As the exams regulator prepared to abandon the assessment of coursework counting towards the grades for science A Levels, Tim Oates, Group Director of Assessment Research and Development at Cambridge Assessment, considered the impact of current coursework – or controlled assessment – arrangements on science teaching.
Speaking at the Association for Science Education Conference at the University of Birmingham on 9 January, Tim said that although it is widely recognised that the current system of coursework assessment does not work, it could be detrimental to promote approaches which may also result in the abolishment of science experiments in the classroom. He went on to say that there is "unequivocal evidence from many years of research that shows that children and young people acquire understanding of vital aspects of biology, chemistry and physics far more effectively when programmes include learning grounded in experiments in the classroom".
Tim called for a shift in the idea about the role and use of practical work. Acknowledging the pressures on teachers to enhance exam grades, he said that some mistakenly believed practical work was a simply a necessary part of preparation for the exam. Calling on examples from medical education, he claimed that a rich mixture of practice and theory results in a deep, secure learning which ensures that pupils are ready to go into industry or higher education with robust practical, as well as theoretical, scientific knowledge.
Explaining that much of the recent critique on controlled assessment in science has been that it has tended to err towards assessing knowledge rather than practical activity, Tim called for a greater precision about what the purpose of coursework should be in terms of learning outcomes. This, he said, would ensure that it can be designed more effectively into learning programmes and public examinations, where marks would need to be measured with specific constructs. Perhaps controversially, he suggested that we consider whether we should not include coursework within public examinations themselves, saying that "we should not be irrationally opposed to high quality written end-assessment focussing on knowledge, where the best preparation is rich, immersive practical work".
In 2013, Tim published a paper on alternative approaches for appropriate placing of ‘coursework components’ in GCSE examinations. At the same time, our UK exam board, OCR proposed that practical experiments in science, fieldwork in geography and creative activities in arts subjects, among others, should continue to be a part of the subject syllabus – with the knowledge assessed as part of the final exams – but with a key change being that the coursework itself would not contribute to a final grade.