The future of qualifications: providing choice for students with modular assessment

The future of qualifications: providing choice for students with modular assessment

In our recent article, ‘Choice and innovation: learning and assessment approaches for a new generation’, we shared that Pearson’s report into the future of qualifications and assessment highlighted several recommendations, including the need to ‘assess the right skills in the right way, enabling learners to...


In our recent article, ‘Choice and innovation: learning and assessment approaches for a new generation’, we shared that Pearson’s report into the future of qualifications and assessment highlighted several recommendations, including the need to ‘assess the right skills in the right way, enabling learners to highlight their strengths and successes’.

Providing a response to the question ‘what should education reform for a new generation look like?’, we shared an overview of the progress we are making at Pearson to innovate learning and qualifications through innovations in onscreen assessment and digital accessibility, to empower students and drive a more equitable assessment experience for all learners.

In this article, Henna Nathwani, Head of International Qualifications at Pearson, discusses how modular routes within existing qualification design can also improve learner choice worldwide.

Providing choice with modular assessment

Alongside innovation in onscreen assessment and digital accessibility, another way we are ensuring we assess students in the right way, is through existing qualification design. At Pearson, this means offering a choice to learners over when they’re assessed and examining how modular assessment can work alongside linear assessment as an examination option.

When we talk about linear assessment, what we mean is assessment that’s taken all at the end of the course of study altogether in one assessment period.

Modular assessment, on the other hand, is where content and learning is ‘chunked up’ into individual units which can then be assessed partway through the course or when the learner is ready to enter for these individual units.

Our main aim with offering this choice is to provide assessments that reflect how today’s learners will sit other high stakes assessments in their lives, for example, individual university modules or professional development courses at work.

A timeline of assessment structures

Let’s start by looking at the history behind the modular and linear assessment approaches. Historically, education reform has seen assessments swing from modular to linear and the impact of these different assessment structures has been long debated.

Between 2007 and 2014, secondary education in the UK went through several reforms, both to the curriculum and to the examination structure. In 2007, examinations were predominantly modular in structure but by 2014, all GCSE examinations had become linear. This meant that the entire course content was now tested on course completion.

The research: is modular easier than linear assessment?

Looking at this in a little more detail, the biggest question, perhaps unsurprisingly, is whether a modular approach is easier than a linear assessment approach.

Interestingly, there are mixed conclusions here. Initially, the belief was yes, modular was easier; and that acceptance that modular exams were easier drove the first move in the UK towards linearisation and a more linear structure to assessment.

However, academic research conducted by Baird et al in 2019 found that whilst some teachers believed that certain groups of students would perform better in a modular assessment system, this was unsubstantiated by performance data. That conclusion was further supported by additional research by Moira et al in 2020, which found no evidence to suggest that either modular or linear GCSEs led to better educational outcomes for students.

However, a key finding of that research was the potential consequence of linearity on the wellbeing of students who require additional support, where the full examination burden was at the end of their course.

Research shows that modularisation removes continual testing and therefore reduces student stress and increases confidence. Students are better able to understand what is required of them in a modular approach due to being able to break down their course into separately assessed units, rather than have all the assessment at the end of the course.

The impact of different assessment approaches on dropout rates

One notable impact, revealed in research by Mazrekaj and De-Witte in 2020, was that the switch from modular to linear GCSEs increased the school dropout rate.

They concluded that students enrolled in modular education have a lower probability of dropping out than students enrolled in linear education. They assert that the first assessment students sit in a modular route and the feedback they receive from that may drive feelings of success for students as they approach their second assessment, resulting in an increase in confidence. In this way, the frequent feedback built into the modular route may result in an extrinsic drive for students to continue furthering their education.

The impact of multiple assessment opportunities

Another research finding, this time from Rodeiro and Nadas in 2012, highlights the significant improvement in marks / grades between students first and second attempts of sitting a module. They concluded that the modular system of assessment, supported by effective use of resits, enables students to develop intellectual maturity and a sophisticated skillset to progress.

Against this point, Taverner and Wright in 1997 suggested that students cannot be expected to excel in earlier sittings (in a modular approach) compared to later sittings (in the linear approach) and argued that students may be disadvantaged if they enter for an examination before being intellectually ready. They concluded that the linear structure, with assessments taken at the end of the course, when students have had the maximum time to develop subject knowledge and maturity, is better suited for success.

These differing viewpoints serve to highlight that often it is consideration of individual students and particular cohorts which ultimately drive decisions, and what may fit those students best. It’s that element of choice between a modular and linear approach – enabling your learners to highlight their strengths and successes – that we at Pearson believe is so important.

Why offer a choice between modular and linear assessment?

So, at Pearson, why do we believe offering a choice between modular and linear assessment is important?

It is because we believe the secret of International GCSE success is different for every student. Whichever route you choose, teaching learning and exam preparation takes the same amount of time.

The linear journey remains unchanged, with two years of study followed by exams at the end. Whereas the modular route breaks the journey into units, with an exam at the end of each unit.

Taking all assessments at the end of the two years works well for many students, but we know that the modular route, where students to spread the exam pressure, taking modular assessments at different points, works better for other students.

We believe this choice helps ensure all students have the best chance of success at international GCSE.

Further reading

Learn more about modular International GCSEs.

Read our guide to Pearson Edexcel International GCSEs

Check out our modular International GCSE Mathematics Specification A and Sample Assessment Materials

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