The British education system relies heavily on exams. Year 11s across the country will now be sitting mock exams for their GCSEs later this year, and we A-level students will also be sitting exams. Yet it does not seem, to me at least, that exams are the best indicators of someone’s capabilities — especially when entering the world of work. Perhaps for subjects more focused on specific answers, such as Maths, exams may be useful in reflecting an individual’s ability to apply their learning in a pressurised environment to come to the right conclusion. But for many other subjects, it appears to me that exams have very little use.

Learning Should Leave You Satisfied

Let’s use History as an example. For the past six months, I have been working on my NEA — Non-Examined Assessment. This was a 4,500-word essay on a historical inquiry spanning around 100 years, in which students are required to show continuity and change across the period, as well as assess the value of contemporary sources and critically compare the views of two historians on a particular aspect of the inquiry. It has, without a doubt, been one of the hardest things I have done in school. My bedside table has been stacked full of books, some of which were only useful for a line or two. I spent hours trawling Internet Archive, a very useful online library, to find tiny nuggets of information that would enhance my analysis. It has hammered home the value of meticulous planning and ‘chunking’ long bits of writing. When I had to write about 1,800 words in a day to meet the deadline, I bought myself a bar of chocolate and allowed myself a square every time I managed to knock out 100 words. It was a horrible thing to have to do; at the same time, it has been one of the most rewarding bits of schoolwork I’ve ever experienced.

Consider also my Music GCSE. Sixty per cent of the qualification was based on practical assessment of some form — my ability to perform and compose music. Spending time on my composition was an enjoyable and rewarding experience. I could apply my knowledge of cadences, scales and the characteristics of different musical genres to create a piece of music that I felt proud of. Not only was it a rewarding thing to do personally, but it also invited collaboration. As well as receiving general feedback from our teachers about things that could be improved, we also engaged each other. I listened to my mate’s composition countless times, as he did mine. That collaboration undoubtedly made our pieces better, as we could each hear things that the other person missed.

Plagiarism Fears are Just That: Fears

This brings me to my next point. Not only does coursework assess skills that are perhaps left untested by exams despite their importance to the workplace, but it also reduces the need for revision. So many courses seem like they are just geared up for exams — learn the content, learn how to write formulaic exam answers, and so on. Then, in the last few months before the final exams, everyone starts to revise two or three years’ worth of content and use only a small proportion of it across their exams. Take the AQA A-level History: Tsarist and Communist Russia 1855-1964 exam paper from 2022. In theory, you could get away with only revising economic development under Lenin and Stalin, opposition to tsarism from 1894 to 1914, and the consequences of the 1855 emancipation of the serfs by 1881. Naturally, anxious students will revise more than that, but this just means a great deal of knowledge (and time) is going to waste. If students could instead be assessed with essay writing assignments that required the use of class notes and historical extracts, a more accurate picture of their ability to form and support their arguments could be made. For those that have a mere two and a half hours, the main concern is simply to get it all down and done as quickly as possible.

One of the main arguments against increased coursework assessment is the threat of plagiarism. This is undoubtedly a challenge. We had to be told about the dangers of using tools like ChatGPT to help with our NEAs. Out of curiosity, having asked an AI to produce a 4,500-word essay on the reasons for Germany’s defeat in the Second World War, it seems that ChatGPT is unlikely to be capable of generating top-quality coursework. The result I received was vague, lacking specific examples or statistics (for instance, how many Luftwaffe planes the RAF shot down during the Battle of Britain, or the number of German soldiers lost during Operation Barbarossa). What’s more, my AI helper was unable, when prompted further, to include references — something that is a key part of any essay-based piece of coursework, at any level.

It seems that fears about AI misuse to get top grades are unconvincing and exaggerated. The benefits of increased collaboration and learning satisfaction arguably outweigh the potential risks of a select few seeking to gain the upper hand through ignoble means. Even if such persons were to succeed in submitting plagiarised work, the truth would soon be discovered when the skills suggested by their grades are shown to be lacking when called upon.

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