Examination Times

After a gloriously sunny weekend, it’s now a gloriously sunny Monday. There always seems to be good weather when students are revising for, or actually taking, their examinations. It’s Mother Nature’s special torture. The bus I was on this morning went past a large crowd of students waiting outside the Sports Hall in the bright sunshine for some examination or other.  The sight did remind me that I usually post something about examinations at this time of year, so here’s a lazy rehash of my previous offerings on the subject.

My feelings about examinations agree pretty much with those of  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. On previous occasions, before I moved to the University of Sussex, I’ve bemoaned the role that modularisation has played in this process, especially in my own discipline of physics.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not opposed to modularisation in principle. I just think the way modules are used in many 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 many 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.

In most UK universities (including Sussex), tudents take 120 “credits” in a year, split into two semesters. In many institutions, these are split into 10-credit modules with an examination at the end of each semester; there are two semesters per year. Laboratories, projects, and other continuously-assessed work do not involve a written examination, so 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.

Such an arrangement means a heavy ratio of assessment to education, one that has risen sharply over the last decades,  with the undeniable result that academic standards in physics have fallen across the sector. 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 think the system we have here at the University of Sussex is much better than I’ve experienced elsewhere. For a start the basic module size is 15 credits. This means that students are usually only doing four things in parallel, and they consequently have fewer examinations, especially since they also take laboratory classes and other modules which don’t have a set examination at the end. There’s also a sizeable continuously assessed component (30%) for most modules so it doesn’t all rest on one paper. Unusually compared with the rest of the University, Physics students don’t have many examinations in the January mid-year examination period either. Although there’s still in my view too much emphasis on assessment and too little on the joy of finding things out, it’s much less pronounced than elsewhere. Maybe that’s one of the reasons why the Department of Physics & Astronomy does so consistently well in the National Student Survey?

We also have modules called Skills in Physics which focus on developing the problem-solving skills I mentioned above; these are taught through a mixture of lectures and small-group tutorials. I don’t know what the students think of these sessions, but I always enjoy them because the problems set for each session are generally a bit wacky, some of them being very testing. In fact I’d say that I’m very impressed at the technical level of the modules in the Department of Physics & Astronomy generally. I’ve been teaching Green’s Functions, Conformal Transformations and the Calculus of Variations to second-year students this semester. Those topics weren’t on the syllabus at all in my previous institution!

Anyway, my Theoretical Physics paper is next week (on 28th May) so I’ll find out if the students managed to learn anything despite having such a lousy lecturer. Which reminds me, I must get the rest of their revision notes onto the Study Direct website…

12 Responses to “Examination Times”

  1. “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.”

    One of the few books I have read more than once is Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (as the author himself notes, it has little on traditional Zen and not much on motorcycle maintenance). One scene describes a teacher experimenting with doing away with marks. A student immediately protests: You can’t do away with them; that’s what we’re here for.

  2. “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.”

    My entire degree (or, rather, the mark awarded) is based on 4 half-hour oral exams and a written one-year thesis (counted double). This was late 1980s/early 1990s in Hamburg, Germany. To be sure, in order to register for the exams, one had to present certificates. These were mostly for attending the problem-solving courses accompanying a lecture course (theoretically one could not attend the lecture, but I think everyone did attend) and getting some fraction of the homework problems correct and some fraction on a written one-hour exam at the end of the course. Others were for completing lab exercises, giving a seminar talk etc. However, these were just filters. One one got the certificate, the actual mark didn’t matter (and indeed is not recorded).

    There was also an internal “degree”, perhaps the rough equivalent, in terms of knowledge, of a modern bachelor degree, which operated on the same principles (though with no thesis and 5 oral exams, including maths). This was also a requirement for registering for the degree exams.

    The oral exams could be taken before or after the thesis. I believe there was some time in which all had to e taken, but it was several weeks or months.

    An oral exam is also almost impossible to pass on memory alone. Of course, there is no time to work things out in detail, but this has been proven by the work required to get the certificate required to register for the oral exams. In an oral exam, it is rather obvious if the candidate understands what he is saying, and the examiner can adjust his questions based on the response of the candidate: either to see if he knows some minimum amount if the answer is not very good, or to see if he is really excellent if it is. (The examiners are professors. I listened to a few exams taken by other students (this is allowed as long as the student doesn’t object) and was often the “scribe” writing a record of the exam.)

  3. I think the way we assess students should be more realistic to how we work in jobs afterwards – getting something done should be more important to just remembering stuff. Maybe I’m biased for having such a lousy memory but still being able to get stuff done (e.g. in a lab). Leicester Uni had a great method. An exam or a lab report wasn’t worth a fixed 10% (say) of the year mark, but was worth anything between 8-12%, depending on your mark. So my good lab work would be worth 12%, and my poor exams just 8%. This kept both the practical physicists and those with a good memory happy!

    • I know a guy who had a software company. When they were testing prospective candidates, a task was to write a subroutine to interact with some other software. There was a specification; that was it. It had to work as specified. They didn’t even look at the code; all that mattered was whether it worked and how long it took to write. Things such as programming language were left up to the candidate to decide.

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        One typo and you’re out? They’ll miss some good applicants.

      • “One typo and you’re out? They’ll miss some good applicants.”

        The candidate was given an opportunity to test the code.

      • if they did not look at the code they would potentially hire someone who cannot write decent code, over someone who writes appalling code and managed to get it to produce the right output.

      • Of course code should be readable and easy to maintain. Based on the employees I have met and the wealth of the boss, I think he hired the right people. I should add that this was on VMS, where it is not a sign of distinction to write obscure code.

        Quote of the day:

        BTW, the source code to perl gives me a headache, I haven’t seen anything so convoluted since I did the Maple ports for Waterloo. The comments are either quotes from ‘Lord of the Rings’ or self-congratulatory remarks of how efficient or clever the next block of code is.

        —David Jones

  4. Anton Garrett Says:

    “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”

    Was it not broken over a weekend? It was in 1978 when I did it. I spent the Saturday afternoon having a cricket net and the Sunday revising for the two papers that were key to me and which came last, the theoretical physics and the maths of physics papers.

    There was also a compulsory but not-counting (unless you were borderline) 3-hour essay as a warm-up immediately before the six papers. I walked out of it at the earliest possible time (when latecomers were no longer admitted, after 90 minutes) having written exactly what I wanted to say. There was an opportunity to write an essay about Einstein and in those 90 minutes I wrote a cocky piece about how he might be viewed as a tragic figure in view of the general rejection by physicists of his concerns about quantum mechanics.

    Peter, what happens to old exam scripts written by candidates? Are they kept forever or pulped after a while? Either way, where are they stored after marking? (I don’t mean geographic location; I mean “in the senior examiner’s loft” or “in a locked room in the departmental cellar”, or “in a university secure storage facility”, etc.) If they are pulped, after how long?

    • telescoper Says:

      Nope, it was Wednesday to Friday. However, I do remember now that I did a theory project, so only had to do part of the last paper…

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        I also thought that mine was the last year you didn’t do the exams on the theoretical stuff that was taught in the long vac term actually at the end of the long vac term (which comprised 4 weeks back at uni in the summer between 2nd and 3rd year).

  5. I graduated from Sussex in 2010 and found the Skills in Physics courses very helpful. They focussed very heavily on problem solving and less so on long mathematical derivations.
    Unfortunately they are very resource heavy, with a staff to student ratio of only 1:5.

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