As the end of GCSE and A level draws closer, many students are feeling the pressure of exams. Revision, past papers and memory recalls for 5+ subjects is stressful for anybody, let alone  teenagers. So, if exams are such a daunting prospect, is there an alternative?


Coursework has long been considered a viable, less stressful option for obtaining qualifications.

In fact, in English GCSE, for example, until recently, the qualification was all or mostly coursework. This had been true for many years, but then it changed to only exams. Coursework consists of students completing tasks that demonstrate their ability over the course of their GCSE studies to be compiled and marked, then given a final grade. Especially for a subject such as English, with such emphasis on writing, many people have argued that coursework best allows students to demonstrate their writing skills without the mental or time pressure of exams. Some subjects even now use coursework, for example art and drama, at 60% coursework, 40% written exams. In creative subjects, coursework can be useful to build up a ‘portfolio’ of the student’s work.


A year 11 GCSE drama and photography student, Lily, said “I still like written exams, but I like coursework better, because the pressure is off with [coursework], you have a deadline, but you don’t have to collect all your knowledge and keep it in your brain for ages, and then write it down.”


She makes a very good point. GCSEs should assess the student’s understanding of the topic, not their memory and ability to work under pressure. Additionally, students who struggle with anxiety or who have special educational needs may work better with coursework, as there is a lot less stress and time management.


So if coursework used to be favoured, and is still partially used today, why do the majority of students go to sit their exams in just a couple of weeks?


Well, exams do have their benefits. They prepare students for higher education, where exams are heavily featured, especially high stakes entrance exams. This sort of pressurised exam experience is one that can only be recreated by actually doing it. Some students excel in exams, as they have a good memory, and understand exam technique. Exams are also a very good way to assess spontaneous, unprepared problem solving, which is a good real world skill. Also, some students really struggle with the self regulation needed for coursework. Exams also favour students who decide near the end of their GCSE to really go the extra mile and achieve the grade they really want. If somebody decides to up their game with coursework, a year and a half worth of coursework is already a lower grade than the one the student is aiming for, and there is very little they can do to improve their overall grade.


Another year 11 student who studies art alongside exam based subjects, Addison, said, “I think that exams are a good thing for me, and many other people who suit that style of learning, and personally I prefer them over coursework, as I think that the concentrated stress of an exam is preferable to the longer, drawn out stress that coursework brings”


Overall, both coursework and exams have their benefits. But most importantly, the student and their needs come first. With so many different students, a balance between coursework and exams is the best of both options. I think it would benefit not only students, but society as a whole, if we reassessed how we assess.