The Assignment. Time for a Reset?

As we’ve seen this year with the cancellation of SQA exams due to COVID-19, there are alternative ways of assessing young people.

Few SQA courses do not have some element of coursework.

In Modern Studies at National 5 level the coursework is an “Assignment” which is worth 20% of the overall grade.

In Modern Studies at Higher level the coursework is also an Assignment, this time worth 27% of the overall grade. The same is the case with Higher Politics.

In Modern Studies at Advanced Higher level the coursework is a “Project-dissertation” which is worth 36% of the overall grade.

There are sound arguments for having coursework as part of the assessment bundle.

It is widely accepted in education these days that exams shouldn’t be the be all and end all.

There are some key skills which exams don’t assess that well and coursework can do it better.

In National 5 Modern Studies the key subject skills are;

  • evaluating information/evidence in order to support and oppose a view
  • making decisions and drawing conclusions
  • constructing detailed arguments
  • communicating views, opinions, decisions and conclusions based on evidence

All good stuff.

Coursework also allows youngsters the chance to claim ownership of a topic they are particularly keen on and have an interest in which may not be questioned in the exam.

I was thinking of all this during the latest race protests in America.

I’m sure Modern Studies pupils will be highly interested in what is going in in Trump’s America and would be keen to read more and watch more about it.

They may even think, “I could do my Assignment on this”.

But then, what?

The Modern Studies Assignment as it currently stands isn’t the most enjoyable of experiences. Not for teachers and not for pupils.

Why is it, when there’s the chance for youngsters to seize the chance to research and write about a social/economic/political issue which interests them, there is so much apathy?

The answer is the assessment itself. Or the “write up” as it’s called.

Is the write up the best we can do?

There are byzantine rules and Marking Instructions associated with it.

It’s not really much more than a memory test or another exam.

Does the Assignment, rather than encouraging interest and creativity and truly developing the skills of the course, not just kill stone dead any enthusiasm at all?

It was never meant to be like this.

In the early days of SQA qualification development (around 2009/10) the talk was all about new forms of assessment. Challenging old orthodoxies. Embracing new technology and capturing the best ways to motivate and assess.

Instead we got the write up.

I actually don’t think this was SQA’s fault.

SQA had a deadline of having the new qualifications ready for 2014.

These were the days of UK Government austerity.

Local government budgets and education budgets slashed everywhere.

The established networks of teacher expertise disappeared.

Teachers were starved of training and development in a disrespectful manner.

You get what you pay for and teachers weren’t invested in.

That bred negativity and small c conservatism.

Bringing in a revolution in educational thinking in this environment was a tough ask.

Teachers wanted as little change as possible. Some of that was for the best of reasons as they didn’t want to disadvantage their pupils with new ways of working they wouldn’t have the resources to deliver.

The arguments for the write up were

  • Teacher workload. Teachers wanted the SQA (in reality, other teachers getting paid by the SQA) to mark the work.
  • Teachers didn’t want to be the judge and jury, they wanted external SQA grading
  • The write up would ensure a ‘level playing field’. All pupils, no matter their social circumstances, would sit the same assessment under the same conditions

Is it not time to review these arguments?

SQA can still provide markers to externally grade Assignments.

Teachers can still do what they’ve always done (subject to ‘reasonable assistance‘, which is another story altogether!) which is to motivate, guide and impart knowledge.

All we need to do is take advantage of the amazing technology which is on our hands.

If I look at my Twitter feed on any day of the week I see Modern Studies teachers involved in the most inspiring and creative lessons.

I see young people doing great work.

Can youngsters not use Padlet, for example, to write up their findings?

Rather then the turgid write up, can findings not be presented via

  • poster?
  • presentation?
  • video?

Canva is just one of many free to use tools which could be used.

It’s not an IT assessment, its the social/economic and political content that counts, but it can be presented in a much more rewarding way than a write up.

The objection to all this is equality.

It will be argued that disadvantaged youngsters can’t access the technology.



Do schools not already provide study support or lunch time classes where computers are available?

Do we not rely on such technology to research the topics anyway, it’s just the mode of delivery I’m talking about changing?

Apart from anything else, whatever the status quo is delivering today it’s not equality.

The same youngsters from the same backgrounds at the same schools getting all the best results.

Like many other aspects of education, now is the time for fresh thinking and doing things better.