. The first thing that came to mind was the exam system – I guess probably because I’ve always taught a lot of exam classes, and of course there are a whole load of modular exams (resits and first time) as soon as we get back to school. Don’t worry – I’m not going to (on this occasion at least!) get into the debate about whether things have got easier!

Probably the biggest change has been the modularisation of exams. Back in the old days…. although GCSEs (relatively new when I started) included this strange innovation called “coursework”, all the exams were taken at the end of the fifth form (or as we were just learning to call it “year 11”), and similarly all A-level papers at the end of the upper sixth (don’t think we’d even thought about “year 13” then)

Now, although there are a very few schools out there that don’t take exams until the end of the sixth form (the main ones are those doing IB), in almost all cases, kids will do exams at the end of Year 12, and often in January of both sixth form years. Similarly, taking GCSE modules early has become increasingly common, although of course the current government are going to be stopping it. Gove’s decision to phase out modular GCSEs made me think exactly how I feel about that. My normal default is to disagree with anything he proposes on principle, but I think on this occasion I agree.

Modules in general have one big redeeming feature in my eyes – giving kids a kick up the backside regarding their studies while they still have time to put it right. Although we teachers do try to tell our pupils if they aren’t putting enough into their work, almost inevitably they just think “Oh it’s Miss/Sir going on again”, but the shock of a disappointing AS result can make them take things seriously.

As against that, I think there are a number of significant downsides:-

First (though not the most important) – the one the government are concerned about – the inflationary effect on grades. If you take an exam enough times, then sooner or later you will get more than you deserve. Also, perhaps more importantly, you will do better, comparatively, than someone who followed a linear syllabus, but may well know less.

Second – the effect of frequent exams on teaching. Preparing for exams in multiple sessions takes time away from teaching so it is more likely to be reduced to the bare essentials to pass the exam, rather than actually being about improving kids’ grasp of the subject. Students, too, tend to see the whole process as solely aimed at the next exam if they are so frequent. That is added to by the focus on attaining a high mark in each of these papers – kids’ sets may be changed based on them, and their future entries determined by them; in some places, this isn’t even moderated by the teacher’s knowledge of the kids, but is solely based on results. That rather does away with kids having a chance to learn from their mistakes.

But the most important one, to me, is the fragmentation of knowledge and understanding. Getting kids to use skills from one subject in another has always been problematic – how many times have I had complaints from colleagues that some of my pupils, who can rearrange a formula perfectly well in my lesson, make a hash of it in other subjects, and similarly, kids look at me as if amazed if I correct their grammar or punctuation as “this isn’t an English lesson”. But modules promote this even within a subject. Lots of subjects are “build on”, particularly in maths and science. But there is a tendency for many students to feel that “we did that in Module 1, so I don’t remember it any more” and not to make the connections between different areas that make the entire subject come together and make sense. I remember one pupil I had for GCSE Chemistry, who gained full marks on Module 1 at the end of Year 10. She was a focused and very able student who showed a genuine interest in the subject – but she still didn’t recall some fundamental ideas from that module during Year 11. In what sense, then, had she really “learnt” that material? We can all forget details, but surely we should want the key principles to be in our minds? This can really show up moving on to the next stage – A-level teaching often starts with an extensive rehash of GCSE material (which is deadly boring for those who actually did learn it) and I increasingly hear reports of universities having to reteach A-level material even to students with the highest grades (which emphatically did not happen when I did my original degree).

So am I arguing for a return to the “good old days” of 3 hour exams, no resits, no coursework? Not sure I’d want to be quite that extreme. But I do want “learning” to mean actual learning, not just regurgitating for an exam.

This entry was posted in Educational Developments, Exams, Opinions. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Modular exams

  1. C M Smith says:

    I agree, the downside of losing modular GCSEs is far outweighed by the advantages. What you describe as ‘fragmentation of knowledge’ is a crucial point. The knowledge required for a module seems to become compartmentalised. Pupils seem to be losing the ability to build on knowledge, and to apply existing knowledge in different circumstances to the one in which it was originally learnt.

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