GCSE modularisation – one size does not fit all

14 July 2010

Speaking about the recently published Cambridge Assessment study, Senior Research Officer, Carmen Vidal Rodeiro, said: “We 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.”

Carmen continued: "The simplistic 'all or nothing' approach to modularisation was wrong. Modularisation had a ‘certain degree of trendiness’ and was adopted without concrete proof that it improved standards.

"This report provides valuable evidence for policy relating to the types of qualifications that should be available in the system. Our study clearly shows that there’s justification for both assessment routes to coexist."

The study showed that gender makes a difference to grades depending on whether the qualification is linear or modular and whether it is taken earlier or later. It is a complicated picture. It is 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 do this in English, they outperform boys. However, in maths boys outperform girls regardless of the route they take.

Modular English and mathematics specifications consist of several modules, each of which can be re-taken only once. Interestingly, the study found that the probability of obtaining good grades (A*-B) in each subject significantly decreases if more modules are re-taken.

The study of the effects of modularisation on GCSE students looked at:

  • The differences in performance between students who take assessments in a terminal or linear approach and those who adopt a modular approach (taking units throughout the two-year course).
  • Whether students are at a disadvantage by their relative immaturity or narrow experience of the subject if they enter for an examination early.
  • Whether modular assessment removes the pressure of an all-or-nothing exam.
  • The benefits from re-sitting modules
  • The teachers’ attitudes towards modularisation and the impact of modular assessment on teachers’ workload.

Notes: Only candidates who sat an examination in GCSE English or GCSE mathematics with OCR were considered in the study.


Linear vs. modular approach

GCSE English students following a linear assessment route had, on average, higher ability than students following a modular route. Mathematics students following a linear assessment route had slightly lower ability (ability was measured by prior/concurrent attainment).

Modular routes in English led, on average, to lower grades than linear routes once students’ ability was accounted for. However, in mathematics, candidates following a modular route obtained, on average, higher grades.

It has been suggested that, in a modular scheme, setting targets throughout the course, having ongoing feedback and allowing a certain amount of re-taking within the course leads to candidates learning more – thereby obtaining higher grades.

Maturational effects

GCSE English students certificating at the beginning or midway throughout the two-year course were at a disadvantage compared to those who opted for certificating at the end. Girls were at a greater disadvantage than boys. The gender effect was in line with previous research which showed that boys were more likely to take advantage of modular examinations than girls. On the other hand, girls following a linear assessment route and certificating early in the two-year course had a higher probability of achieving a given grade or above than those who certificated late.

However, early assessment seemed to be an advantage for both girls and boys in the coursework units in both the linear and the modular routes.

GCSE mathematics students obtained, on average, significantly higher marks in early sessions than in later sessions. Therefore, for both girls and boys taking GCSE mathematics, early assessment was an advantage.

The pressure of an all-or-nothing exam

Modular assessment does not remove the stress and workload of an all-or-nothing exam. Students of modular mathematics experienced longer periods of higher workload than linear students did in the first half of the year. For students of English, the workload varied considerably during the course of the year and there were no differences in linear and modular students’ workload levels.

Students in the modular routes reported that the pressure to achieve a good grade placed significant stress on them during both the modular and the end-of-year examinations. However, the possibility to re-sit modular examinations was mentioned as helpful in alleviating some of the examination stress experienced during modular exams, as it gave some students confidence about what to expect on their subsequent exams.

Benefits from re-sitting modules

Unitised specifications in English and mathematics consist of several modules, each of which can be re-taken only once. The probability of obtaining good grades (A*-B) in each subject significantly decreases if more modules are re-taken.

For example, in 2008, the probability of obtaining a grade A or above in English for a student averaging grade A at GCSE who did not re-sit any modules was 0.75 whereas the same probability for a student who re-sat one or two modules once was 0.66 and 0.57, respectively.

There was evidence of the benefits of re-sitting units, with percentages of students obtaining an improvement in the unit grades ranging from 25 per cent to 65 per cent, depending on the unit and the subject [these are percentages of students taking re-sits and not percentages of the total entry in the relevant unit]. It can be argued, therefore, that allowing a certain amount of re-sits within the course, candidates could be learning more. It could also be argued that candidates, through their re-sits, are more proficient at the topics covered earlier in the course than they would be had the examination been taken at the end of the course.

Although the majority of candidates obtained higher marks on their second attempt at a unit than they had done on their first, this did not always lead to an improvement on the unit grade.

Teachers’ attitudes

Teachers in the modular assessment system appreciated the better planning opportunity around the exams, the clarity of the focus of their teaching requirements and felt that modular assessment contributed to their approach to assessment for learning. They also appreciated not having to re-motivate students at the end of the year. Teachers in the linear route appreciated having more space and control to deliver the content effectively; furthermore, they did not find it a burden to revisit topics and re-motivate students before the end-of-year examination.

Mathematics teachers’ workload levels varied with the assessment route: the linear assessment placed very high levels of workload on the teachers at certain times whilst the modular assessment provided a more evenly spread workload rising throughout the year. English teachers’ workload levels were continually increasing between September and December, when teachers were marking mock exams and preparing for unit examinations in January. From that point onwards, workload levels varied by teacher.

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