Archive for the Education Category

Conferring Ceremony

Posted in Biographical, Education, Maynooth with tags , , , on September 12, 2019 by telescoper

So far it has been a very busy but interesting day, involving both the start of a new academic year and the end of the old one. Today I did three subject information talks – to different groups of students – about our Mathematical and Theoretical Physics courses here at Maynooth University. This is part of the pre-term  Orientation Week, designed to help new arrivals at the University settle into their courses and choose their options.

In between these sessions signifying the start of the new academic cycle,  I had to don academic garb in order to attend my first ever Graduation Ceremony at Maynooth, thus marking the end of the old.

These events are not actually called Graduation Ceremonies here in Ireland but Conferring Ceremonies. I was impressed that the local suppliers of academic dress, Phelan Conan were able to find and supply the correct 1989 vintage DPhil gown from Sussex University as opposed to the less interesting modern one.

Aula Maxima, Maynooth

Conferring Ceremonies in Maynooth are held in the Aula Maxima, on South Campus, which is an excellent venue with lots of atmosphere.I somehow found myself at the front of the academic procession and almost screwed everything up by entering through the wrong door, but a sharp poke in the back from a member of the Psychology Department set me on the right track and I ended up in the right place on the stage.

The ceremony, which was rather shorter those I’ve attended in UK universities, was conducted in a mixture of English, Latin and Irish and was quite enjoyable. The President, Philip Nolan, gave a very nice and well-chosen speech at the end before we spilled out into the drizzle for handshakes and photographs, thence into Pugin Hall for a lunch reception and then, for me at least, a rush back onto North Campus to give another subject information talk.

Whatever their name, graduation ceremonies are funny things. With all their costumes and weird traditions, they even seem a bit absurd. On the other hand, even in these modern times, we live with all kinds of rituals and I don’t see why we shouldn’t celebrate academic achievement in this way.

I love graduation ceremonies, actually. As the graduands go across the stage you realize that every one of them has a unique story to tell and a whole universe of possibilities in front of them. How their lives will unfold no-one can tell, but it’s a privilege to be there for one important milestone on their journey. Getting to read their names out is quite stressful – it may not seem like it, but I do spend quite a lot of time fretting about the correct pronunciation of the names. It’s also a bit strange in some cases finally to put a name to a face that I’ve seen around the place regularly, just before they leave the University for good. I always find this a bittersweet occasion. There’s joy and celebration, of course, but tempered by the realization that many of the young people who you’ve seen around long enough to grow accustomed to their faces, will disappear into the big wide world never to be seen again. On the other hand, this year quite a few graduates of the Department of Theoretical Physics are staying in Maynooth to do Masters programmes so they won’t all be vanishing without trace.

Graduation of course isn’t just about dressing up. Nor is it only about recognizing academic achievement. It’s also a rite of passage on the way to adulthood and independence, so the presence of the parents at the ceremony adds another emotional dimension to the goings-on. Although everyone is rightly proud of the achievement – either their own in the case of the graduands or that of others in the case of the guests – there’s also a bit of sadness to go with the goodbyes. It always seems that as a lecturer you are only just getting to know students by the time they graduate, but that’s enough to miss them when they go.

Anyway, all this is a roundabout way of saying congratulations once more to everyone who graduated today, and I wish you all the very best for the future!

 

 

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Maynooth Access Programme Launchpad Panel

Posted in Biographical, Education, Maynooth with tags , , on September 8, 2019 by telescoper

Launchpad banner outside the Science Building last week

As I mentioned a while ago, one of the reasons I had to come back from Armagh before the end of INAM2019 was an event I had to attend on Friday to do with Launchpad.

Launchpad is the Maynooth University Access Programme (MAP) orientation designed to support and ease the transition to third level for students who are coming to Maynooth University through entry routes supported by MAP. These groups include under-represented school leavers, mature students, students with disabilities and members of the Irish Traveller community. Incoming students supported by MAP can get to know fellow first years, ask questions and find out advice from existing student ambassadors on how to navigate the University before starting a new course at Maynooth.

It’s worth mentioning one specific initiative related to mature students, namely the Certificate in Science, which is a programme for mature students who wish to undertake a foundation year in preparation for degree studies in Science or Engineering. In this one year, full-time programme of study, students undertake modules on Mathematics, Engineering Science, Computer Science, Experimental Physics, Mathematical Physics, Biology and Chemistry. Students who do well can progress from this course into one of the science or engineering degree courses on offer at Maynooth.

Anyway, the event I took part in on Friday was a panel discussion involving the MAP advisors from each of the Departments in the Faculty of Science and Engineering and a lecture room full of students just about to start their courses at Maynooth. There were similar panel discussions for the other Faculties. I have assumed the responsibility as MAP advisor for Theoretical Physics this year, as I think it’s important that as Head of Department I make it clear that this programme has a high priority for the Department. Because I haven’t attended any such events before I wasn’t sure what to expect of this session. I worried the students might be very shy about asking question and that as a consequence in might not be very useful. I’m very glad to have been proved completely wrong!

We had a huge number of questions from the audience on a whole range of topics, such as subject choices (especially for the Omnibus Science course), coursework requirements, note-taking and all kinds of other issues too numerous to mention, filling up the entire 90 minute slot scheduled for the event. It was  a very interesting and enjoyable session and great to see the students so engaged and enthusiastic. Thanks to all who attended and especially to the new students for playing their part!

Teaching term doesn’t start for another couple of weeks during period which there will be further introductory sessions for the MAP students and others. My calendar is already rather full, but I don’t mind that at all if the events are as enjoyable as Friday’s.

Some Good News For Maynooth!

Posted in Education, Maynooth with tags on August 30, 2019 by telescoper

These days more than ever it’s a relief when there’s some good news to share, so I was very happy this morning to hear that the Irish Government has awarded Maynooth University a capital grant of €25 million for a major new building project. This is a big slice of a total of  almost €100 million capital investment for projects across the sector. The other recipients were: IT Sligo (€6.6M); NUI Galway (€15M); University College Cork (€25M); and University College Dublin (€25M). The official press release can be found here.

This investment reflects the fact that Maynooth is Ireland’s fastest-growing university, at least partly because of the rapidly increasing demographic demand for higher education in the area to the west of the Dublin metropolitan area.

As I write, building work has already started on the North Campus of Maynooth University near the Science Building. This new building is due to open in late 2020. For further details see here.

Maynooth University Library Cat was unavailable for comment.

 

 

 

 

 

On The Launchpad!

Posted in Education, Maynooth with tags , , , , on August 21, 2019 by telescoper

As we are approaching the start of the next academic year I’ve spent a little bit of time today preparing for events taking place over the next few weeks. One of the things on the immediate horizon is Launchpad, which takes place from Thursday 5 September to Saturday 7 September 2019 on the Maynooth Campus.

Launchpad is the Maynooth University Access Programme (MAP) orientation designed to support and ease the transition to third level for students who are coming to Maynooth University through entry routes supported by MAP. These groups include under-represented school leavers, mature students, students with disabilities and members of the Irish Traveller community. Incoming students supported by MAP can get to know fellow first years, ask questions and find out advice from existing student ambassadors on how to navigate the University before starting a new course at Maynooth. I will be attending a panel Q&A discussion for Launchpad on 6th September, which I am looking forward to!

Here’s a little video about Launchpad, produced by Maynooth University, which includes some student voices as well as some nice views of the campus:

It’s worth mentioning one specific initiative related to mature students, namely the Certificate in Science, which is a programme for mature students who wish to undertake a foundation year in preparation for degree studies in Science or Engineering. In this one year full-time programme of study, students undertake modules on Mathematics, Engineering Science, Computer Science, Experimental Physics, Mathematical Physics, Biology and Chemistry. Students who do well can progress from this course into one of the science or engineering degree courses on offer at Maynooth.

Maynooth Offers

Posted in Education, Maynooth with tags , , , on August 16, 2019 by telescoper

Well I’ve had a busy week here in Maynooth marking and checking repeat examinations (just finished this morning) during which from time to time I’ve been keeping an eye on things to do with students admissions for the forthcoming year, both here and in other institutions across Ireland. Universities and students received their Leaving Certificate results earlier in the week, but institutions then had a couple of days to decide on the basis of course capacity and the results obtained which students would receive offers of a place on which courses. This is usually expressed in terms of a points total: the more popular the course, and the better the results for applicants to that course, the higher the points required would be. Yesterday first-round offers went out from CAO across the country – there’s a summary in the Irish Times. Students who don’t get an offer from their first choice course can try in subsequent rounds to get a place at another institute.

As of yesterday afternoon, Maynooth University is expecting to admit 3,225 new first year students this year. This is the largest ever intake for the university and represents an increase of 3% from last year. This growth reflects a strong demand for places: more than 4,200 students chose Maynooth University as their first preference, an increase of 7% from last year (which I mentioned earlier this year).

At the moment it looks like being a particularly good year for our BSc Course in Theoretical Physics and Mathematics, but I’d rather wait until the process is over and numbers are confirmed before commenting further.

Anyway, as the CAO process is ongoing, I thought I’d include this little video about what Maynooth has to offer undergraduate students with particular emphasis on the flexibility of its programmes whether they be in Arts & Humanities or Sciences. I wrote about the advantages of the `Omnibus Science’ programme here. If you are reading this and didn’t happen to get the points for your first-choice course then you could do a lot worse than consider Maynooth!

The Case of Norm versus Criterion

Posted in Education with tags , , on August 15, 2019 by telescoper

I saw a news item last night that revealed the grade boundaries for some of this year’s A-level examinations in the United Kingdom. Among the surprises were that for one board an A-grade in Mathematics corresponded to a mark of 55% and an A-grade in Physics was 59%. I’m sure I’m not the only one to find these results a bit disturbing.

The explanation given for these figures is basically that there’s a new style of A-level examination this year and the boundaries were adjusted so as not to penalize the current set of students with respect to previous years. In other words, students did much worse than expected on the new examinations so the grade boundaries were lowered.

Most assessments of academic performance such as A-levels can be classified into two broad types: criterion-referenced and norm-referenced. In the former performance is measured relative to defined goals, whereas in the latter it is defined relative to the performance of others taking the same test.

University assessments in the UK and Ireland (especially in the sciences) are usually criterion-based, meaning that the % score (and hence the grade) is determined by comparing the marks with a pre-prepared marking scheme based on the expected learning outcomes of the course. It is possible for all students taking an examination to get A-grades if they all meet the criteria. On a norm-referenced system one allocates the grades based on the distribution of scores and not on the absolute level of performance attained. In reality when marking examinations under a criterion-based system, one has a bit of discretion in how to award partial credit when a question is not done completely, so this is a bit of a simplification but those are the two approaches in a nutshell.

Some universities allow marks for a component of assessment to be scaled up (for example if there is a problem with an examination paper), which has the same effect as lowering the grade boundary, but this does not usually apply to the entire mark. Some universities don’t allow scaling at all in any circumstances.

In the universities with which I am familiar, an A-grade (corresponding to First-class performance) is fixed at a mark >70%, a B (2.1) is 60-69%, a C (2.2) is 50-59%, and so on. The pass mark at undergraduate level is 40%; it might be 50% at Masters level.

This is why the figure of 55% being an A-grade at mathematics comes as a such a shock to university-based academics: that score would be in the middle of the lower-second class range in a university examination.

This episode demonstrates one of the serious issues with A-levels as preparation for university entrance. On the one hand, especially in the sciences,  we want students to be equipped with certain basic skills and knowledge to enable them to cope with their course. That calls for a criterion-based system of assessment. On the other hand, in any one year, the `top’ universities want to recruit the `top’ students (in many cases because they want to have a high position the league tables because their entry tariff is high). It’s hardly surprising that the system is dysfunctional when it is being pulled in two mutually incompatible directions.

The upshot of this year’s mathematics and physics A-levels is that universities that take in students with an A-grade in Mathematics -can’t really have much confidence in what they have learned. To make matters worse, the grade boundaries differ from one Examination Board to the next. It’s a mess. At least here in Ireland there is a truly national examination system: there is a single Leaving Certificate examination in each subject that all students take.

While I am on about A-levels I’ll just mention another disadvantage that they have compared to the Leaving Certificate (and, for that matter, the International Baccalaureate) which is that they force students to choose a very narrow post-16 curriculum. Most students take three A-levels (not counting the useless `General Studies’) which for science students often means three science subjects (e.g. Maths, Physics & Chemistry). In the Leaving Certificate students take six or seven subjects and in the IB they take six. I’ve been in Ireland for less than two years so I’m not so familiar with the system here, but my experience with the IB over about 30 years in UK higher education, is that students are certainly no less prepared for university study if they took that than if they did A-levels.

There is currently a major review of the Irish Leaving Certificate going on. One of the things that surprises me about Ireland is that, despite its hard-won independence from the United Kingdom, it has a tendency to copy slavishly many of the silly things that the UK introduces, especially in higher education. I sincerely hope that the review of the Leaving Certificate does not fall into the trap of making it more like A-levels.

Admissions Matters

Posted in Education, Maynooth with tags , , , , on August 12, 2019 by telescoper

Well, the wait is almost over. Tomorrow is the day that students in Ireland get their Leaving Certificate results. Tomorrow’s date is Tuesday 13th August, so I hope that’s not a bad omen! A couple of days later this week, on Thursday, UK students get their A-level results.

Here in Ireland, University admissions are dealt with through the Central Applications Office (CAO) which, for UK readers, is roughly equivalent to UCAS. Earlier this year we heard Maynooth University received its highest-ever number of first_preference applications, which is a very positive sign, but we don’t know yet exactly how many of those actually made the grade needed to start here next month.

As is the case in the UK with A-level results, Irish institutions receive the Leaving Certificate results a bit before the students do, which means that on both sides of the Irish sea higher education institutions will be very busy sorting through their applications to see who has made it onto what course. This is a very stressful time for all concerned, not only the prospective students but also the university staff involved in processing the results and academics wondering how many students they will have to teach next year.

From time to time one hears suggestions that the system could be made much fairer and less stressful if students could remove some of the uncertainty by applying  to university after getting their Leaving Cert (or A-level) results rather than, as is the case now, before. UPDATE: here’s a piece in the Guardian by Angela Rayner arguing this.

The problem is that there are only two ways that I can see to achieve this:

  • have the final school examinations earlier;
  • start the university academic year later.

The unavoidable consequence of the first option would be the removal of large quantities of material from the syllabus so the exams could be held several months earlier, which would be a disaster in terms of preparing students for university.

The second option would mean starting the academic year in, say, January instead of late Septembe. This would in my opinion be preferable to 1, but would still be difficult because it would interfere with all the other things a university does as well as teaching, especially research. The summer recess (July-September), wherein much research is currently done, could be changed to an autumn one (October-December) but there would be a great deal of resistance, especially from the older establishments; I can’t see Oxbridge being willing to abandon its definitions of teaching term! And what would the students do between July and January?