UK government research backs Cambridge view – students benefit most from linear assessments

The UK’s Office of Qualifications and Examinations Regulation (Ofqual), the qualifications regulator, has recently published a report on the impact on students and teachers of the UK government’s reforms to GCSE exams over recent years.

In the early 2000s the UK government introduced a ‘modular’ approach to GCSEs. This meant students taking exams at intervals throughout the syllabus

As the report states, modular exams were introduced because they were “popular with schools” and thought to lead to improved results.

However, from 2013, the government reverted to linear assessments for GCSEs, i.e. taking all exams at the end of a course. The move was partly inspired by Cambridge IGCSE and International A Level, which have always used the linear model based on our own thorough research of student outcomes and classroom practice.

The Ofqual research concludes that modular exams did not produce the anticipated better results, and that the return to linear assessment: was a response to concerns that modular examinations led to constant testing and were partly responsible for a perception that examination standards had declined in England.”  

In contrast to UK exam boards, Cambridge International has long been committed to linear assessments for our Cambridge IGCSEs and International A Levels because we believe they bring much bigger educational benefits than the modular structure.

We know from experience that a linear structure means more time for teaching and learning so teachers can really engage each student.  It also allows greater freedom in how to plan lessons for the duration of the course.  Modular assessment means students are constantly under pressure to revise and perform. As noted by the Ofqual report, GCSE students experienced: “disrupted teaching and learning through repeated formal assessment”.

Linear assessment gives students more time to revisit what they have learnt and retain it, which is essential for making connections across subject disciplines. 

In contrast to this, modular courses are obliged to include ‘synoptic assessment’. That means they have to artificially include some kind of assessment so students can prove they are making connections between modules, and not just learning enough to take each exam.

With linear courses, that’s not a concern: synoptic learning happens naturally as each new element they learn is in the context of everything that’s gone before.

Because of this, at Cambridge, we make a distinction between ‘revising’ and ‘revisiting’. Revising simply means refreshing the memory before taking an exam. Revisiting is more sophisticated. It involves the student going back to topics already covered to consider them in the context of more recent learning, and is an integral part of a linear approach.

It is especially important for topics covered in the first year of the course because once learners’ conceptual understanding has developed, it is likely that when they revisit a topic later in the course, they will develop a more sophisticated grasp of it.

This approach reflects Cambridge International’s overall outlook on progression – we design each subject syllabus with a ‘spiral’ approach in mind, where students build on their previous learning at each stage of the Cambridge Pathway.

Many teachers tell us that they notice a distinct change at some point during a linear syllabus – often during the second term of the second year – when learners seem to begin to see the subject holistically. This can be an exciting time for both learners and teachers. Students begin to write more perceptive answers to questions. They also may find it easier to remember facts because these fit into an overall picture that they are forming in their minds.

Moreover, by taking exams when their understanding is deepest, students do not face assessment before they are ready.

Regardless of the UK government’s decision to GCSEs, we recognise that every student is different and some struggle with the pressure of exam time with the linear approach. Equally, some students struggle with the constant state of exam vigilance with a modular approach.

Nevertheless, the linear approach doesn’t have to mean a big shock to students’ systems as they take their final exams. Most schools hold mock exams in preparation – and we very much encourage that. There’s a benefit to this too: with a linear approach, schools can hold mock exams where it fits best in their students’ learning journey.

However, at Cambridge International, we believe that with the right support, the linear model to Cambridge IGCSEs and International A Levels brings out the best in students, giving them the best opportunity to shine.

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