Examination Period

Up early this morning as I have to chair my final meeting of the Board of Studies in the School of Physics and Astronomy at Cardiff University before heading off to the Sussex-by-the-Sea for a three days of lectureship interviews and related matters. I’ll therefore probably only have time for brief posts over the next week or so.

Today is also 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, whether in Cardiff or elsewhere, especially those who are further on in their courses and for whom these papers have greater importance.

I’m a bit too busy for anything new so I thought I’d just post a rehash of a rehash of 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 in this respect…

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…

8 Responses to “Examination Period”

  1. In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, the narrator describes an experiment in which he did away with marks in the class he was teaching so that the students would concentrate on real learning. A student protested “You can’t get rid of grades [marks]; that’s what we’re here for.”

  2. James McCullen Says:

    I’d like to comment that at Cambridge at least Physics under the Natural Sciences Tripos is still examined in a linear fashion rather than in bitesize module chunks. Which brings me to my second point in that it’s wildly unfair on students that there exists vast differences in standards between institutions that awarding firsts, 2.1s etc is utterly meaningless since the standard required to attain these grades can be so wildly different.

    This can have a terrible knock on effect, especially at the postgraduate admissions stage, whereby it’s desirable for a student to go for ‘easier’ courses at ‘lower’ institutions just so they can sit easier exams and wait for the first class marks to come rolling in.

    • telescoper Says:

      The system of external examiners tries to ensure that the standard of examinations is comparable across different institutions. Having my undergraduate degree at Cambridge, and been an external examiner there for Astrophysics, I certainly wouldn’t say their examinations were harder than anywhere else, although it’s true the papers are all sat in the summer rather than spread throughout the year.

      My experience with postgraduate interviews suggests that first-class degrees from all institutions are fairly comparable.

      • You’ve said this many times, and I see no reason to doubt it. At the same time, the perceived difference between Oxbridge on the one hand and everything else on the other is greater in the UK than comparable perceived differences between the best and the rest in other countries. Why is that?

      • James McCullen Says:

        Thanks very much for replying. I find your first comment quite surprising and does not tally with my own experiences. I myself completed the first three years of the physics degree at Cambridge before changing to UCL for the fourth year to sit it as an MSc. I found the physics exams there to be almost farcically easy by comparision (my exam average increased by almost 30%). Obviously, there are probably many other factors at play here, but still I can’t help but feel slightly hard done by as my UG 2:1 puts me out of the running for almost all PhD positions despite my very high MSc grade.

        I think the fact that despite the higher attainment of Cambridge students pre-university (especially those from maths where STEP has to be sat) the percentage of grades awarded for each class are broadly similar across institutions supports my point. I should mention however despite being subjected (to what I think are) tougher exams, I don’t think this necessarily produces better physics graduates or prepares Cambridge students any better for postgraduate research.

        I think to level the playing field and eliminate any sort of institutional bias, university level exams (especially in the sciences) should be goverened and set by a central body such as the IoP, much like exams are at A level.

      • telescoper Says:

        It seems to me based on your experience that what needs levelling is the quality of taught postgraduate (i.e. MSc) provision…

      • “I think to level the playing field and eliminate any sort of institutional bias, university level exams (especially in the sciences) should be goverened and set by a central body such as the IoP, much like exams are at A level.”

        Makes sense to me. But consider that many doctoral students apply for a job not just at another institute but in another country. Bologna was supposed to provide some uniformity here, but what seems to have happened in many cases is that the names of courses, modules, degrees etc have been unified but the contents have not.

        As a wise man once said, in order to see if the playing field is level, one has to get off of one’s high horse. 😐 Those with the power to decide are too far removed to see if there is a problem, and those who complain are often perceived as whining because they didn’t come out as well as they had hoped. (Those who come out better than they had hoped don’t complain.)

  3. […] places such a great emphasis on examination and assessment to the detriment of real learning. On previous occasions, before I moved to Sussex Universitym, I’ve bemoaned the role that modularisation has played […]

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