Reflections on the Examination Period

Tomorrow (11th January)  is the start of our mid-year examination period here at Maynooth 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. In particular I’d like to send my best wishes to students on my fourth-year module on Astrology Astrophysics and Cosmetics Cosmology, whose paper is at 9.30 tomorrow morning.

I’m a bit too busy for anything particularly profound today, as I’m off to the airport after lunch to get a flight to London for an event at the IOP tomorrow, 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. In particular, the biggest problem  with physics education in many institutions is the way modular degrees have been implemented.

I’m not at all opposed to modularization in principle. I just think the way we teach modules often 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.

Students in Maynooth take 60 “credits” in a year, split into two semesters. These are usually split into 5-credit modules with an examination at the end of each semester. Projects, and other continuously-assessed work do not involve a written examination, but the system means that a typical  student will have at least 5 written examination papers in January and at least another 5 in May. Each paper is usually of two hours’ duration.

Incidentally, one big difference between our examinations in Theoretical Physics in Maynooth and those at other institutions I’ve taught at in the UK is that the papers offer no choice of questions to be answered. A typical format for a two-hour paper is that there are two long questions (broken up into bits), each of which counts for 50 marks.  Elsewhere one normally finds students have a choice of two or three questions from four. The advantage of our system is that it makes it much harder for students to question-spot in the hope that they can get a good grade by only revising a fraction of the syllabus.


But I digress.

One consequence of the way modularization has been implemented throughout the sector is that the ratio of assessment to education has risen sharply over the last decades with a negative effect on real understanding. The system encourages students to think of modules as little bite-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 memorizing 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…

7 Responses to “Reflections on the Examination Period”

  1. “No sooner have you started to explore something at a proper level than the module is over.”

    I think this depends a little bit on the size of the module, no?

    That said, the way modules are currently structured in most universities probably leaves room for improvement. My favourite module in my undergraduate was by far the most removed from the standard module structure.

    While most years involved quite a number of courses taught at once, in the fragmentary form you so disapprove of, the first part of my masters year consisted of a single module (Advanced Quantum Mechanics) taught much more intensively: a 9am lecture, of above average length, followed by a problem sheet we were expected (but not required) to complete that afternoon. I thought these were very difficult, and I struggled quite a bit. Fortunately, I had a group of friends who were smart, hard-working, and most importantly collaborative, and having one cleverer friend explain Hilbert space in terms of vectors saved me a great deal of pain.

    The examination of the module was early in the course, and open book, unlike every other exam I sat. It actually made no difference, as there was no time to answer the questions if you had to look anything up! I think performance was, as usual, directly related to how many of the problem sheets had been completed.

    The second part of the course was more of semi-research project, in groups – I think these can be good, but given how much our grade depended upon my happening to wake up on a Sunday morning suddenly able to write down the WKB approximation we’d been struggling over, I can’t help but feel it was measure with very big error bars.

    • telescoper Says:

      Yes, it does depend on the size of the module. I would prefer larger units than those we teach here, but that tends to be disfavoured because it results in less choice.

      • I would have been quite happy (although perhaps exhausted) if my entire degree at followed the structure of that quantum mechanics module. We covered an awful lot of quite complicated ground, and quite quickly, and being immersed in a single topic seems to allow for a much faster pace than trying to grapple with a variety of ones at the same time.

      • telescoper Says:

        I agree. I think students are expected to keep up with too many things in parallel in the current system. Sussex was better, in my opinion, with larger modules so that students have only to do 4 things simultaneously rather than 6, but I think even that might be too many.

      • By which I meant – I’d have sacrificed a great deal of choice for that!

  2. I completely agree with you and share your pain of injustice meted out to students learning Physics. The link between modules goes missing.

  3. […] the equivalent day last year I reflected on examinations and in particularly on the fact that the system of education both here in Ireland and in the United […]

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