Archive for June 10, 2009

Examination Matters

Posted in Biographical, Education with tags , , on June 10, 2009 by telescoper

I made it safely back to Blighty last night and have spent the day catching up on a few things. I wasn’t really planning to post anything today, but after looking through the comments on my previous item I thought it was probably a good idea to move on!

My trip to Copenhagen was carefully timed to miss the mammoth examiners’ meeting that took place yesterday in the Cardiff School of Physics & Astronomy, at which decisions were made about the degree classes of the graduating students. Final results have to be confirmed by the University but, following a longstanding tradition, provisional pass lists went up on the boards immediately after the meeting.

When I came in this morning I was delighted to hear that the meeting went off fairly smoothly and also delighted to see the pass lists had very good news for many of the students I know quite well personally. Particular congratulations to all the students who got First Class Honours, some of whom will be taking another step on the academic treadmill and going on to do PhDs here and there. I’m not really sorry I missed the examiners’ meeting, but I am sorry I wasn’t here to congratulate the soon-to-be-graduates in person.

I remember that when I finished my degree and got the result I didn’t actually feel much euphoria, only exhaustion. When I was younger, exams were always times of enormous stress for me. I guess that’s because, when I first went to School, I was very far behind everyone else and, as one of the “slow” kids, I was almost thrown in the educational wastebin. I gradually caught up but for a long time felt that I was still regarded as a bit of a dunderhead so, to prove I wasn’t a fake,  to myself as much as anyone else, I worked very hard at all the examinations I had to take. It was only when I got to University that I realised all the stress wasn’t worth it. It’s nice to pass but you shouldn’t become obsessed with grades and certificates. Examinations seem to have an almost overwhelming significance when they’re the only thing on your horizon, but years later you will look back on them as being of very little real importance (regardless of whether you did well or not).

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 – both at School and University – places such a great emphasis on examination and assessment, to the detriment of real learning. The biggest bane of physics education is the way modular degrees have been implemented. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not opposed to modularisation in principle. I just think the way we teach modules in British university 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.

Our students take 120 “credits” in a year, split into two semesters. These are usually split into 10-credit modules with an examination at the end of each semester. Laboratories and other continuously-assessed work does not involve a written examination, but the system means that a typical  student will have 5 written examination papers in January and another 5 in May. Each paper is two hours.

These factors mean that the ratio of assessment to education has risen sharply over the last decades with the undeniable result that academic standards have fallen in physics. The 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 memorising 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 much more than a memory device. What we should be doing is giving students the confidence to think for themselves.

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 success of our high achievers. They have taken the course we have given them and done extremely well. They deserve admiration and praise. 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…