Back to Exams

Well here I am, back in my office at Maynooth University, although I wish I could say the same about the heating. The Christmas closure officially ended yesterday (3rd January) but there are very few people about today and no heating in my office. I doubt there will be anywhere open to get lunch later, either. And did I mention there’s no heating?

We have a short hiatus between now and Friday 11th January in advance of the start of the examination period, during which I plan to try to finish off a few papers that I failed to complete over the holiday. As it happens, my examination on Astrology Astrophysics & Cosmetics Cosmology is one of the first, next Friday morning. No doubt I’ll get more than a few inquiries from students between now and then.

I’ll actually be in London next Friday when the examination takes place, as I’m giving the closing keynote talk at the annual LGBT Steminar which this year takes place at the brand new IOP Building in King’s Cross. I’m looking forward to that, but have no idea what I’m going to talk about.

Anyway, back to the topic of examinations, I noticed a piece in the Irish Times a few days ago concerning the fact that the proportion of First and Upper-Second Class degrees awarded by Irish universities has increased. The same thing has happened in the UK recently too.

Responses to this from most media pundits have generally been to accuse universities of `dumbing down’ their examinations. Responses from university staff, on the other hand, have included complaints that they are being forced by senior management to inflate grades awarded to students. All I can say to the latter is that I’ve never experienced, at any University I’ve ever worked in, even as a Head of School, any pressure whatsoever to increase the grades for any category of student in any course. That’s not to say that it doesn’t happen anywwhere. I just don’t know. I just say I’ve no experience of it happening.

I would like to say to those who jump to conclusion that universities are making it easier for students to get high grades by lowering standards is to set aside your prior prejudice and imagine, for the sake of argument, that universities are actually getting better at teaching students. How would that improvement manifest itself in the proportion of students awarded 1st and 2.1 degrees?

The answer to that question is that the proportion of good degrees would increase. One can’t therefore argue on that evidence alone whether examinations are being made easier or teaching is getting better (or indeed that students find examinations easier because they are better taught). In other words, the assumption that it’s all about dumbing down, is based on something other than the grade award data. If you have other evidence, that’s fine. Let’s hear it.

What I have seen is better training for teaching staff, better facilities for studying, and (yes) more motivated students. Given all that, why would you not expect students to get better results?

3 Responses to “Back to Exams”

  1. Paul Stevenson Says:

    I work at a University which has been particularly highlighted as having a marked increase in first and upper second class degrees. I can state that we have received no instructions to do any kind of dumbing down.

    As well as the positive things you list, I can add an improvement of pastoral care, which I think it sector-wide, and has positive consequences for degree outcome. In our case, the A-level grades of our intake has also improved quite a bit, and that has led to better degrees, too.

    I would argue that exams can hardly be getting any easier if the prime source of new exam questions is past exam questions, but of course that isn’t the case, so I couldn’t argue that.

  2. Thanks for making this important point, Peter. I’ve run an “experiment” for the last few years with my 1st year tutorial groups in Nottingham where I’ve asked them to attempt an exam paper from 2001:

  3. Jonathan Thornburg Says:

    Other possible explanations (not mutually exclusive) include
    * better pre-university teaching
    * time-dependent selection effects from lower-performing students now being less likely to enter university than in the past

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