Examination Time Again

Once again it’s time for examinations at the University of Sussex, so here’s a lazy rehash of my previous offerings on the subject that I’ve posted around this time each year since I started blogging.

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. Although in my view there’s still 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 18th May) so I’ll find out if the students managed to learn anything despite having such a lousy lecturer. Which reminds me, I must remember to post some worked examples online to help them with their revision.

One Response to “Examination Time Again”

  1. I read this with interest because I am sitting (as a part time mature student) my last MSc Astrophysics exams this week. In the exam I took on Tuesday, I had to derive the second Jeans Equation from the Collisionless Boltzman Equation. It occurred to me this evening that although I could answer the question I had no idea what either equation did and nor did I need to know. I’m off to find out now…

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