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We’ve teamed up with teacher and podcaster Craig Barton to create a podcast series which lifts the lid on how exams are developed.
Find out how exam questions are created, discover what happens behind the scenes at AQA, and get to the heart of the latest issues as teachers bring us their stories and experiences, direct from the classroom.
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Channelling your annoyance
Bonus: Episode 5
Published: 17 June 2019
In this Inside Exams bonus episode, Southampton University’s 'Learn With Us' Transition Leader, Dr Emma Thompson, talks through the evidence that shows just how useful doing an EPQ can be, both in getting students into university, and allowing them to thrive once there.
Featured in this podcast
Dr Emma Thompson – 'Learn with US' transition leader at University of Southampton
Emma Thompson: Hello, I'm Emma Thompson. I'm the 'Learn with US' transition leader at the University of Southampton and today I'm going to be talking about the extended project qualification (EPQ) and how we see the value of it from a higher education perspective.
As 'Learn with US' transition leader at Southampton I'm very fortunate to lead a programme of outreach activity whereby we work with schools and colleges, working with students in years 12 and 13, aiming to support them with the development of the kinds of research and academic skills they will need when they get to university, and this is really where we feel EPQ fits in almost as a perfect vehicle for being able to facilitate that journey.
I come from an academic background and when I was undertaking my PhD I was also engaging with lots of students as a typical PhD student doing lots of things that I shouldn't have been, lots of teaching instead of focussing on my research, and teaching and learning really became my focus whilst I was doing my research. I thoroughly enjoyed teaching students and it became clear to me, particularly with first year essays that there was a real disconnect between what we expected as academics and perhaps what students had been prepared for. I first became aware of the EPQ in around 2013 as I was coming to the end of my PhD. Because of the teaching and learning focus that I'd had at that time when I was presented with the role that I'm now doing or the programme that I'm now working on, I became aware that the EPQ was something that we focussed on as a way of supporting the acquisition of the research and academic skills students will need in order to succeed once they get to university.
So that, I suppose, was where I first became introduced to the EPQ and I could see the value in addressing the kinds of issues that I had identified when I was marking undergraduate work, seeing how it would just allow students to hit the ground running and get started with those first pieces of work and then progress successfully throughout the rest of their academic careers. The stages of the EPQ very much replicate the stages of any kind of research project and certainly with respect to university there are lots of ways in which those different stages feed into the types of activity that students will be likely to do, both in their first and second year, and of course in their final year project or their dissertation.
So, for example, they will have to plan accordingly for those assignments. They will also have to go about doing research. They'll have to learn how to navigate a university library. They might not necessarily need to consider methodology until they apply it to their own projects but they’ll perhaps learn about it, they'll have to be considering it. They will always have to synthesize information in order to be able to write up into whatever formats they're required to for their assignments. They may have to present their work and they will certainly have to evaluate the success of it.
Those stages of university that are very much mirrored in the stages of the EPQ research process involve a range of skills at all different points. For me one of the most important things is around time management. I think that’s something that anybody, irrespective of where they are in their career, is always working on that.
The three really that I'd recommend to students, and I know students have said to me that they've taken away from doing the EPQ, are around the research skills, so the ability to identify appropriate sources and be able to look at a reading list and understand what is a book and what is a journal article versus a website or a report, know how to access them and keep them for themselves, how to read them properly, so that's not just reading to absorb but reading and thinking critically about the material that they are looking at, questioning some of the things that they are reading. Not just taking everything at face value but asking is the author justified in saying what they have said based upon the evidence that they have presented to us. When I work with students I will always convey to them that that is how the markers will look at their work and that’s exactly how they should be examining texts as well. Furthermore, the ability to apply knowledge in an analytical way for a different purpose than perhaps the original intention was in creating that piece. So whatever research question they are going to be looking at they will find bits of information that might sort of address it but not necessarily directly and it's about being able to use a piece of evidence for an entirely different purpose than that which it was created for.
Another element of the EPQ that I think is so useful for getting students started with their academic careers is looking at referencing, so if they can understand references they can learn the principles of good referencing for themselves. It's always the one thing that students mention as a valuable thing that they’ve learnt through doing the EPQ and I have to say personally I would have loved to have had the opportunity to learn referencing before going to university. It was always the thing that I really, really struggled with and was one of the reasons why I couldn’t quite understand why I wasn’t getting the marks that I wanted and I think EPQ students overcome that barrier almost straight away. They can just hit the ground running. I am often asked whether students should be choosing a topic that is related to what they're interested in, or whether it could be something good that will get them into university or be related to what they want to study at university. My answer is always the same, that yes, it's great if it is related to either current study or future study, and certainly that will strengthen an application and show to any admissions tutor that you are very interested in the subjects that you are seeking to explore at university but ultimately the students need to pick something that they are passionate about ultimately.
If it is related to what they want to study in the future then that is fantastic. I encourage students to pick something that they love and hopefully it might be related to what they want to study later on but ultimately they need to perhaps pursue something that they’re either interested in, and so many students say to me, "Oh, I'm not sure what I'm interested in" but when you delve a little bit deeper there’s always something that perhaps annoys them about the world and that can be a really good way of exploiting what they're interested in and opening up that as a possibility.
I would never wish to say an artefact is better than a report or a report is better than an artefact but from a personal perspective I love an artefact. There are so many opportunities through the course of producing something perhaps a little bit more practical. There's a huge amount of depth that comes with the creativity of doing an artefact.
A lot of my favourite EPQs that I've seen over the years have tended to be artefacts I think because they are so creative and so visually appealing. One of my favourites was a student who I worked with locally. She was a medicine student or had aspirations to be a medic. She did three science subjects but she really missed the art that she'd been able to explore perhaps in earlier years and she wanted to use the opportunity of EPQ to explore more of her kind of creative arty side and so she was interested in conservation, particularly the conservation of elephants. And through the course of her research she realised that there was a particular problem for African elephants as a result of the Chinese market for ivory.
She wanted to produce a piece of art that was reflective of the problems that existed in the world with that and she produced a portrait of an elephant, a grandmother elephant, this beautiful Technicolor African grandmother elephant and she'd done so much research that went into both the style of the painting, all the colours, the techniques, the methods of the, art kind of methods that she needed to explore. And this grandmother elephant was juxtaposed against the grandson elephant which was all greyed out because the grandson elephant wouldn’t have existed if the grandmother elephant would have been killed for her ivory, for her tusks. And it was a really powerful piece and she thoroughly enjoyed doing it and the whole EPQ process.
Another particular favourite was by a student who was very interested in doing an alternative form of research, I think was very familiar with perhaps more of the academic sources that students need to be accessing but this student had chosen to do a lot of her research using social media. She used Instagram effectively to research different makeup techniques and different styles of makeup. She sought to replicate those and produced her own style of makeup, her own kind of makeup portfolio design and it was so beautiful, the work that she created, and in doing so she's become an instagram sensation. She's got over 70,000 followers now that have all stemmed from doing her EPQ which is a really kind of exciting additional outcome of a wonderful project.
We are finding at Southampton through research that we’ve conducted from our own students that those who have done EPQs do tend to perform slightly better than those who haven't. That’s not saying that there's any causation there. It's showing an association between doing an EPQ before coming to university.
So there's a couple of different areas that are of interest certainly to students and teachers and parents. Firstly, when we look at students' performance, the first measure we have is how well they do in their first year. We look at their average mark within the first year. Students who have done an EPQ before coming to university tend to have on average a higher mark than those who haven't, and that is across the board.
Furthermore, it's perhaps then no surprise to see that there are higher proportions of EPQ students making the progression from first year to second year, compared to those who haven't. But it's not just a first year phenomenon. There's also evidence to suggest that students who've done an EPQ are less likely to drop out because of reasons of academic failure. Of course they might drop out for other personal reasons but it's not usually because of academic failure. They can cope with the rigors of academic study.
Finally, when we look at how they perform at university we see again that there are higher proportions of EPQ students who achieve two, one and first class degrees compared to those who haven't. That's consistent with other research that has been done within the field. With an increasing evidence base that the EPQ is a really good thing for university level study more and more universities have cottoned on to the value and they are looking to include it within some of their offers.
There are typically three different ways that universities approach responding to the EPQ. The first of those who really like the qualification, they say that it's consistent with the kinds of courses that they offer and that students will have the skillset that's applicable to those courses. They won't make it part of their offer. They won't make an alternative or lowered offer on the basis of having an EPQ but they do still like it.
The second way are those who like it enough to perhaps include ad hoc offers for the EPQ. It might be included within the offer. Usually universities include a dual or alternative offer and many universities do that on a case by case basis.
Then you have other universities like ourselves at the University of Southampton where we have a very clear upfront policy about what we think about the EPQ so for the majority of the courses that we offer, when students apply to us through UCAS with an EPQ on their application form, if we are minded to make them an offer of any sort we will make them a dual offer. The first will be not including their EPQ and the second will be a lowered offer that does include the EPQ. So, for example, a course like history, currently at Southampton, a typical offer for that would be AAB, that would be the first offer that students would receive, and then they would have an alternative dual offer of ABB with an A or an A star in the EPQ. So we feel that offering this dual option is almost like having your first choice and your insurance all in one.
Alternatively, some universities will look at it on results day, so perhaps if a student has missed one of their grades they might not have had an alternative offer upfront but it could be the thing that a university would look at if they've missed a grade. It might be the thing that saves them for their first choice place.
At the University of Southampton we really like to see the EPQ and therefore we support it through our outreach programme so if perhaps there are elements of the EPQ that you are currently teaching and you think I'm not as familiar with that part of the research process, or you are new to the process in general and you would like a bit of support with it, that's something that we can definitely get involved with through the 'Learn with US' transition programme.
We do go all across the country to either deliver workshops within schools and colleges so that might be anything from a lecture about how to get started with EPQ, why it's of value, developing a research question, all the way through to writing up and presenting. We are a small team so we can't always get to all of the places that we would like to so we do have online provision as well.
We also developed a MOOC or Massive Open Online Course a few years ago, about five years ago now called 'Developing Your Research Project'. This was something that we put together so that we could reach a wider, even global audience and it was the first of its kind and designed to support any kind of research project but specifically designed with the EPQ in mind. It's an eight week course and allows students to kind of go through the stages of research project at their leisure and take away all our hints and tips.
I hope by now I've probably convinced you of the value of the EPQ but if you would like to know more and you'd like to work with us, we'd be really happy to.