As an element of high stakes assessment, coursework was originally intended to raise the validity of the assessment process and to enhance the learning of students. In recent years, this purpose has been distorted by the increasing requirements for educational institutions to demonstrate standards and to be accountable. This small, ESRC-funded study used in-depth qualitative approaches to explore the nature and processes of learning from coursework in national examinations undertaken by 16 year-old students. Among other things, it probed the extent to which qualities such as independent learning, critical thinking and creativity were developed through coursework. The research found that, while the practice underpinning coursework had the capacity to support deeper and more independent learning, the pressures of achieving good grades mediated against all pupils reaching the optimum level of higher order thinking.