How England’s emetic testing regime is causing new academic diseases

Frank Coffield

Students are contracting a new disease – bulimia academica – defined as repeated bouts of bingeing on information and regurgitating it in exams. The pressures on students to obtain the best possible grades have become so intense that they feel forced to resort to ingesting large amounts of information and then, in government-induced bouts of vomiting, otherwise known as national tests, they spew it out.

The term – bulimia academica – is not being used lightly as that would insult those suffering from bulimia nervosa. Instead it is considered to be every bit as serious as its medical counterpart. Far from feeling better afterwards, students end up feeling empty and educationally malnourished. The students I’ve interviewed in FE and Sixth Form Colleges come to associate learning not with growing self-confidence and a sense of achievement, but with stress and self-disgust. Learning for them is reduced to the skill of passing exams rather than the means of understanding and coming to love the subjects they’re studying.

The cause of this new disease is no mystery. The increasingly punitive testing regime in England is responsible. Politicians from all the main parties will have you believe that it is robust and rigorous. It’s neither. It’s purgative and emetic and as such is both ineffective and inefficient.

This learning disorder is compounded by its equally distressing twin – anorexia academica – that affects individuals and the system. Some students become anxious about being seen by their classmates to be clever; they restrict their intake to bite-size chunks of information which makes them easier to swallow – the educational equivalent of chicken nuggets. In their teenage years, they lose their previously keen appetite for learning, give lame excuses for repeated failures to learn and pretend to have studied when they have not; and pretend not to have studied when they have. They spend their time reading self-help books about study skills without ever acquiring any. This response may be the self-harming outcome of having been tested every year since they were five years of age, a regime which has turned their stomachs against learning.

The education system also shows symptoms of the same malaise, with some curricula driven by qualifications that have had the educational nourishment stripped out of them. Groups of students can be found in colleges discussing topics about which they don’t have sufficient knowledge to form opinions and so their learning remains shallow. We offer young people so-called ‘transferable’ skills and then discover they need to be in command of a body of knowledge before they can be either critical or creative.

What’s to be done? In a new book, published this month by IOE Press, called Beyond Bulimic Learning: Improving teaching in Further Education, I’ve scoured the research literature for (and tried out in practice) the most effective interventions; and I discuss the results. Even within the tightening parameters set by government, we can still work at transforming our colleges into learning communities and our tutors into experts in teaching, learning and assessment (TLA). Now that Ofsted has decreed that no college can be judged ‘outstanding’ without being ‘outstanding’ at TLA, the best response is for colleges to access the growing body of knowledge on TLA. And this book is devoted to showing how that can be done and is being done within some colleges.


Frank Coffield is an emeritus professor at the IOE

This post has been re-blogged from IOE Press blog

A book launch for Beyond Bulimic Learning: Improving teaching in further education will take place at Blackwell’s Bookshop at the IOE on Wednesday 7 May 2014 at 6 p.m.

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Posted in Teaching, learning, curriculum & assessment
4 comments on “How England’s emetic testing regime is causing new academic diseases
  1. […] Highly-prized skills such as being creative and problem solving are much harder to measure and put into such rankings. […]

  2. Graham Holley says:

    I agree. It’s the same for schools. We have the most tested children in the world.

    Frequent and regular informal teacher assessment is needed. Teachers have always tested their students’ understanding and knowledge. But statutory assessment is a different animal. Overdone, as it is, it diverts teachers from their main task and can damage children’s learning.

    As has been said many times, weighing the pig does not increase it’s weight. We need to know the weight at various key points, but have turned measurement into an unacceptable industry.

  3. […] You can read the full post on the Institute of Education blog. […]

  4. […] You can read the full post on the Institute of Education blog. […]

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