Critics claimed the figures showed that degrees were being “dumbed down” and warned that the trend could contribute to plagiarism, as students download pre-written essays from the internet and hand them in as coursework.
Some link “degree inflation” – a doubling in the proportion of first class degrees over the past 12 years, to more than 15 per cent – to the rise of continuous assessment.
They also call in to question the validity of a national degree classification when the methods for judging work are controlled by each institution.
A survey of 85 universities offering Bachelor of Arts degrees in history found that in more than half, 60 per cent of the assessment is coursework. In one in five, 80 per cent or more of the marks come from coursework.
At Worcester University, history degree assessment is 100 per cent coursework. Last year, 20 per cent of students gained a first-class degree, with a further 30 per cent gaining a 2:1.
Some 10 per cent of the history degree at the London School of Economics is based on coursework. Last year, 15 per cent of students there gained first-class degrees, while 80 per cent gained a upper second.
Philosophy degrees were similarly dominated by coursework. At one end of the spectrum, Anglia Ruskin’s degree has 96 per cent coursework. At the other, politics, philosophy and economics (PPE) at Oxford has none.
Exams have all but disappeared from English degrees across all types of universities, the data show. Coursework accounts for more than 70 per cent of the total marks at three quarters of institutions.
At Plymouth, Brighton and Derby, there are no traditional exams in the subject.
Research indicates that students prefer coursework, regarding it as “fairer” than exams. And there is evidence to suggest that coursework marks are a better indicator of the long-term learning of course content than exams.
But studies also show that students tend to get higher marks from written assignments than from exams.
A recent study at four universities found coursework marks to be higher than those in exams by one third of a degree classification in English and history, and by two thirds in biology, business studies, computer studies and law.
Official figures show that 53,215 graduates gained firsts in 2010-11 compared with 23,700 in 2000-01.
A recent report by the Higher Education Academy, a research body funded by universities, suggested one reason for the rise could be that the “proportion of assessment marks derived from coursework has increased and coursework usually produces higher marks”.
The report concludes that degree classifications cannot be trusted because of “a whole raft of unjustifiable variations” in the way they are decided.
Prof Alison Wolf, an assessment expert at King’s College, London, and a Department for Education adviser, said she was surprised by the scale of the shift.
“If you use the same assessment technique across a whole degree, you run the risk of only testing a limited number of things,” she said. “It is not good practice in assessment terms. The problem is that in universities there is surprisingly little self-evaluation of the overall assessment regime.”
Anastasia de Waal, deputy director and head of education at the think tank Civitas, said: “The increase in coursework at university raises important questions.
"The central one is the role of so-called 'spoon-feeding’ in the simultaneous rise between degree grades and coursework content – and, crucially, whether standards have taken a hit as a result.”
Prof Antonia Payne, head of Worcester University’s institute of humanities, said it dropped traditional exams more than a decade ago “in response to evidence that such examinations did not provide the most accurate, meaningful, all-round measurement of student achievement”.
She added: “We deploy a range of assessment methods, including time constrained, in-course tests under examination conditions. Quality and standards are monitored by external examiners who sample marked assessments.
"There is no correlation between the cessation of three-hour unseen examinations and the proportion of good history degrees awarded at Worcester over the past decade."
Alan Smithers, a professor of education at Buckingham University, warned, however, that across the sector, coursework could be having an impact on degree inflation:
“Degrees have increasingly become modualised and assessment is increasingly by coursework. The weaknesses in this approach have been amply demonstrated in the row about GCSEs this summer," he said.
“Coursework at university suffers from all the same weaknesses. It is not necessarily the student’s own work - there are plenty of on-line businesses offering tailor-made essays. There are also a number of opportunities to correct coursework before it is finally submitted, driving up marks.
“It is a reasonable inference that coursework is having an impact on degree inflation.
“It is also significant that older universities are retaining end of course exams while new ones are allowing students to clock up points as they go along.”
Worcester: 100% coursework
Oxford Brookes: 92%
Trinity St David, University of Wales: 91%
London School of Economics: 10% coursework
Birkbeck, University of London: 10%
University College London: 27%
For the virtual learning environment, see CourseWork Course Management System.
Coursework is work performed by students or trainees for the purpose of learning. Coursework may be specified and assigned by teachers, or by learning guides in self-taught courses. Coursework can encompass a wide range of activities, including practice, experimentation, research, and writing (e.g., dissertations, book reports, and essays). In the case of students at universities, high schools and middle schools, coursework is often graded and the scores are combined with those of separately assessed exams to determine overall course scores. In contrast to exams, students may be allotted several days or weeks to complete coursework, and are often allowed to use text books, notes, and the Internet for research.
In universities, students are usually required to perform coursework to broaden knowledge, enhance research skills, and demonstrate that they can discuss, reason and construct practical outcomes from learned theoretical knowledge. Sometimes coursework is performed by a group so that students can learn both how to work in groups and from each other.
Plagiarism and other problems
Plagiarism and copying can be problematic in graded coursework. Easily accessible websites have given students opportunities to copy ideas and even complete essays, and remain undetected despite measures to detect this. While coursework may give learners the chance to improve their grades, it also provides an opportunity to "cheat the system". Also, there is often controversy regarding the type and amount of help students can receive while performing coursework. In most learning institutions, plagiarism or unreasonable coursework help may lead to coursework disqualification, student expulsion, or both.
- In the UK
Coursework was removed from UK GCSE courses and replaced by "Controlled Assessment", much of which must be completed under exam conditions, without teacher assistance and with access to resources tightly controlled in order to reduce the possibility of cheating. However, this too will shortly be largely removed and replaced by mainly exam-based assessment as part of a general GCSE reform.