With A level and GCSE results out for this year, the proportion of A grades awarded at A level is down on last year and the number of students accepted onto degree courses has fallen by 2.6%. The education secretary, Gillian Keegan played down the results, suggesting “no one would be interested in pupils’ exam results ten years after the event anyway.”
This dismissive remark fails to take into account the pupils’ (and teachers’) hard work and subsequent disappointment. People may not ask about A level grades in ten years’ time, but at the age of 18, these grades are of the utmost importance to progress to an academic or vocational future.
All this makes me reflect on that hard work, and how the education system assesses pupils through exams and coursework. As a university lecturer, I tried a variety of assessment methods with varying degrees of success.
How do we assess students?
The traditional method of written exams is ubiquitous. Keegan makes the case for exams taken under controlled conditions, implying a level playing field, and describing it as “the fairest system”. In a literate society, written expression is valued; however, to acknowledge cognitive diversity, we must accept that this method of assessment is not fair to all, and disadvantages very bright students who are dyslexic, dyspraxic, have ADHD, or have just plain exam anxiety.
Oral presentations can benefit students who do not excel in written forms of assessment or who just can’t perform at their best in exam conditions. Having this in the mix of assessment methods allows all students the chance to develop the important skill of spoken communication. Labour’s plans to focus on oracy is welcome, but it depends on the outcome of the next general election.
Coursework is another option. It’s a way to engage students in extended work over time, without the pressure of exam timing. It is educationally sound: pupils can research from various sources, analyse and synthesise this information to develop an end product. It also fosters independent learning, rather than regurgitating memorised facts for an old-fashioned traditional exam, most of which will be forgotten within hours of leaving the exam room.
Of course, I should add that some written exams may have questions designed to elicit more than a replication of learned facts, but that doesn’t take away the stress of timed assessment.
The problem with course work
A recent article in the Manchester Evening News assailed us with the headline Schools told to make children do coursework in class amid AI cheating fears. The Joint Council for Qualifications has put out guidelines for schools “to protect the integrity of qualifications”, threatening “severe sanctions” if pupils are caught in “malpractice”. It was called plagiarism in my workplace, giving me and my colleagues endless headaches.
The University of Oxford has made it clear to students that the use of AI is not allowed. “The unauthorised use of AI tools in exams and other assessed work is a serious disciplinary offence”. This begs the question, how will they know?
Policing the academic criminals
In order to spot work originating from AI, or plagiarised from the internet or paper mills, the assessor has to do their own research and become an expert forensic linguist. They have to ask questions like ‘Does this sound like this student’s other work? Would they use these words?’.
We used a plagiarism detector, Turnitin, which helped, but it wasn’t a perfect tool, and still required the assessors’ judgement. More interesting was our approach; we asked the students to check their work with Turnitin before submitting.
Websites helping us spot AI writing have arisen in recent years. High Speed Training provides two essays for comparison, one genuine and one AI generated, and gives some linguistic clues. It’s a little simplistic but useful all the same.
However, if we continue to police and prosecute academic misdemeanours, we will run out of steam. AI is developing rapidly to become more and more plausible. The time may come when AI has developed to match the writer’s personal style and vocabulary use, and even to insert the odd idiosyncratic error of spelling, punctuation and word use to throw us off the scent.
Bring assessment into the 21st Century
Danny Oppenheimer at Carnegie Mellon University states: “ChatGPT may make it a little easier for students to cheat, but the best ways of thwarting cheating have never been focused on policing and enforcement.” He goes on to say that one of the best ways is to foster a pervasive atmosphere of academic integrity. This is somewhat idealistic, but of course, he is absolutely right. However, it’s much harder to achieve it than it is to say it.
We also have to review our ways of designing assessment tasks. Oppenheimer describes the positive use of ChatGPT in class and in assessments, using it to solve problems, for example. He feels we need to incorporate ChatGPT, rather than outlawing it.
Justin Gluka makes the point that teachers will also have to re-focus how they teach and assess. Traditional exams are outdated because the 21st Century doesn’t actually need the skills formal written exams require.
To convey information to a class, the onus traditionally rests on the teacher. The idea of the ‘flipped classroom’ is a way of shifting that onus from the teacher to the student, using the internet, or even the school library. The teacher sets a topic to be researched, students go away and do their homework by collecting related information and then discuss, share information and complete an assignment in class.
The value of cognitive skills development
AI may not (yet) be able to replicate assessments that incorporate critical thinking, creativity, communication, and problem-solving skills.
It is more important, to me at least, for education policy to recognise the skills that are valued in society and the workplace today, and to design learning experiences and assessments to align with this. The Partnership for 21st Century Learning (P21), founded in 2001, campaigns for curricula to include the four skills of Critical Thinking, Communication, Collaboration, and Creativity (the 4Cs).
According to a Manpower survey, The Talent Shortage, employers had trouble finding candidates who had these skills:
- reliability and self-discipline
- creativity and originality
- critical thinking and analysis
- reasoning and problem solving
- resilience and adaptability
If we integrated these skills into teaching and assessments, we would not only adopt P21’s 4Cs curriculum, but we would also prepare pupils for life in the 21st Century.
What I would like Gillian Keegan to do is address the bigger question that the world has changed. Rather than focussing on exam grades, we should be looking at how to change those exam questions to reflect the demands of the real world.