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There is much literature on testing in education, with studies from the United States of America showing recent increases in levels of testing. Whilst literature explores attitudes and behaviour as well as pressures and gender differences, in-depth accounts of feelings and attitudes during school testing periods in England are under studied. Literature on education in Hong Kong, Ireland and Sweden found evidence of girls having greater concerns over studies as well as higher levels of anxiety, despite achieving more highly than males. Testing is a trialling period during which stress is experienced and manifested. In our research project, we aimed to understand in more depth female attitudes towards testing in England in order to explore the relevance of the above concepts and evidence in the English context. In our research, semi-structured interviews helped gather qualitative data, providing in-depth information into attitudes and meanings. We found a range of attitudes were applied to testing, varying in terms of amounts of anxiety felt. Whilst one participant recalled hospitalisation during testing due to stress, others coped with exam pressures by working hard or exercising. Pressures were exerted by the students' inner-determination and their parents, but also by their teachers through predicted grades and verbal comments. Interpretations of what testing is and its uses were explored, along with viewpoints on fair testing and gender differences. By means of deduction, our research supported our initial view of testing as a trialling period where stress is experienced.
Recent policies have seen the introduction of A*s at A-Level, university funding cuts and increases in tuition fees (Mail Online 2010). Such current policy reforms may distinguish excellence in education, but they can also increase competition, pressure and anxiety associated with testing. Whilst the implications of these policies are felt to a large extent by higher education students, we wished to identify how attitudes towards testing are experienced by students during their secondary school education. Our group chose qualitative methodology to answer our research question 'What are the attitudes of higher education female students, aged 18-21, towards testing during their secondary school state education in England?' By means of deduction, our aim was to find in-depth accounts of attitudes and experiences in order to construct theory rather than test it (Bryman 2008). Our data shows that different levels of pressure were felt depending on whether students were doing exams or coursework. Much of this pressure came from parents and teachers and manifested through students in different ways. In this project we will firstly review relevant literature, before describing the methodology used to investigate our research question. Following this we will analyse our findings, applying theory from our literature. Finally, we will bring each section of our research together in conclusion.
Literature around the topic of testing during secondary school education has been mainly explorative. Areas such as attitudes and behaviour towards testing, pressures to succeed, levels of testing, academic performance of each sex, test anxiety and differences within these categories by gender, have all received academic attention. During our project we have read widely and wish to use this section to outline the parameters of current research. This will illustrate what issues are under-explored, and help develop our specific research question. What we found was missing from the debate was in-depth accounts of feelings and attitudes towards periods of testing.
Rabinowitz (2005 in Camara and Kimmel 2005) argued that there has been a great increase in testing in secondary school education in recent years in the United States. Tests identify student attainment, as well as a teachers' and schools' ability to support their students; however, here lies the potential for over testing. By this, we mean the potential for schooling systems to create too much examining, in terms of weekly and yearly exams, Standard Assessment Tasks (SATs), General Certificates of Secondary Education (GCSEs) and coursework. It is clear then that testing is multi-purposeful. As this evidence is based on the United States, we cannot presume the situation is the same in England.
For the student, GCSEs are the key to entry into higher education (Atkinson et al. 2004). GCSEs are vital for two reasons: firstly, they provide the utility for getting a desirable job or furthering education, and secondly, they illustrate a sense of self-identity and worth (Denscombe 2000).
Despite this, male and female attitudes towards testing vary and achievement by sex differs. As Jackson (2010) found, girls tend to have higher levels of anxiety towards testing, although the reliability of this data may be contestable as she found girls more willing to report feelings of anxiety. Ollfors (2007:175) draws on studies in Ireland (Gallagher and Miller 1998) and Hong Kong (Hui 2000, Lau 1989) to show how "girls have greater concerns relating to issues in studies than boys do". McDonald (2001) states that fear of exams is widespread and increasing, perhaps because of greater levels of testing and emphasis of their importance. It is important to note that Younger and Warrington (1996) found that classroom interactions were influenced by the attitudes held by teachers towards 'masculinity' and 'femininity'. We can hence assume that the relationship between gender and anxiety in testing is significant and that a more in-depth investigation of female attitudes to testing is worthwhile.
Danielson's research in Sweden (2006 in Ollfors and Andersson 2007:143-144) found that 68% of girls, and just 42% of boys "perceived themselves as being under severe or very severe stress because of their schoolwork". Furthermore, students more committed to their work reported greater levels of stress. Similarly, Jackson's study (2010) found 75% of girls and 61% of boys reported anxiety over SATs. It seems clear from this short review that test anxiety is a profound problem and evidence suggests female students are at greater risk of experiencing this 'storm and stress, period in life (Coleman and Hendry 1990 in Denscombe 2010). McDonald (2001:90) describes test anxiety as feelings of "unease, apprehension, distress or depression".
Pressures causing anxiety aren't just internal, but are also created by teachers and parents (Jackson 2010). Research by Atkinson et al. (2004:252) shows that "teachers eligible for the incentive payment increase their value-added by almost half a GCSE grade per pupil relative to ineligible teachers". Deconstructing this, pressures to succeed may be projected onto students, by teachers, for financial reasons. Bourke (2005 in Jackson 2010:44) found teachers "would counsel students to 'fear not' while simultaneously inciting anxiety and terror".
Despite alleged higher levels of anxiety, studies from the 1990s suggest that girls are outperforming boys at GCSE level (Measer and Sikes 1992, Rogers 1993, Gold 1995 in Younger and Warrington 1996). Although these older studies cannot easily explain current trends and attitudes, more recently Deary et al. (2007) found girls performed better than boys in all subjects except Physics (this is backed up by Murphy 2000 in Lekholm 2009 who argues boys outperform girls when using weighing and measuring apparatus). Deary et al.'s research (2007) showed that 61% of girls achieved five or more GCSEs with grades A* - C, in comparison to only 50% of boys. One reason for this is that girls come to school better prepared for writing and drawing activities (Arnold et al. 1996, Murphy 2000 in Lekholm 2009).
The main assumption found in the literature is that females experience state school secondary education differently to males, and display higher levels of anxiety despite out-performing males according to several accounts. Yet evidence for the English case is fragmented. Our project therefore explores in greater depth the experiences, feelings and attitudes females in England have towards testing and the alleged out-performance of girls over boys. This entails the following more specific research question: 'What are the attitudes of higher education female students at Bath University, aged 18-21, towards testing during their secondary school state education in England?' Before presenting our findings, we will now depict our methodological approach, choice of participants and interview techniques below.
Our research question examines attitudes towards testing in state funded education. The two main types of methodology we could have used to research our question were quantitative and qualitative research. However we chose to use a qualitative methodology because it was best suited to the aims of our in-depth attitudinal research. We wanted to find out detailed information regarding attitudes and experiences, and build theory rather than test it (Bryman 2008).
Within qualitative research, the two main methods of data collecting are participant observation and interviews (Bogdan and Bilken 2003). Interviews can take many different forms and structures (Denzin and Lincoln 2000). For example, telephone interviews are quicker to administer, cheaper and responses tend to be less influenced by the interviewer than when conducted face-to-face. However, our research question holds potentially sensitive areas which are not suitable for telephone interviews (Bryman 2008). In-depth interviewing allowed us to ask open-ended questions to capture the specific and accurate points of view of our participants. This gave us an insight into the participants' personal attitudes to testing (Burgess 1982 in Ritchie and Lewis 2003).
Our research question required detailed responses, so a representative sample was neither desirable nor relevant. Moreover, non-probability sampling is employed by qualitative researchers (Kuzel 1992 in Sarantakos 1998) because within qualitative research, in-depth small scale studies are used most often and therefore units need to be deliberately selected (Ritchie & Lewis 2003). The particular method of sampling we used was purposive sampling. This is where a sample is selected from a particular population group with specific criteria, for example demographic characteristics, attitudes or experiences etc. (Ritchie & Lewis 2003). We selected four female students aged between 18 and 21, who all attended the University of Bath, as we wanted to investigate female attitudes. These students were easy to access and were more likely to have clearer memories as they had recently experienced secondary education.
For our questions to remain focused but allow our participants to respond without constraint, our interviews were semi-structured. We identified four topic areas based on our literature review: uses of testing, alternatives to testing, pressures and emotional, mental and physical effects. We asked non-leading, open-ended questions around these topics so that respondents could answer in their own words (Bryman 2008:232). Our group conducted pilot interviews with each other to identify any potential problems with our questions and interview structure. Despite this, in the actual interviews the questions did not follow exactly the way we planned in our schedule. This seems to be a general characteristic of semi-structured interviewing (Bryman 2008). The interviews took place in a private room, where only the interviewer and participant were present. They were recorded and transcribed which allowed us to analyse the responses thoroughly, and identify specific areas where we as interviewers may have influenced answers. After transcribing the answers, we collated data into a grid for efficient analysis. All of the interviewees were aged 19 and interviews lasted between 20 and 25 minutes.
There were certain problems that arose from the interpretation and analysis of results. As students we were less experienced than other social scientists at conducting interviews. Consequently, participants may have been actively constructing and interpreting the questions and our responses (Holstein and Gubrium 1995). Furthermore, interpreting and recording body language is subjective so will vary between interviewers (Holstein & Gubrium 1995).
As with most research, certain issues regarding reliability and validity arose whilst conducting our interviews. In terms of reliability, we wanted to ensure that results would be consistent if the interviews were repeated. As interviews took place in a private room, the effects of extraneous factors were limited (Marguerite et al. 2010), therefore it is likely that their responses were not the product of any confounding variables. It is likely that since we all have different backgrounds and cultures we would have influenced our interviewees in different ways (Holstein & Gubrium 1995). To limit these effects we had a group discussion in order to strategically structure our interviews so that results would be as independent as possible from the interviewer. Perhaps to make it more reliable, we could have introduced standardised prompts, however this could have limited the willingness of our participants to open up and describe their true attitudes and feelings towards testing.
The central themes to validity are external validity (whether findings can be generalised) and internal validity (measuring what we set out to measure) (Bryman 2008). The specific criterion for our sample suggests that our findings lacked external validity. However, our research question required a specific sample group, and it was not in our interest to generalise our findings. For our findings to be internally valid the responses interviewees gave must have been directly influenced by their own experiences and nothing else.
As our research was interested in attitudes relating to testing and anxiety, we had to take into account several concerns from the outset; harm to participants, lack of informed consent, and invasion of privacy (Diener and Crandall 1978 in Bryman 2008).
Harm is a broad concept relating to physical, mental, or emotional harm (Bryman 2008). Our research posed no real threats of physical harm but we made sure that our participants were kept from emotional and mental harm by making it clear to them that they were free to walk out of the interview if necessary (Appendix 2). According to the British Sociological Association's statement of ethical practice (BSA 2002), researchers should anticipate potential harmful experiences for participants, and we were aware that our questions were potentially sensitive. We therefore offered our participants information on counselling. They were made aware that they would remain anonymous, and all responses remained confidential.
We provided a consent form and an information sheet for our participants (Appendix 2 and 3) outlining the purpose of our research. This was so their informed consent was given, fully understanding what we were researching and why (Homan 1991 in Bryman 2008). With regards to privacy, the BSA guidelines (2002) state that covert methods such as participant observation invade the privacy of participants. Our method however was in-depth interviewing, and the consent form increased the likelihood that our participants would speak more freely about private issues, rather than us as interviewers invading that privacy. Furthermore, they were not obliged to answer any questions.
Our research included several topics which covered the uses of and alternatives to testing, pressures experienced during testing and the mental, emotional and physical effects of testing. In addition to this we explored the participants' views on whether or not girls outperform boys.
Uses of testing
Firstly, we addressed what kind of tests the participants had experienced between the ages of 11 and 16. Our findings indicated that all four participants had taken SATs and GCSEs. In addition to this all participants had been tested on a regular basis throughout each school year between the ages of 11 and 16. Although we know what exams are taken in secondary school this question showed the participants' interpretations and constructions of testing. Interestingly, none of the participants mentioned coursework as a division of testing, and when questioned, three out of the four participants supported this. P2 commented that:
It [coursework] was part of testing but I wouldn't say it had the same kind of pressure as exams because you can have your resources that you can use, and you can do it in your own time.
Coursework did not appear to have the same level of stress associated with it as examination type testing. This is supported by Denscombe (2000) whose research found that "the contribution of coursework marks eased some of the pressure", and that "examinations carried an element of the uncertain and unpredictable" (Denscombe 2000:364). Uncertainty can cause stress as pointed out by P1 who said that it was the waiting for the exam results which caused stress.
When asked about the purpose of testing two participants felt that it would help them access higher education, with the other two participants adding that it would help "prepare for the outside world" (P3).This is in synchronicity with Atkinson et al. (2004) who argue that GCSEs are the key to entry into higher education. However none of the participants mentioned that it had increased their sense of identity or sense of self worth which appears to be in contradiction to Denscombe (2000) who argues that GCSEs can give students a sense of "their personal worth" (Denscombe 2000:369). We did not specifically question the participants on the issue of self worth as it could be seen as 'leading' them. On reflection it would have been interesting to add this data to our results.
Alternatives to testing and pressure between genders to succeed
The first goal for this topic area was to capture the participants' views on fair methods of assessment. The second aim was to identify if they felt there was pressure between genders to succeed, and if so, whether these pressures are the same for each gender. Additionally we wanted to explore the participants' views on whether girls outperform boys.
There was a variety of opinions on alternatives to testing. Whereas P1 was quite comfortable with exams, and had a preference for that method of assessment, the other participants all felt that a mix of coursework and exams was a fair method of assessing students. For example P2 felt that "fifty percent written work and fifty percent coursework gives a fair balance". On the other hand P3 felt that there is "no easy method to be tested". She favoured lots of little tests on a regular basis and a teacher assessment of contribution in class.
The participants were divided on whether there was pressure between genders to succeed. P1 stated that she competed against boys in maths and science, P2 was more bothered about her own achievements, P4 felt that there was indeed some rivalry between males and females, and P3 stated:
I think in the media there is definitely a pressure for boys to outperform girls, that's what's expected. I think it's only in the past couple of years that girls are doing better than boys.
Although evidence suggests that girls are outperforming boys at GCSE Level (Measer and Sikes 1992, Rogers 1993, Gold 1995 in Younger and Warrington 1996) only two of our participants felt that this was the case. However, both P2 and P4 felt that boys and girls have strengths in different subjects with males performing better in science and maths and females performing better in English and humanities. To a degree this is consistent with research conducted by Deary et al. (2007) which showed that boys outperformed girls in physics.
Our third topic focussed on exploring whether the participants experienced pressure during their secondary school years, and if so, where the pressure came from, e.g. from parents, school, their peers or themselves.
All four participants stated that they had experienced exam pressure to varying degrees, with P1 appearing to have the most relaxed attitude towards testing, and at the other end of the scale P2 experiencing extreme stress during here GCSE years. P1 admitted that her parents pushed her, although she did not perceive this as pressure. She also did not feel peer pressure as she was self motivated. P2 experienced a lot of pressure during her GCSEs. She stated:
I was told by my doctor that I should drop at least one subject due to my stress levels. I was hospitalised because I broke down. I took some tablets, tried to go to sleep.
P2 felt that there was too much pressure on her to do well, mainly coming from teachers as the school wanted to maintain their high rates of A* - C GCSE rates. Similarly, P3 also experienced pressure particularly during her GCSEs. She felt that her parents would be disappointed if she did not do well, and that her teachers would treat her as if she was stupid. She added that "that there was a kind of culture in my class that while you're stupid your classmates will look down on you". P4's story was similar in that she felt under pressure from teachers and parents to do well.
Overall, three participants felt that the main pressure came from the school so that high institutional GCSE pass rates could be maintained. The second main source of pressure appeared to come from parents and peers. This data is consistent with research conducted by Jackson (2010) and Atkinson et al. (2004) as mentioned in the literature review.
Emotional, mental and physical effects of pressure
The degree to which the participants were affected varied greatly. Whilst P1 coped well with exam pressure, P2 had to take an extended period away from school and underwent two years of counselling. She indicated a sense of regret at having worried her family. P4 became quite tired and used exercise to alleviate her stress, and P3 describes her experiences as follows:
Physically I couldn't sleep, well mentally I got really stressed, so it affected me physically. I was really tense. When I get stressed out I get really angry with people around me.
Summary of findings
Although this was a small scale research project and we did not interview males in the same age group, our findings showed consistent themes and results with current literature on this complex subject. Females do experience stress during examinations, in particular during their GCSE period, and stress arose from pressure exerted by parents and teachers, and through internal pressure to succeed.
We investigated attitudes of female students towards secondary school testing in England, finding that they experienced pressure and stress, which was mainly caused by parents and teachers. Our findings support that of previous studies, yet we also found evidence departing from the literature. In particular, we did not find support for a sense of 'personal worth' which students experience through testing (Denscombe 2000). None of our participants mentioned such feelings or links to identity. Whilst students identified a connection between achievement and future prospects, they did not associate these feelings with a sense of personal worth. This does not correlate with previous findings.
As we only interviewed female students, our data does not take into consideration attitudes and feelings of males, only reflecting female attitudes. Although face-to-face interviewing holds potential problems in terms of interviewer bias and lack of neutrality, we found our method created rapport between interviewer and interviewee which enabled sensitive issues to be discussed in a safe, although artificial, environment. Our semi-structured interviews allowed participants to answer in their own way (in Ritchie and Lewis 2003). Our findings about high levels of stress and anxiety experienced during testing indicate some of the negative psychological effects the rigid framework used within the secondary state school education system has on individuals. Research and policy-makers need to understand and anticipate such consequences, especially in the context of the parallel development of making access to universities more expensive by raising tuition fees. Whilst our research offers an insight into attitudes associated with testing, more extensive research is required to more fully understand this complex subject.
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Appendix 1 - Ethical Approval Form
Appendix 2 - Information Sheet for Participants
Appendix 3 - Consent Form
Appendix 4 - Group Rules
Appendix 5 - Topic Guide
Qualitative Social Research Methods
Proposal/Ethical Approval Form
Please complete the following form and put in an assignment box in the departmental foyer of 3 East by 4.00pm on 2 November. Failure to submit a form, signed by the course leader, could result in failure.
Names with the section that you are completing:
Daniel Gyandoh - Methodology
Christiane Smith - Findings
Joel Thomas - Literature and Abstract
Jiarui Zhang - Introduction, Conclusion and Bibliography
2. Provisional title of your study
Secondary School or Secondary Cruel: an enquiry into secondary school testing in England.
3. Please outline the aim of your study
We are interested in researching test anxiety and academic performance, as much literature discussed this relationship.
Our research is the product of a gap we found in the literature studied. Girls seem to be achieving more highly than boys, therefore we would like to investigate their experiences of testing.
Literature from the USA suggests students are over tested. However, this does not explain what attitudes students in the UK have towards testing. Comparatively, it is important to look at state school students as private schools have different systems of testing.
We want to understand female attitudes towards testing, including their experiences and opinions on amounts of testing, as one way of understanding why they fare better.
We would like to explore the emotional and physical implications of testing at secondary school.
4. What kind of people do you want to interview (eg international students; persons in sports clubs)?
We want to interview females aged 18-21 with a secondary state school education, from the University of Bath in England.
5. How will you find these people? [If already known to you, please comment on how you will handle this]
We will use purposive sampling as we want to interview a very specific group of participants.
6. Will you be obtaining informed written consent? Yes
Please note: you are usually expected to do this!
7. If the answer to question 6 was 'No', please explain why you will not be obtaining informed written consent.
8. What kind of harm might result from this research, either for you or the interviewees? And what steps will you take to ensure that harm is minimised?
We will honour the informer and their data as a gift, not an expectation. It is important that we do not direct interviewees into sensitive areas of conversation, but instead let them lead the interview within our framework of topics. This ensures we receive their attitudes and meanings.
We will provide our interviewees with contact details of university services if they feel they need a counselling service, and will hold ourselves accountable to Ellen, seeking either her help and guidance, or that of our personal tutors, if needed.
It is also necessary for us to take an audio recording of our interviews for our own protection (especially as there will be two male researchers and we wish to interview females). We will start our interviews with a statement outlining our research project topic and main aim, declaring the right for interviewees to stop the recording at any point in cases of confidentiality or to ask a question.
9. To what extent will your interviewees be involved in 'collaborating' with the development or writing up of your research? Why/why not? -
Please note: you should normally NOT involve your interviewees directly in this project!
The only involvement of the interviewee will be in our interviews. This is because we
don't want them to become aware of our aims and objectives which as a result may
affect our findings. After our project has been marked, we will offer the interviewees a copy if they so wish. Our follow up email a month after the interview will thank them for their participation and once again remind them of counselling service contact details in case they require these (see below for contact details).
Student Health and Well-Being, University of Bath, Bath BA2 7AY.
Tel: +44 (0)1225 385538 email: [email protected]
10. Will you require formal permission to conduct this research from another organisation?
11. Please sign and date - all members of the group
Please note: full names necessary!
PLEASE ATTACH A DRAFT LETTER TO THE INTERVIEWEES INFORMING THEM ABOUT THE STUDY (AND ASKING FOR CONSENT TO TAKE PART).
12. Signature of unit leader, and date
PLEASE NOTE: This form, signed by the course leader, must be attached to your group assignment or the assignment could be failed automatically
Information Sheet for Participants
Invitation to participate in research:
An enquiry into the attitudes of female students at the University of Bath aged 18 - 21, towards testing during their secondary school education in England.
We would like to invite you to take part in our research project which is aimed at understanding female attitudes towards testing during their secondary school education. This includes experiences and opinions on amounts of testing, as one way of understanding why female students gain better results. We would also like to explore the emotional and physical implications of testing at secondary school. We hope that this research project will raise awareness of testing from a feminist perspective.
Participation will involve a tape recorded interview lasting between 30 - 60 minutes, which will take place in a pre booked room on the University of Bath Campus at a mutually convenient time. The recording will be transcribed after the interview for the purpose of collating the results. All names will be anonymised to preserve confidentiality. The right not to answer any question, or stop the recording will also be maintained throughout the research process, and participants are encouraged to enquire about any questions they do not fully understand.
Access to the final project will be limited to the members involved in the research group and university staff who will be marking the essay. The final essay will be made available for all participants to read after it has gone through the University of Bath assessment process.
Participants can contact the researchers via the email addresses below.
Thank you for your involvement and contribution.
Daniel Gyandoh - [email protected]
Christiane Smith - [email protected]
Joel Thomas - [email protected]
Jiarui Zhang - [email protected]
Consent form for: An enquiry into secondary school testing in England
I have been given an information sheet on what this research is about, what is expected of me and my right to withdraw at anytime of the study with no implication to anyone.
I understand this study is related to the above named researchers for the purpose of their academic assessment. I have also been given a chance to ask questions and clarification is given to me on all of the questions I have raised with the researchers.
I am aware that this information is to be kept confidential between myself and the researchers (as well as academics related to this study). I know my name is not to be used in the report and I am guaranteed anonymity.
I have given my consent to participate in this study with full knowledge about it.
Participant name and signature _______________________ _________________
Researcher name and signature_______________________ _________________
(two copies to be signed by both the researcher and participant, and each to keep a copy)
Turn up to meetings on time
If we cannot make a meeting let everyone know the day before
Joel to email round a summary to everyone after each meeting
At the start of each meeting decide what we want to achieve