Delivering an effective Extended Project

Written by: Dr Andrew K Shenton & Andy Sherlaw | Published:
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Monkseaton High’s recent Ofsted ‘outstanding’ grade included high praise for the school’s work in relation to the Extended Project Qualification. So, what are the ingredients of a successful EPQ teaching programme? Dr Andrew K Shenton and Andy Sherlaw offer some practical advice

In recent years, the pronounced increase in the number of students undertaking the Extended Project Qualification (EPQ) has been a significant trend in post-16 education.

With its emphasis on the construction of an essay that is frequently some 5,000 words long as the culmination of a prolonged independent learning task, the work is believed in many schools to be an important bridge in candidates’ progress towards university study.

The EPQ offers other attractions, too. The qualification is itself prestigious, and it now carries higher tariff points than AS levels.

Even as long ago as 2012, data reported in the Ofqual report Fit For Purpose? The View of the Higher Education Sector, Teachers and Employers on the Suitability of A Levels revealed that some universities had reduced their entry requirements for students who had gained it.

A similar pattern is evident today and has recently been noted by post-16 leaders in a North Tyneside network meeting. Those attending indicated that they were also aware of the effect of the EPQ in guaranteeing access routes to post-graduate courses at university.

In addition, the qualification can form a significant dimension within the information, advice and guidance process, as many students choose to address topics which provide insight into their potential course choice.

Certainly, coverage of the EPQ in a personal statement can enrich the document and serve as a focus for the individual’s contribution in an interview.

Virtually since its inception, the EPQ has been a considerable element in the provision of sixth form education at Monkseaton High School, which in March 2016 received an “outstanding” grade in our latest Ofsted inspection. The assessors shared the school’s view that the EPQ was instrumental in the development of the oldest and most able learners.

Although the EPQ gives special emphasis to self-directed work, a formal class teaching programme is required to ensure students develop the skill-set necessary not only to be successful in gaining the qualification but also to be independent learners who are prepared for higher education.

Candidates must be trained in the rigours of academic practice before beginning their own research in which they investigate a topic of particular interest to them, write up their endeavours in a diary (or “logbook”), construct their essay and deliver a presentation to staff and other students.

The purpose of this article is to outline the significant components in the programme of teaching that is delivered at Monkseaton and which has drawn particular praise from the visiting Ofsted team, the examination board, other North Tyneside schools and the students themselves, who have acknowledged how much they have enjoyed the work. The number of sessions involved and the territory they embrace naturally vary from year to year according to how much time can be set aside for the instructional element, and the discussion here refers to the components that are typically included in the programme.

Over the last 10 years, we have assembled a substantial collection of activities, resources and slide shows for lessons, and the material that follows draws on this. The diagram below shows the interaction of the elements.

Figure 1: Typical elements within the Monkseaton High School EPQ class teaching programme

Oral instruction

The broad aim of this dimension of the lessons is to help the students become effective and ethical academics. The sessions include didactic advice, the debunking of myths and misapprehensions, question-and-answer exchanges and personal demonstrations of pertinent skills and resources, all within the context of formal teaching that foreshadows the kind of lecturing which many of the learners will soon experience in higher education.

Where possible, links are made with material from other subjects that the students have studied in their academic lives to date. A major feature is the use of concrete examples to illustrate the principles for good practice that are presented.

Practical ICT workshops

Here students are given the opportunity to work with different tools for information searching and to experiment with individual strategies, in relation to both assigned topics and their own, as their thoughts gradually become concentrated on the subject of their personal EPQ investigations. Students have also been directed to “good” and “bad” web material, invited to compare the two and formed generic lists of characteristics of strong and weak sites.

The four paper exercises

Scenarios: In scenario-based exercises students offer responses to a range of situations that are described in a brief form. One of the early teaching sessions pertains to the attributes of an effective research question. In a practical task, the learners comment on the extent to which each of 12 questions would be appropriate for an EPQ study. Another set of scenarios relates to plagiarism. Again, a dozen situations are outlined. The students consider how far each of the “sins” described may be regarded as plagiarism and which merely instances of poor academic practice. The candidates then identify the problems that could be resolved simply through effective referencing. This leads in to a later session on citing.

Case studies: Whereas the scenarios deal with a diversity of issues, case studies concentrate on a solitary problem and encourage the development of more in-depth understanding. One case study, for example, summarises a fictitious EPQ essay that suffers from a key weakness, which the students are asked to isolate. Another explores the issue of bias in information and demonstrates how, through presenting only a partial picture of the events involved, material may be factually accurate but still biased.

Critiques: These form extensions of the case study exercises described above. Here, the material issued to the learners goes beyond mere summaries and whole documents are made available for scrutiny. One is a flawed research report. In designing this activity, I was inspired by the work of a mathematics teacher at my school who frequently asks his students to “be the examiner” and mark an exam script whose answers are mostly incorrect. The learners draw attention to the errors. I have used a similar strategy myself when teaching the EPQ sessions, with the youngsters invited to spot weaknesses in the report given to them. Their ideas then inform a framework for good practice and underline the principles postulated earlier in the session.

Constructs: While critiques offer opportunities to respond to existing information, the focus here lies on giving students the chance to devise analytical frameworks of their own. For example, if learners are instructed to examine for themselves raw qualitative data, the task may culminate in the creation of a breakdown of themes. Since the sources of evidence that can be used in research are of two broad types – information which has already been published and data gathered by inquirers themselves – it was felt necessary to give the candidates at least a flavour of how sense is made of data of the qualitative type, which is often neglected in school situations.

From their previous studies in statistics, many students already have some understanding of questionnaires, how they should be designed, the ethical issues associated with their use and the need for a reasonable sample size but there is opportunity for further instruction in these areas within one-to-one sessions between supervisors and candidates who are considering applying this data collection method.

Supporting documentation

Exemplars: It is important to highlight manifestations of good practice. One used in the EPQ teaching programme is a radio recording of the second part of Tom Mangold’s series Inside the Bermuda Triangle, which offers an object lesson in how information should be evaluated. Other exemplars that we have employed provide textbook quality instances of how essay plans and annotated bibliographies may be written and the way referencing is incorporated into a document. In terms of exemplar EPQ work, it would be appropriate to direct attention to excellent logbooks and essays by past students and the best projects made available by the examining board as part of the standardisation process.

Recommended frameworks: It may be possible to derive frameworks for use in a range of situations from exemplars that have already been discussed. I myself evolved from Mangold’s Bermuda Triangle analysis a generic set of criteria that may be widely adopted for assessing information. So as to enable students to select a tool on the basis of what is intuitive to them, I offer several others, in addition. These include Kathy Schrock’s 5Ws and a more recent model prepared by Shenton and Pickard.

Tools for reflection: In order to avoid monotony, it is useful if these are used for different purposes and at different stages in the teaching programme. One which I employ to introduce a session on evaluating information involves the students completing a questionnaire that encourages them to reflect on their predisposition to appraise the information they encounter. Another helps them to determine the value of the first research question they formulate and is thus directly relevant to their EPQ studies. A third is more concerned with their overall development as they are able to use an advocated framework to gauge the current extent of their critical skills in relation to information. They can see how far they have progressed to date and plan what needs to be done if they are to reach the next level.

Final thoughts

This article has addressed the principal ingredients within an effective class teaching programme for the EPQ, which has drawn praise from Ofsted inspectors.

In the current educational climate, it is difficult to overestimate the importance of this qualification. Many universities are very receptive to making offers to applicants who possess the EPQ because they have already demonstrated the independent academic skills that lead to success in higher education and, indeed, form a hallmark of lifelong learning in general.

It is perfectly possible that the elements within the EPQ teaching programme at Monkseaton have a wider value, too, as they are indicative of good practice in the broad sense. Many may be considered for inclusion by a reader wishing to design from scratch any kind of teaching programme aimed at instilling in learners the foundations of sound scholarly behaviour.

  • Dr Andrew K Shenton is curriculum and resource support at Monkseaton High School in Whitley Bay and a former lecturer at Northumbria University. Andy Sherlaw is the head of sixth form at Monkseaton High School. Email


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