Expanding and Developing Project Qualifications

There is much value in project-based assessment which focuses on skills, combines academic and vocational learning, allows for multi-modal realisation of project outcomes and assesses processes as well as products

Edge Foundation and Rethinking Assessment convened an online Roundtable to discuss the expansion of project qualifications and how they can support innovation in teaching, learning and assessment. Participants discussed how project qualifications can encourage independent learning in subject disciplines, provide a scaffold for accrediting work experience, enable collaborative school citizen assemblies around climate action, and help students explore possible options for post 16 study.

In this piece, shared as a discussion paper, Dr John Taylor gives his perspectives on the Roundtable topic.

EPQ is doing well in terms of volume of entries

Extended Project Qualification entries across the past year (combining the summer and winter series) exceeded 49,000(1). The A level cohort size (based on summer 2022 data) is around 276000(2). So up to 18% of the A level cohort take EPQ. If EPQ was an A level, it would be around the fifth most popular.

What is needed for further growth?

The main point for me is to appreciate that the success of project qualifications (PQs) depends on the way they encapsulate a project-based learning model.

Project qualifications embody an engaging, authentic mode of learning and assessment

A project is an extended personal response to an open question or a practical challenge, chosen because of its interest or value to the learner. The best learning happens when students are given an opportunity to learn for themselves, following questions and challenges of their own choosing. This is the key to the appeal and learning value of the PQs. It is also a mode of learning that can be beneficially utilised in all areas of the curriculum.

When this mode of learning is recognised and valued within qualifications, growth happens naturally. The growth of the EPQ was assisted by a positive reception from HEIs, as seen in comments made to researchers in 2012 and increasingly expressed through the introduction of UCAS grade discount offers(3).

Conversely, when FPQ and HPQ lost their league table points in 2012 (along with most GCSE equivalent courses(4)), numbers fell (e.g. with a 40% fall in HPQ entries in 2013)(5).

This shows that project qualification uptake is sensitive to the climate of ideas about the value of projects, coursework and experiential learning in contrast to the traditional examination.

The main ingredients for a successful project qualification

  • Freedom for learners to follow their interests
  • Time to immerse yourself in a genre and respond with your own ideas
  • Frameworks to scaffold creative work
  • Mentoring to facilitate the process
  • Recognition to reward project journeys.

What does it take for PQ growth to happen?

1. Leadership – developing a language and explaining the value of project learning

2. Resources – the most important being a curriculum leader who understands and believes in this mode of learning

3. CPD – to understand the learning model and manage the initial challenges

4. Education technology – project learning happens naturally through online learning platforms

5. Stakeholder engagement – buy-in from students, teachers, parents, school leaders, governors, HEIs, employers and policy-makers.

The most common objections and answers to them

“I’d love to but there isn’t time”

Answer: start small and grow steadily. PQs can be started with a small pilot group and grown from there. It is also possible to incorporate project work as an element within mainstream curricular provision. When teaching a unit, give students a choice of exploring it creatively, by making a film about the topic for example. Project work and subject teaching do not need to compete for time.

“This sounds good but won’t exam results suffer?”

Answer: there is evidence that students who take EPQ are better prepared for future study.(6)

“This is OK for the most able students but what about all the rest?”

Answer: explore the breadth of opportunity of a multi-modal assessment framework. Also make appropriate use of scaffolding to enable progress for learners who have not yet developed their independent learning skills. Allow them to pursue their passion in their project!

“How can you expect me to teach outside my subject area?”

Answer: you are teaching a process. You do not have to be a content expert. Allow learners to learn for themselves with facilitation. Encourage learners to access the relevant technical expertise as they work.

Project Qualifications and the future

Project qualifications offer an intrinsically enjoyable way to learn and serve as the basis for the development of valuable independent learning and employability skills. They represent an enjoyable, authentic mode of learning which connects directly to real life.

The climate of ideas about assessment could lead some to take the view that end of course exams are the only rigorous and reliable mode of assessment. But project work, at its best, has its own rigour both as a mode of learning and assessment.

There is much value in project-based assessment which focuses on skills, combines academic and vocational learning, allows for multi-modal realisation of project outcomes and assesses processes as well as products. Research has shown that successful performance in EPQ and other qualifications that offer alternatives to A levels is a good predictor of success at higher education level.(7)

Often, the best advocates for this type of learning are the students themselves. Their own accounts of the value of what they have learned speak powerfully about the benefits of the project approach.(8) It is time to let their voice be heard, and invite others to discover this rich, rewarding and rigorous pathway to deeper learning.

REFERENCES

(1) This figure is derived from data published by JCQ Examination results – JCQ Joint Council for Qualifications and also the entry figures of some awarding organisations that offer EPQ outside the summer series.

(2) See Infographics for A level results, 2022 (accessible) – GOV.UK

(3) See for example Fit for Purpose? The view of the higher education sector, teachers and employers on the suitability of A levels

(4) Most GCSE equivalents axed from school league tables – BBC News

(5) Appendix TABLES – GCSE, Project and Entry Level Trends, 2013 | JCQ

(6) See for example Gill, T. (2022). Are students who take the Extended Project Qualification better prepared for higher education study? Cambridge University Press & Assessment. Available at Are students who take the Extended Project Qualification better prepared for higher education? | Cambridge Assessment

(7) Gill, T. & Vidal Rodeiro, C.L. (2014). Predictive validity of level 3 qualifications: Extended Project, Cambridge Pre-U, International Baccalaureate, BTEC Diploma. Cambridge Assessment Research Report. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Assessment. Available at Predictive validity of level 3 qualifications | Cambridge Assessment

(8) Here are some examples from Cranleigh School EPQ students: EPQ – Sixth Cranleigh

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