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What is lost when exams are cancelled?

Redmond, Ben; Golding, Jennie; Grima, Grace; (2021) What is lost when exams are cancelled? Presented at: AEA-Europe conference 2021, Online conference. Green open access

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We draw on a longitudinal (2017-21), classroom-close study to highlight impacts on mathematics students where high-stakes summative examinations are cancelled. The study focuses on English students’ and teachers’ experiences of newly reformed mathematics A levels, but was adapted (2020 onwards) to explore the impact of Coronavirus. It draws data from a fairly representative sample: 24 mathematics A Level classes in 12 centres, collecting termly surveys or interviews from students and teachers, and full semi-structured lesson observations. In 2020 we also collected interview or survey data from a purposive sample of 45 academics evidencing mathematics students’ preparedness for progression to mathematics-intense university courses. Mathematics A levels, reformed in 2017, now feature enhanced content-related scope and increased focus on mathematical reasoning, problem solving and modelling. A Level Mathematics is a requirement for entry to most mathematics-intensive university courses, with A Level Further Mathematics providing additional preparation for the most specialist students. We show elsewhere (Redmond, Golding & Grima, 2020) that greater depth and breadth of content has increased pressures on students and teachers, with Coronavirus-related disruptions to teaching and learning intensifying this, and a significant minority of students struggling with qualifications perceived to be increasingly time-pressured and demanding, although highly-valued. In England, high-stakes GCSE (age 16) and A level (age 18) examinations in summer 2020 were cancelled due to Coronavirus. Emerging general impacts of the pandemic on ongoing teaching and learning have been widely reported, but there has been less focus on ways in which cancellation of assessments might intrinsically impact students in subject-specific ways. Our data suggest teachers and students believe that preparation for examinations facilitates development, consolidation and synthesis of learning – and especially so in mathematics. Where examinations were cancelled most GCSE and A Level students were reported, by teachers, university academics, and students themselves, to have been unable to take advantage of this normally productive period of study, with significant impact on the preparation for progression of many. We also saw missed, and lamented, opportunities for students to gain experience of revision techniques and exam practices. It is worth noting however, that while most students felt disadvantaged by cancellation of examinations, a high achieving minority felt additional time created for personal study had positively impacted their learning. Finally, our data identify examinations as important rituals, allowing students to feel their learning has been formally and objectively validated. Linked to this, we saw some students’ confidence reduced and an increase in students experiencing ‘imposter syndrome’ as they progressed to the next stage of their learning aged 16 or 18 This is likely to impact girls and minority groups disproportionately (Collins, 2017) so is a key equity focus going forward. The challenges indicated in our findings have consequences for students progressing from GCSE to A level and from A level to higher education. In courses experienced as relatively demanding, such as the new mathematics A Levels, reduced opportunity to synthesise and consolidate learning is likely to have particularly severe impacts. Students on such courses may already be experiencing low confidence, and the cancellation of examinations is likely to exacerbate that. Our findings suggest that, following cancellation of examinations it is important that students are supported to identify and address learning insecurities that might threaten successful progression, and to develop examination-specific skills. Transition support must be sensitive to students’ confidence, especially their mathematical self-efficacy. Proposals for changes in assessment should also consider the identified benefits of preparing for and participating in examinations.

Type: Conference item (Presentation)
Title: What is lost when exams are cancelled?
Event: AEA-Europe conference 2021
Location: Online conference
Dates: 03 - 06 November 2021
Open access status: An open access version is available from UCL Discovery
Publisher version: https://2021.aea-europe.net/
Language: English
UCL classification: UCL > Provost and Vice Provost Offices > School of Education > UCL Institute of Education
UCL > Provost and Vice Provost Offices > School of Education > UCL Institute of Education > IOE - Curriculum, Pedagogy and Assessment
UCL > Provost and Vice Provost Offices > School of Education
URI: https://discovery.ucl.ac.uk/id/eprint/10157465
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