Teaching to the test
by Claudia Wood
So the Government is scrapping current modular, coursework-based GCSEs in favour of large, final exams, with no retakes. Cracking news – for people like me.
When I was at school, I took the first form of GCSEs – top grades were rare and there was one, very long, all-or-nothing exam after two years of classes. I've never done a bit of coursework in my life. This mode of assessment suited me down to the ground – I'm good at studying for 20 hours straight, absorbing a huge amount of detail by rote, then unloading all that information at once in the exam. Exams were a feat of memory, rather than an exercise in learning and understanding.
Of course, a month after the said exam, I probably wouldn't be able to repeat my A* performance. The data, so quickly absorbed, was just as quickly forgotten. But for an all-or-nothing style testing system, it's a guarantee of top grades. My A-levels and degrees worked in similar fashion, the only blip being my dissertation, which I didn't much enjoy.
I assumed everyone was like me until I had the delight of helping my partner, a few years ago, to study for a degree. He had only hitherto taken technical IT tests so when I explained the concept of ‘strategic revision’ he was horrified. I duly printed the exam papers for the last three years in each of his subjects and identified the ‘usual suspect’ questions that came up in some form every year. He learnt 6 questions verbatim to secure his 2.1.
‘But what about understanding the subject? I need to understand it!’
‘No you don't, you need to memorise it. I could take this exam now I've read your notes.’
‘Is this not cheating?’
‘No, I'm teaching to the test.’
My partner struggled with this. He needed to investigate a subject and understand it to learn it. Through coursework, in other words. But his exams demanded times-tables style memorisation – if he'd attempted to understand 3 years of classes in depth he would need months of revision, not weeks. And in any case, the exam questions didn't require that level of insight, just a regurgitation of key phrases.
Once we had mastered classic techniques I first deployed at GCSE (learning acronyms of the first letters of key phrases, writing these on the exam paper when you first sit down, etc) he cracked it – and after he received a decent grade for minimal effort he remarked: ‘I wish someone had taught me how to do this at GCSE.’
And this is the cruel irony. My partner can remember how to calculate mass, and the volume of a pyramid. I have no idea. He knows what ‘sine’ and ‘cosine’ do - whereas I just had to Google them to spell them correctly. He remembers more German than I do. But I got straight As at GCSE – and he a smattering of Cs and Ds.
The old system, reintroduced by Gove, will favour people like me. But I wonder if that's what the modern labour market needs?