Exams in a BTEC?!

Education has progressed dramatically over the last century. The traditional methods of teaching where the focus was on teaching, not learning, are long gone and the role of the teacher has evolved. This evolution has brought out many changes within the education sector, with things such as teaching styles, facilities and methods of assessment changing to suit the changing philosophies. Formative assessment is considered the most effective tool for assessment for learning (Scales, 2008) but, historically assessment was carried out through exams. Upon the discovery of learning styles and the introduction of less ‘classical’ subjects being introduced into educational institutions, vocational courses started to emerge. Awards such as the NVQ, City & Guilds and BTEC’s were offered as an alternative route to GCSE’s and A-levels, a revolutionary way of assessing learners. Nowadays, students on vocational courses make up a large amount of the 14-19 year olds in education and it was reported by Sheppard (2011) that since 2003 the number of students in vocational education has jumped from 66,000 to over 700,000. Although this method of learning is growing it has many sceptics and has been heavily criticised because of its method of assessment. The public image of vocational courses which assess through coursework has suffered recently due to some high-profile comments made by the Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove. Gove ordered a thorough review of the UK’s vocational education system. As part of this review, Alison Wolf (2011) suggested that thousands of 14 to 16-year-olds are taking vocational courses that are encouraged by league tables but do not help the pupils’ prospects. Since then, in an address to the House of Commons, Michael Gove has branded many of the vocational courses on offer as ‘Mickey-Mouse’ courses, a comment which has dented the ever-declining image of vocational qualifications These arguments have led some awarding bodies to restructure their provision of vocational courses to incorporate both exams and coursework. One example of this is the BTEC Level 2 Diploma in Business; Starting in September 2013, Edexcel have introduced 2 exam based core modules. In this essay I am going to research into the theories supporting the use of examinations, I will do this by researching literary theory behind the advantages and disadvantages of each method of assessment and will also discuss the impact it will have on my teaching practice. Based on this independent research I have set the following learning objectives:
1. To identify the factors for/against assessment through coursework
2. To identify whether examinations are an effective method of assessment
3. To identify the impact on teaching methodology within the classroom
From the survey I have carried out (Appendices – Survey) it is clear to see that one of the reasons that BTEC’s have grown so rapidly is the fear of exams. 100% of the students who initially applied for the BTEC Extended Diploma in my institution did so because of their fear of exams. The fact of the matter is that a lot of students do not work well under pressure and can ‘crumble’ during the examination process. The survey supports this comment by showing that 65% of students surveyed said that poor exam results were caused by pressure. In a report by Garner (2012), Mary Bousted, the general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers states that “children in the UK remain among the most tested in the world. This creates huge pressure on young people, with many whose progress has been outstanding on a personal level feeling like failures following exam results.” Kuhlmann, Piel & Wolf (2005) back this up by suggesting that the stress created from the pressure of exams can impair memory retrieval. It could be argued that this increased pressure has caused the increase in demand for vocational courses. Another argument against the implementation of exams in vocational courses is the inferior level of feedback. This lack of feedback can have a negative effect on student motivation and therefore learning. With coursework, assignments can be marked quickly. Reece and Walker (2007) state that effective and timely feedback maximises student motivation, suggesting that assessment through coursework could be the more effective method. Rust (2007) supports this by stating that students benefit from opportunities to improve, something that does not happen when an examination is graded with one letter or a percentage. Although feedback from examinations is generally limited and slow, there is still support for examinations which is based around the theory of the independent learner. Glasersfeld (1989) supports this by arguing, ‘that the responsibility of learning should reside increasingly with the learner.’ As well as Glasersfeld, constructivists, such as Slavin (2000), believe that encouraging students to become independent learners allows them to learn at their own pace. Philip Candy quotes Forster (1972, p ii) to define independent learning/study:
1. ‘Independent study is a process, a method and a philosophy of education:
in which a student acquires knowledge by his or her own efforts and develops the ability for inquiry and critical evaluation;
2. It includes freedom of choice in determining those objectives, within the limits of a given project or program and with the aid of a faculty adviser;
3. It requires freedom of process to carry out the objectives;
4. It places increased educational responsibility on the student for the achieving of objectives and for the value of the goals’.
The key phrases that echo throughout all definitions are ‘responsibility on the student’ and ‘acquires knowledge by his or her own efforts.’ On the current BTEC programme, the students do have an element of taking responsibility for their learning but, they also get a lot of supervised time with the teacher and the amount of ‘independent learning’ is minimal. When this change comes in, the approach to teaching will need to change dramatically so that the learners become ‘responsible’ for their own learning and this learning is based on ‘his or her own efforts’. Scharle and Szabó (2000) recommend that over time a teacher changes their role from a teacher to a learning facilitator. No longer will they be able to raise a hand in lesson and ask the tutor to read a sentence to make sure it is correct, they must be fully prepared and know the unit content so that they can achieve the highest grades possible. Pintrich and de Groot (1990) support this in their study which found that there is a direct correlation between the level of student autonomy and high grades.
It is important to consider the impact of examinations on the learner when judging whether exams are an effective assessment method. Not only will the students be subject to the pressure mentioned earlier, they will also experience a change in the way they are taught. Teachers will not only teach the unit content, but also teach wider skills such as revision skills, the correct way to answer exam questions and how to time questions efficiently. This is commonly known as ‘teaching for the test’. McNeil (2000) argues that students are spending too much time learning the process by which to pass a test rather than the curriculum making examinations a less effective assessment tool. It could also be argued that examinations affect the retention of information. Weimer (2010) suggested that examinations cause students to ‘cram’ in the days leading up to an assignment. His research identified that up to 50% of students attempted to learn large quantities of information in short time periods before exams. When these students were retested 6 months later, they had only retained 27% of the information they had learned. This could suggest that examinations as an assessment method may not have a positive effect on learning. Snider (2006) also suggests that continuous projects and activities in lessons are the most effective methods of assessment. She argues that students do not need to be formally assessed as the ‘process’ of learning is much more important than the ‘product’ (exam results).
To conclude, there are many advantages and disadvantages for both coursework and exam based courses. It seems to be that a combination of the two could be the most effective way to ensure that a course is not only fair on the range of students that will be on the course, but also it could enhance the reputation of the qualification. This hybrid of exams and coursework could bring about the need for a change in teaching practice and will have a great impact on teaching and learning styles within the classroom. Tutors on the Level 2 BTEC Diploma in Business will need to adapt their lessons so that they are creating and developing independent learners. This is to ensure that students are taking responsibility for their learning and that they are being taught the relevant skills to get them through their exams successfully. The success of this change of assessment methods is solely down to how well the tutors react to the change.

• Sheppard, J; 2011, ‘Vocational courses waste of time, says government adviser’, The Guardian, 3 March 2011, viewed 01 April 2013.
• Scales, P. 2008, Teaching in the Lifelong Learning Sector, Maidenhead: Open University Press
• Garner, R; 2012, ‘Teachers admit fiddling results as pupils crumble under pressure of exams’, The Independent, 2 April 2012, viewed 01 April 2013.
• Henry, J; 2012, ‘No-exam university courses fuel rise in first class degrees’ The Telegraph, 25 November 2012, viewed 01 April 2013.
• Reece and Walker, 2007. Teaching Training and Learning: A Practical Guide
• Rust. C. (2007). Principles and purposes of assessments. Oxford Centre for Staff and Learning Development. 1.
• Glasersfeld, E. (1989). Cognition, construction of knowledge, and teaching. Synthese, 80(1), 121-140
• Slavin, R. (2000). Educational Psychology. 6th ed., Boston: Allyn and Bacon.
• Scarlet, A. & Sabot, A. (2000) Learner Autonomy. A guide to developing learner responsibility. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
• LLUK, (2007), New overarching professional standards for teachers, tutors and trainers in the lifelong learning sector
• Pintrich, P.R. & de Groot, E.V. (1990). Motivational and self-regulated learning components of classroom academic performance. Journal of Educational Psychology, 82(1), 33-40.
• McNeil, Linda. 2000. Contradictions of School Reform: Educational Costs of
Standardized Testing. New York: Routledge
• Kuhlman, Piel & Wolf (2005). Impaired Memory Retrieval after Psychosocial Stress in Healthy Young Men. Institute of Experimental Psychology, University of Duesseldorf, D-40225 Duesseldorf, Germany