Archive for Examinations

Examinations, Past and Future

Posted in Biographical, Education, mathematics, Maynooth with tags , , , , , on June 7, 2023 by telescoper

No sooner is yesterday’s departmental Examination Board done and dusted (after just two and a half hours) when attention switches to school examinations. The Junior Certificate and Leaving Certificate examinations both start today, so the first thing I need to do is wish everyone taking examinations the very best of luck!

Among other things, the results of the leaving certificate examinations are important for next year’s University admissions. As we gradually dispense with the restrictions imposed during the pandemic, it seems this year we just might have the results before the start of teaching at the end of September. That will make a nice change!

In the system operating in England and Wales the standard qualification for entry is the GCE A-level. Most students take A-levels in three subjects, which gives them a relatively narrow focus although the range of subjects to choose from is rather large. In Ireland the standard qualification is the Leaving Certificate, which comprises a minimum of six subjects, giving students a broader range of knowledge at the sacrifice (perhaps) of a certain amount of depth; it has been decreed for entry into this system that an Irish Leaving Certificate subject counts as about 2/3 of an A-level subject for admissions purposes, so Irish students do the equivalent of at least four A-levels, and many do more than this. It’s also worth noting that all students have to take Mathematics at Leaving Certificate level.

Overall I prefer the Leaving Certificate over the UK system of A-levels, as the former gives the students a broader range of subjects than the latter (as does the International Baccalaureate). I would have liked to have been allowed to take at least one arts subject past O-level, for example.

For University admissions points are awarded for each paper according to the marks obtained and then aggregated into a total CAO points, CAO being the Central Applications Office, the equivalent of the UK’s UCAS. This means, for example, that our main Science pathway at Maynooth allows students to study Physics without having done it at Leaving Certificate level. This obviously means that the first year has to be taught at a fairly elementary level, but it has the enormous benefit of allowing us to recruit students whose schools do not offer Physics.

As much as I like the Leaving Certificate, I have concerns about using a simple CAO points count for determining entry into third-level courses. My main concern about is with Mathematics. Since the pandemic struck, students have been able to choose to questions from just six out of ten sections. That means that students can get very high grades despite knowing nothing about 40% of the syllabus. That matters most for subjects that require students to have certain skills and knowledge for entry into University, such as Physics.

I’ve been teaching the first year Mathematical Physics course in Maynooth for about 5 years. At the start of the module I put up a questionnaire asking the students about various mathematical concepts and asking them how comfortable they feel with them. It’s been noticeable how the fraction that are comfortable with basic differentiation and integration has been falling. That’s not a reflection on the ability of the students, just on the way they have been taught. As well as making adjustments during the pandemic for online teaching, etc, I have changed various things about the teaching, in particular adjusting the way I have introduced calculus into the module. Another problem is that we have been forced to start teaching first-years a week late because of delays to the CAO process caused by the pandemic.

I’ll be on sabbatical next academic year so I won’t be teaching the first-years (or anyone else) in September. It’s time to hand these challenges on to someone else!

On Whit The Marking Boycott

Posted in Biographical, Education with tags , , , , on May 28, 2023 by telescoper

This is a bank holiday weekend in the United Kingdom, but not here in Ireland. Over here the old Whit Monday bank holiday is marked on the first Monday in June (i.e. a week tomorrow) rather than the last Monday in May as it is in the UK. Whit Sunday is another name for Pentecost, a moveable feast, which occurs on the 7th Sunday after Easter Sunday and therefore moves around in the calendar. Last year, Whit Sunday was actually June 5th; this year it is May 28th (today); and next year it will be on 19th May. So sometimes Ireland has a holiday on Whit Monday, sometimes the UK does, and sometimes neither.

Anyway, tomorrow may not be a holiday here on the Emerald Isle but I’ve finished marking my examinations so one major source of stress has been removed and I can get on with other things next week. Best wishes to colleagues still ploughing through their scripts.

All of this reminded me that universities on the other side of the Irish Sea are currently gripped by a marking and assessment boycott called by the University and College Union (UCU) as part of ongoing industrial action over pay and conditions. This has already been going on for over a month.

I haven’t kept up very well with what’s been going on in UK universities but it looks like a deal has been struck over pensions which will result in benefits being restored to members of the USS scheme. Drastic and unjustifiable cuts imposed on the pension scheme were just one part of the UCU industrial dispute, however, and action continues with respect to the others. Accordingly, UCU has asked its members in higher education institutions which are part of the pay and working conditions dispute to cease undertaking all summative marking and associated assessment activities/duties. The boycott also covers assessment-related work such as exam invigilation and the processing of marks. 

The managers of some universities have reacted to this boycott with 100% salary cuts to staff participating in it. The gloves seem to be off and it doesn’t seem likely that a resolution will be reached any time soon. I support the industrial action, by the way, as I hope do colleagues in Ireland who are employed as External Examiners in UK universities and who should to carry out their duties which would be tantamount to crossing a picket line.

It remains to be seen what will happen to students who hope to graduate from UK universities this summer, especially those who need a specific grade to take their next step. These students have had a difficult time with both the pandemic and the industrial action, but something must be done to arrest the downward spiral of pay and working conditions for university teachers, otherwise there will no long be a higher education system worthy of the name.

Terms Ending

Posted in Biographical, Education, Maynooth with tags , , , on May 26, 2023 by telescoper

So here I am, on a fine early summer evening, waiting for the train into Dublin for the last performance of the season by the National Symphony Orchestra at the National Concert Hall. I’m looking forward to it very much, as the second half is a piece I’ve never heard before. I’ll write more about it tomorrow.

There’s an end of term feeling in other ways, too. The examination period ended earlier this week, and most students have now vanished for the summer. Quite a few staff members will be marking scripts at home too. Campus has been very quiet for the last few days. The train I’m now on, the 17.10 from Maynooth to Connolly, usually very busy on a Friday, is almost empty today.

The one exception to the general lack of activity on campus happened on Wednesday when a mysterious ferret appeared on Campus. It even tried to get into the Science Building, but failed (I suppose) because it didn’t have a swipe card. It seems this critter was a family pet that had got out and went on an adventure. It was spotted at various locations around the town before being collected by its owner and returned safely home.

Artist’s impression of the ferret.

Despite that flurry of excitement, I managed to finish marking my examinations and other assessments, but the grades still need to be checked. They then have to be approved by the Departmental Exam Board in early June. They then get a final dose of scrutiny at the University Examination Board. Students will have to wait almost another month to get their results. It’s quite a slow process, but it’s right to be careful.

Days of Invigilation

Posted in Biographical, Education, Maynooth with tags , on May 22, 2023 by telescoper

I’ve now collected the scripts from my second examination – held on Saturday – and will spend the next day or two marking them and combining the exam grades with grades from class tests and projects to produce a final score.

When I went to collect the scripts for my first examination on Thursday at the end of the examination, I had to wait a little bit for them to be collated and sealed in their official packet. While that was going on I chatted to a member of staff who was putting out papers for the next examination. She was giving out about how students often move the desks when they leave, requiring them to be put back in position before the next examination.

The invigilator also expressed irritation about the system of ID cards. Each desk in the examination room has a card with a unique number on it placed in the right front corner (as seen by the student). During the examination, students are supposed to place their ID card on the desk so an invigilator can check the identity of the candidate. The student ID cards at Maynooth are about the same size as a credit card, as are the cards with the numbers. Apparently many students place their ID card directly over the number card, obscuring the number and requiring the invigilator to lift it up in order to do the crosscheck. As things go, it seems a mild transgression, but I suppose it makes an already boring job even longer for the invigilators.

Years ago, academic staff had to invigilate their own examinations. I had to do this in my first teaching job at Queen Mary and, later, at Nottingham but more recently the job has generally been done by support staff rather than academics. I moved from Nottingham to Cardiff in 2007 and don’t think I ever had to invigilate examinations there., so I haven’t done it for 16 years or so. Nowadays we are just expected to be “on call” to deal with any queries that arise in the Exam Hall by phone.

I’m not sorry that I no longer have to perform this task, as it was always one of my least favourite jobs, and not only because I don’t enjoy seeing people under stress. Initially I thought supervising an examination might allow me time to do something useful, but there always seemed to be some interruption, such as students wanting an extra answer book, or asking about some issue with the examination paper, or wanting to leave to go to the toilet, etc.

The most dramatic interruption I can remember was when a student who suffered from epilepsy had a seizure in the examination hall. Fortunately we invigilators had been briefed as to what to do in such an eventuality, namely to move the furniture so the student didn’t hurt themselves but otherwise not to intervene until they went to sleep – which usually happens after a minute or two. We were told that such an episode was unlikely as the student was taking medicine to prevent them occurring. It was quite when it actually happened, but happily the student recovered quickly but was perfectly OK afterwards. Apparently he had been so busy preparing for the examination that day he had forgotten to take his medication in the morning.

Having given up on the idea of doing some other work during an examination, I used to take a few crosswords to do. These are good for passing the time because you can solve a few clues at a time. Other things I used to do included walking around counting the number of right-handed and left-handed students, for example, though I never did any detailed statistical analysis of the results.

The primary purpose of invigilation is to prevent cheating or other misbehaviour, and I only ever saw a few examples of that – most of them involving calculators with, e.g., graph-plotting facilities which are not allowed.

Anyway, I’m glad I no longer have to invigilate examinations, and that makes me all the more grateful for the people who do. Here in Maynooth there are three examinations per day during the Examination Period, with a brief period between to put out the next set of papers, which means a long day for those who do this job. Hats off to the dedicated staff of the Exams Office at Maynooth who carry out this thankless task three times a year!

Between Papers

Posted in Biographical, Education, Maynooth with tags , , , on May 19, 2023 by telescoper
Maynooth University Library Cat, photographed yesterday by Joost Slingerland.

Yesterday morning final-year students theoretical physics students sat my first examination of the session, on Advanced Electromagnetism, and tomorrow another group will take my second, on Computational Physics 1. I collected the first scripts from the Exam Hall at the end of the examination at 11.30 and have actually finished correcting them. I don’t think I’ll come in tomorrow morning though. Correcting the second batch can wait until Monday. That doesn’t mean I get a break though because I still have to complete grading the Computational Physics Projects. It does mean, however, that I’ll probably be finished with examination marking for this session by the end of next week, in good time for the Exam Boards in June.

That won’t mean that I’m finished with examination matters for the year; I’ll have four repeat examinations to grade in August. When those are done, however, I won’t have to do any further marking of examinations or anything else to do with teaching for a whole year. My sabbatical starts on 1st September.

Meanwhile, Maynooth University Library Cat, has been patrolling the area in front of the Library, which is quite busy these days with students doing last-minute revision in the study spaces there. By the end of next week the examinations will be over, most students will have departed for the summer, many staff will be at home marking scripts, and campus will be much quieter.

After the Lectures, before the Examinations

Posted in Education, Maynooth, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on May 11, 2023 by telescoper

This morning I did my last teaching session of the Academic Year 2022-3, a revision lecture/tutorial on Computational Physics. It was optional, as this is officially a study break, and was at 9am, but I had about 40% attendance which wasn’t bad in the circumstances. As is often the case with optional sessions, I think the students who came were the keenest and probably therefore those who least needed last-minute tips for the examination, but that’s always the way.

The Examination Period starts tomorrow, but most of the students who turned up this morning have their first examination on Monday. My paper is on Saturday next, 20th May.

Anyway, now that my teaching is over I thought I’d take the opportunity to wish all students the best for their examinations:

You shouldn’t really be relying on luck of course, so here are some tips (especially for physics students, but applicable elsewhere).

  1. Try to get a good night’s sleep before the examination and arrive in plenty of time before the start. Spending all night cramming is unlikely to help you do well.
  2. Prepare well in advance so you’re relaxed when the time comes.
  3. Read the entire paper before starting to answer any questions. In particular, make sure you are aware of any supplementary information, formulae, etc, given in the rubric or at the end.
  4. Start off by tackling the question you are most confident about answering, even if it’s not Question 1. This will help settle any nerves. You’re under no obligation to answer the questions in the order they are asked.
  5. Don’t rush! Students often lose marks by making careless errors. In particular, check all your numerical results on your calculator at least twice
  6. Please remember the units!
  7. Don’t panic! You’re not expected to answer everything perfectly. A first-class mark is anything over 70%, so don’t worry if there are bits you can’t do. If you get stuck on a part of a question, don’t waste too much time on it (especially if it’s just a few marks). Just leave it and move on. You can always come back to it later.

Examinations and Memory

Posted in Biographical, Education with tags , , on March 5, 2023 by telescoper

This Sunday evening I take the text for my sermon from a piece about examinations by Katie Stripe in the Times Higher about examinations:

Testing students’ ability to show their learning in a closed context is not preparing them for a future in which technology is ubiquitous. There are few professional contexts that require you to recall information in a specific time frame.

I agree to some extent with the conclusion of the article but for different reasons. In particular, I don’t think this conclusion has much to do with the arrival of new technologies such as ChatGPT. Exams that simply require the students to “recall information” and nothing else seem to me to be of limited value from an educational point of view and should indeed be scrapped, but I think exams can play a role in testing other, more important, skills such as problem-solving.

Over my lifetime the ratio of assessment to education in universities has risen sharply, with the undeniable result that academic standards have fallen especially in my own discipline of physics. The modular system encourages students to think of modules as little bit-sized bits of education to be consumed and then forgotten. Instead of learning to rely on their brains to solve problems, students tend to approach learning by memorizing chunks of their notes and regurgitating them in the exam. I find it very sad when students ask me what derivations they should memorize to prepare for examinations because that seems to imply that they think their brain is no more than a device for storing information. It became clear to me over the years that school education in the UK does not do enough to encourage students to develop their all-round intellectual potential, which means that very few have confidence in their ability to do anything other than remember things. It seems the same malaise affects the Irish system too.

On the other hand, a good memory is undoubtedly an extremely important asset in its own right.

I went to a traditional Grammar school that I feel provided me with a very good education in which rote learning played a significant part. Learning vocabulary and grammar was an essential part of their approach to foreign languages, for example. How can one learn Latin without knowing the correct declensions for nouns and conjugations for verbs? But although these basic elements are necessary, however, they are not sufficient. You need other aspects of your mental capacity to comprehend, translate or compose meaningful pieces of text.

The same considerations apply to STEM disciplines. It is important to have a basic knowledge of the essential elements of mathematics and physics as a grounding, but you also need to develop the skill to apply these in unusual settings. I also think it’s simplistic to think of memory and creative intelligence as entirely separate things. I seems to me that the latter feeds off the former in a very complex way. A good memory does give you rapid access to information, which means you can do many things more quickly than if you had to keep looking stuff up, but I think there’s a lot more to it than that. Our memories are an essential part of the overall functioning of our brain, which is not  compartmentalized in such a simple way.  For example, one aspect of problem-solving skill relies on the ability to see hidden connections; the brain’s own filing system plays a key role in this.

In recognizing the importance of memory I don’t mean that rote learning is necessarily the best way to develop the relevant skills. My own powers of recall are not great – and are certainly not improving with age – but I find I can remember things much better if I find them interesting and/or if I can see the point of remembering them and/or if I use them a lot. Remembering things because they’re memorable is far easier than remembering because you need to remember them to pass an examination!

Anyway, my point is that a good memory can help you learn, but is not in itself what should be assessed in an examination. I wish universities made more effort to educate students to understand that their brain can be much more than a memory device.

Here endeth the lesson.

Reflections on Exam Marking

Posted in Education, Maynooth with tags , , , on January 21, 2023 by telescoper

At long last I’ve finished my marking my examination scripts. I’ve also entered the marks onto a spreadsheet and combined them with coursework so I’m almost done with this task. They just need one more check through and I can upload the results onto the system. in good time for next week’s departmental exam board meeting. It took a lot longer than I had anticipated because we have a big first-year class this year. So much for my New Year resolution not to work at weekends…

I’m a bit tired now so I thought I’d just rehash an excerpt from something I posted a while ago on the subject of examinations and what I believe to be the over-assessment of students at modern universities.

My feelings about examinations agree pretty much with William Wordsworth, who studied at the same University as me, as expressed in this quotation from The Prelude:

Of College labours, of the Lecturer’s room
All studded round, as thick as chairs could stand,
With loyal students, faithful to their books,
Half-and-half idlers, hardy recusants,
And honest dunces–of important days,
Examinations, when the man was weighed
As in a balance! of excessive hopes,
Tremblings withal and commendable fears,
Small jealousies, and triumphs good or bad–
Let others that know more speak as they know.
Such glory was but little sought by me,
And little won.

It seems to me a great a pity that our system of education – and not only at Third Level- places such a great emphasis on examination and assessment to the detriment of real learning. In particular, the biggest problem  with physics education in many institutions is the way modular degrees have been implemented.

I’m not at all opposed to modularization in principle. I just think the way we teach modules often fails to develop any understanding of the interconnection between different aspects of the subject. That’s an educational disaster because what is most exciting and compelling about physics is its essential unity. Splitting it into little boxes, taught on their own with no relationship to the other boxes, provides us with no scope to nurture the kind of lateral thinking that is key to the way physicists attempt to solve problems. The small size of each module makes the syllabus very “bitty” and fragmented. No sooner have you started to explore something at a proper level than the module is over. More advanced modules, following perhaps the following year, have to recap a large fraction of the earlier modules so there isn’t time to go as deep as one would like even over the whole curriculum.

Students in Maynooth take 60 “credits” in a year, split into two semesters. These are usually split into 5-credit modules with an examination at the end of each semester. The first-year module I teach is different, being 7.5 credits. Projects, and other continuously-assessed work do not involve a written examination, but the system means that a typical  student will have four or five written examination papers in January and another four or five in May. Each paper is usually of two hours’ duration.

One consequence of the way modularization has been implemented throughout the sector is that the ratio of assessment to education has risen sharply over time  with a negative effect on real understanding. The system encourages students to think of modules as little bite-sized bits of education to be consumed and then forgotten. Instead of learning to rely on their brains to solve problems, students tend to approach learning by memorizing chunks of their notes and regurgitating them in the exam. I find it very sad when students ask me what derivations they should memorize to prepare for examinations. A brain is so much more than a memory device. What we should be doing is giving students the confidence to think for themselves and use their intellect to its full potential rather than encouraging rote learning.

You can contrast this diet of examinations with the regime when I was an undergraduate. My entire degree result was based on six three-hour written examinations taken at the end of my final year, rather than something like 30 examinations taken over 3 years. Moreover, my finals were all in a three-day period.

Morning and afternoon exams for three consecutive days is an ordeal I wouldn’t wish on anyone, so I’m not saying the old days were better, but I do think we’ve gone far too far to the opposite extreme. The one good thing about the system I went through was that there was no possibility of passing examinations on memory alone. Since they were so close together there was no way of mugging up anything in between them. I only got through  by figuring things out in the exam room.

I don’t want to denigrate the achievements of students who are successful under the current system.  What I’m saying is that I don’t think the education we provide does justice to their talents. That’s our fault, not theirs…


Marking Schemes

Posted in Biographical, Education, Maynooth with tags , , , on January 17, 2023 by telescoper

It’s 3.40pm so I’ve reached the tea interval on the first day of marking the scripts from my first-year module on Mechanics and Special Relativity. Blogging will be a bit thin until I’ve completed this task, which will take even longer than usual as we have more students on this module than in previous years, up by more than 50% on last year. At the current rate I estimate it will take me until Friday to finish.

It turned very cold here at the weekend and I realized I had run out of food for the birds so I had to dash out to the shops on Sunday and replenish my stock. When I refilled the feeders it only took a few minutes for the robin to arrive, closely followed by starlings, a magpie, some sparrows, a woodpigeon, and then some more starlings. While I was waiting for my pot of tea to brew I filled the dispensers again.

I woke up this morning to find a very hard frost in Maynooth. The temperature hasn’t risen above zero all day so the frost is still there now. I am at home while I do the marking, which gives me an excuse not to venture out into the cold (except to feed the birds). It’s nice to be in the warm, but marking at home ensures that I am not interrupted by anyone but myself and especially not a student who might wander into my office on campus with all the scripts lying around.

Some scripts (side view)

For the last two years we’ve held this examination as an online timed assessment, but now uses old-fashioned written answer books which are much easier on the eye. I still find however that I can only managed about 30 scripts in one sitting before my attention starts to wander. I’ve therefore divided them into five packets, taking a break when I’ve finished each one. Thirty is about the number of overs you get in a session of Test Match Cricket, though I don’t stick very strictly to the same timings; I don’t always have lunch at 1pm, for example.

I’ve often discussed the process of marking examinations with my colleagues and they all have different techniques. What I do is mark one question at a time rather than one script at a time. What I mean by that is that I go through every script marking all the attempts at Question 1, then I start again and do Question 2, etc. I find that this is much quicker and more efficient than marking all the questions in each script then moving onto the next script. The reason for this is that I can upload into my mind the model answer for Question 1 so that it stays there while I mark dozens of attempts at it so I don’t have to keep referring to the marking scheme. Other advantages are that it’s easier to be consistent in giving partial credit when you’re doing the same question over and over again, and that also you spot what the common mistakes are more easily.

Whichever way you do it, grading this number of examinations is a long job, a marathon not a sprint. We also owe it to the students to be as fair as possible, all of which means taking it at a steady pace.

Now, it’s 4pm and time for the resumption…

First Day Back

Posted in Biographical, Education, Maynooth with tags , on January 3, 2023 by telescoper

So here we are, then, 3rd January 2023 and my first day back after the Christmas break. Maynooth University Campus has been largely deserted, though a few of my colleagues have been in today.

Quite a few people seem to have been down with various bugs over the holiday, including a few that have tested positive for Covid-19. We haven’t had information about actual case numbers since before Christmas but I expect a big increase when the figures are announced later this week. Hospitals are already under pressure here in Ireland so things could be quite difficult during the next few weeks.

My plans to do an in-person revision lecture were foiled by the fact that the teaching room I planned to use was locked so I adopted plan B which was to put up some lecture recordings to help the students with their revision ahead of the examination period which starts on Friday. That’s a bit early, really, as 6th January (being Epiphany) is still very much a part of the Christmas season for many people. I remember trying to arrange a meeting on January 6th years ago with a European collaboration only to be met with complete disbelief. At least the first examination for which I am responsible isn’t until Saturday.

For many of the students taking examinations in subjects I have been teaching, these will be the first University examinations and I’m sure many of them are a bit apprehensive, so I thought I’d pass on some advice.

  1. Try to get a good night’s sleep before the examination and arrive in plenty of time before the start. Spending all night cramming is unlikely to help you do well. Prepare well in advance so you’re relaxed when the time comes.
  2. Read the entire paper before starting to answer any questions. In particular, make sure you are aware of any supplementary information, formulae, etc, given in the rubric or at the end.
  3. Start off by tackling the question you are most confident about answering, even if it’s not Question 1. This will help settle any nerves. You’re under no obligation to answer the questions in the order they are asked.
  4. Don’t rush! Students often lose marks by making careless errors. Check all your numerical results on your calculator at least twice and – PLEASE – remember to put the units!
  5. Don’t panic! You’re not expected to answer everything perfectly. A first-class mark is anything over 70%, so don’t worry if there are bits you can’t do. If you get stuck on a part of a question, don’t waste too much time on it (especially if it’s just a few marks). Just leave it and move on. You can always come back to it later.