GCSEs: from modular to linear assessment

GCSEs: from modular to linear assessment

The government's recent announcement on the removal of modular GCSEs means that students starting a three year course from September 2011 will follow a linear programme of assessment.

In modular, or unitised qualifications, the course is split into different units, or modules, with an exam at the end of each unit.  In a linear qualification, the examinations are taken at the end of the course. 

It is claimed that a return to a linear structure will help reduce the dangers of over-assessment of young people and increase the opportunities to teach whole subjects in a joined up way rather than in bite-sized chunks. However, a study conducted by Cambridge Assessment revealed that the state-directed “one size fits all” approach to the modularisation of GCSEs (both in favour and against) was flawed, giving justification for both linear and modular assessment routes to coexist.

Modular GCSEs were introduced in 2009. Our Senior Research Officer, Carmen Vidal Rodeiro said: “Modularisation had a ‘certain degree of trendiness’ and was adopted without concrete proof that it improved standards.

"Under the modular system, English and mathematics specifications consisted of several modules, each of which could be re-taken only once. Interestingly, our study found that the probability of obtaining good grades (A*-B) in each subject significantly decreased if more modules were re-taken."

The introduction of linear GCSEs will prevent the mid-course re-sitting of units, although there will be opportunities to re-take complete English, English language and maths GCSEs in an autumn exam.

Under the modular system, it was possible for students to study for a modular qualification but to take all their exams at one time and to do this early, for example in January rather than in June. If girls did this for English, they outperformed boys. However, in maths boys outperformed girls regardless of the route they took.  Our study also found that modular routes in GCSE English led to lower grades than linear routes once students’ ability was accounted for. On the contrary, in GCSE mathematics, candidates following a modular route obtained higher grades.

Cambridge Assessment believes that different students need different types of assessment, and that different students require different courses and different ways of being examined in those courses.

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