Examination Period

Today is the start of our mid-year examination period which goes on for a fortnight at Cardiff University.It’s therefore a good opportunity to send a hearty “good luck” message to all students about to take examinations, especially those who are further on in their courses for whom these papers have greater importance.

I’m a bit too busy for anything particularly profound today, so I thought I’d just rehash an excerpt from something I posted a while ago on the subject of examinations.

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 universities 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, projects, and other continuously-assessed work do 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 usually of two hours’ duration.

This means 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 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…


5 Responses to “Examination Period”

  1. This pretty much mirrors my opinion on modularised physics courses. I don’t think we should go back to the old system, but if I was forced to take exams in various topics before I had seen how they linked up to form the bigger picture, I don’t think I’d have done nearly so well.

  2. Gareth Jones Says:

    I agree with what Peter says about the unfortunate effects of modularising physics – looking back, I think something as simple as a schematic “map” of physics emphasising that the different modules are really just different facets of the same whole would have been useful.

    I’d happily wax lyrical on exams and why I’m not a fan (mainly to avoid revision for my own exams later this week) but my main complaint is that feedback from them tends to be limited to a single percentage. Quite often my understanding of a subject really comes together while revising – getting to see exactly where I went wrong (and right!) would be incredibly useful. Things may have changed since I studied in Cardiff, can students now ask for their exam papers back or obtain ideal solutions afterwards?

  3. John Peacock Says:

    Agreed 100%. I cannot understand how people with an alleged commitment to helping their students understand things came to permit these awful mid-year exams. It simply boosts the study-exam-forget compartmentalisation they get at school, and which it should be our duty to combat. Apparently, the students press for more such in-year assessment (presumably to spread the load) – but just because they are customers now, that doesn’t mean we should give them things they want when they are bad things.

    Apart from being an educational disaster for students, you might also have emphasised the downside for academics. Teaching terms used to be 8 weeks of hard graft, but the end of the tunnel could be glimpsed and it was possible to see time for research opening up ahead. Oxbridge have had the sense not to mess with this, but most other universities seem to have undergone semesterization, so that terms stretch into a 10- or 11-week eternity. In effect, despite promises to the contrary, about a month of research time has been lopped off the summer, and when you finally emerge at Christmas, there is often no energy to do anything useful. Fine if you think that teaching is the main purpose of an academic, and research is just self-indulgence – but this isn’t so: research is an equally important core duty, and semesterization has hugely damaged the ability to carry it out.

    • telescoper Says:

      In fact the semester system here involves 11 weeks of teaching, followed by a revision week, and then two weeks of examinations. In the Autumn this means 11 straight weeks, which is a slog, but the revision week and subsequent examination period do at least provide a fairly gentle re-entry. The spring semester teaching does not start until January 30th this year.

      I find students do like the mid-year exams, but I think that’s mainly because we insist on having so many modules, each with its own examination. Whenever I’ve suggested having bigger modules they generally seem to like that idea too. I’m quite drawn to the idea of having big in-depth 20 or even 30 credit modules within each semester and retaining the the mid-year examinations.

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