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John Taylor talks about the EPQ

EPQ conference reveals why universities love it

The Extended Project Qualification (EPQ) is emerging as a popular replacement for the AS level as a fourth column on sixth formers’ timetables, as universities begin giving discounted offers to those who have one.

The EPQ teaches reasoning and research, rather than teaching to the test, and introduces pupils to the kind of self-guided learning they will encounter at university. Research shows that students with an EPQ are more likely to get into a university in the Russell or 1994 Group, and more likely to get a good degree.

From 2000 students taking part in its pilot phase in 2007/08, the EPQ grew to 38,000 entries – 13% of A level students – in 2014/15.

Some schools, like Hills Road Sixth Form College in Cambridge, are even making the EPQ compulsory for all A level pupils. (However the number of entries increased by less than 1% in 2015, according to Stephen Saunders, a spokesperson for the Joint Council for Qualifications, an association of exam boards, so Hills Road’s decision may not mark a trend.)

At last month’s EPQ&A conference at the University of East Anglia, John Taylor, chief EPQ examiner for exam board Edexcel, spoke about the benefits of the EPQ and gave extensive advice on teaching it.

He said that, as a teacher, “there are certain questions which catalyse students. But then you have to get back to the syllabus. It would be lovely if there was a qualification that dealt with these questions.”

The EPQ is the answer, he said. “You have this freedom. You [can] escape from the culture of teaching to the test. EPQ is a way of stretching your students. It broadens students and gives them a chance to add new skills. It also deepens understanding, bringing ideas from other subjects.”

Teaching the EPQ means being a “Socratic mentor”, he said: teaching by questioning, and “asking students challenging questions that make them think.”

“The assessment criteria relate to quality of process and skills used, as much as specific content,” Mr Taylor explained. And because the EPQ develops and demonstrates cross-curricular research skills and independent thought and learning, universities find students with an EPQ an attractive prospect. An increasing number of universities are making “discounted” offers to applicants who have one, so an offer of AAA might become AAB for a student with a good EPQ, for example.

Furthermore, the Russell Group says: “The EPQ is valued by Russell Group universities. Universities differ in whether or not they will include the EPQ as part of any offer they make to a student, but you can draw upon your Extended Project in your personal statement and at interview to provide evidence of enthusiasm for your chosen subject.”

And during the conference’s question and answer session, Nicola Dartnell, Curriculum Director at Hills Road, said: “UCAS is a powerful motivator. Students know it’s good for personal statements etc.”

“The options are endless,” as The Spectator put it. “The EPQ allows pupils to do something totally different, and gives them an opportunity to explore new fields of study. Even EPQs connected to a mainstream subject open up a wealth of choice beyond the confines of a fixed exam syllabus. For pupils wishing to study medicine, engineering or architecture, an EPQ gives them the chance to prove their enthusiasm for these subjects. In some cases, pupils may choose not to write their EPQ report, but instead to compose or perform a piece of music or produce a piece of art.”
Mr Taylor proposed a two-year timetable for pupils working on an EPQ. This allows for an introductory taught course to develop research and project management skills, and the chance to do a pilot project (which may then form the basis of the full project anyway). It also gives plenty of time to scope out and settle on the all-important question, hypothesis, design brief or commssion that the student’s EPQ will address.

Mr Taylor’s presentation to the UEA EPQ&A conference is available as a download, and goes into more detail about scheduling the EPQ, the types of EPQ that students might produce, tips for supervising, and useful links.

You can download that presentation here (pdf).

Conference Q&A

The conference’s question and answer panel comprised:

  • John Taylor, Chief Examiner of EPQ, Edexcel
  • Nicola Dartnell, Curriculum Director and Head of Extended Curriculum at Hills Road
  • Adam Longcroft, UEA Senior EDU Lecturer and Academic Director of Taught Programmes
  • Kay Yeoman, UEA Professor of Science Communication
  • Alix Delany, UEA Head of Admissions (Undergraduate)
  • Rebecca Westrup, UEA Lecturer in Education

Some of the questions and answers were as follows:

“Aren’t pupils coached through the EPQ?”

John Taylor: “Teachers can’t do the projects for the kids. The assessment uncovers where the students don’t understand what they have been doing.”
Rebecca Westrup: “Critical reflection is so important, so it reveals coaching.”

“I have a group working on an engineering project together. How can they present it as individuals?”

JT: “Each pupil needs to be able to do a complete EPQ, so they can’t do a bit of the project each. They should each do a report.”
Kay Yeoman: “Yes, because they each interpret things differently, even if working in a group.”

Are they all about the arts?

JT: “EPQ offers enormous opportunities for in depth scientific work. But less than 10 per cent of EPQs are scientific research.”

Should pupils be supervised by experts or non-experts?

Nicola Dartnell: “We all have a completely random set of students. I would recommend a non-expert superviser, because it’s supposed to be up to the student. You can mark something that’s not in your area of expertise. It should read well to a non-specialist. I would expect to be able to tell [even as a non-expert in the field] if something critical was missing.”
JT: “Assessment is done by the experts, but it’s important to remember that these are not undergraduates. They are 16- and 17-year-olds. I’m relaxed about working with someone who does have specialist knowledge – they should, at least, be talking to the people who can guide them.
KY: “You might need equipment or someone who knows how to use that equipment. Your local university might be able to help. Also, referencing is different between science and humanities, so that’s somewhere where guidance is needed.”
ND: “I would expect students to take the initiative in getting specialist help.”

“What percentage of your students complete it?”

ND: “It’s compulsory [at Hills Road] so all students are entered. Over 50 per cent got A* or A. Four per cent got a U grade.”

“Do students who do an EPQ do better at university?”

RW: “Students who do the EPQ seem ready earlier than those who don’t.”
JT: “Studies in the last two years found that students who do well in EPQ have a higher chance of getting into a competitive university, and also of getting a good degree. But we don’t know the causation, necessarily.” [He added that this will be a new area of study.]
KY: “Students who have done an EPQ have a much better grasp of what [universities] mean by ‘research’.”

We’re using the AS Critical Thinking as part of the EPQ taught element. Is that good?

JT: “The best projects are powered by that journey of critical thinking and argument and counter-argument.”

“Some people are concerned about taking time away from three A levels. Is there evidence that it’s better to concentrate on their three A levels?”

ND: “We have weaker students who are using the EPQ as evidence that they can achieve. It can save them.”
JT: “The EPQ is always the thing that will suffer if the student is struggling. [But] universities are moving to a point where it’s not just about the grades, it’s about the skill sets. Students doing EPQ can vastly exceed their expected A level grades.”

Posted by Nicholas Manthorpe on Tue, 14 Feb 2017

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Nick was a reporter for the Eastern Daily Press and its sister weekly titles in Norfolk and Waveney, then served as Media Officer for North Norfolk District Council for 13 years. He now works as a writer and PR and media relations consultant. He is a member of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations, an associate member of the Chartered Management Institute and a member of East Anglian Writers.

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