Much has changed in the GCSE exam system over the last few years. It was once a flexible, modular system with coursework/controlled assessment and exams that could be sat at various points in a course. Now it has become an entirely linear model with exams only available at the end of the course. In most subjects, controlled assessment (renamed non exam assessment) has either been greatly reduced or has completely disappeared.
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realise that the ‘new’ linear system (essentially the old ‘O’ Level system of 35 years ago) is more challenging and demanding for pupils than the modular model. The beauty of a modular course is that it allows a teacher/department/school to tailor its delivery to meet the needs of its pupils.
That luxury – hardly a bad thing (you would think) has been ripped away.
So, how can schools adjust and make the transition from modular to linear exams?
Schools are now out of their comfort zone: Can this be a good thing?
Sometimes it can be a good thing to be forced to think differently, to change approach and to reassess strategy. To be honest, schools that don’t do these things as they make the transition from modular to linear are likely to find it is a rocky road indeed.
Bear in mind that many teachers will have only ever taught in a modular way. Some will have only ever learnt themselves in a modular way too. The move to linear is a shift into the unknown and unfamiliar territory for many.
Moving from modular to linear isn’t just as simple as all exams now being at the end of a course. It requires fundamental changes in thinking and teaching.
What are the changes?
Besides changes to assessment structure – so, by and large, GCSE subjects are now assessed through 2 terminal examinations at the end of the course – there is also an increased quantity (and level of demand) of subject content, and the questions on the exams are more difficult too.
The question style on examinations is different – for many subjects, considerably different. All subjects now have synoptic elements that require pupils to draw together different aspects of a topic. Pupils are also required to apply their knowledge to new and unfamiliar contexts. Not only that, the reformed GCSEs have a greater proportion of questions that require extended writing responses.
Curriculum design is crucial
With the linear model, it is more important to take a holistic approach to the ways that topics are sequenced and spaced throughout a course. Now, teachers need to adopt strategies that that pupils to develop long term retention. It is vital that teachers build in opportunities to revisit and re-teach core topics and key concepts. This is a real challenge given the increase in content quantity, but necessary all the same.
Many schools will undoubtedly timetable more and more mock examinations. After all, this kind of makes senses as exams are now the only way that a student is assessed, in most subjects. However, teachers would do as well implement effective strategies to improve retention, approach synoptic elements, and to integrate and apply knowledge in new contexts, rather than simply setting their pupils on an incessant treadmill of exam practice.