Archive for Examinations

Exam Time

Posted in Education, Maynooth with tags , , , on January 12, 2020 by telescoper

Back in Maynooth into the January examination period, I await the arrival tomorrow of the first batch of examination scripts I have to mark, so I thought I’d do a quick post on the topic of examinations.

First, for readers elsewhere, full-time undergraduate students at Maynooth what is called 60 “credits” in a year, usually split into two semesters of thirty credits each. This is usually split into 5-credit modules with an examination in each module 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 examination is usually of two hours’ duration.

This is very similar to the system in most UK universities that I am aware of except that a full year’s work over there is 120 credits so there’s a conversion factor of 2:1. A 5-credit module in Ireland would be a 10-credit module in the United Kingdom, for example, but otherwise the system is similar.

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 here – at least at a reasonably advanced level, say Years 3 and 4 – offer no choice of questions to be answered.  A typical format for a two-hour paper is that there are two long questions, each of which counts for 50 marks. Elsewhere  one normally finds students have a choice of two or three questions from four or five on the paper.

One  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. If they’re well designed, two long questions can cover quite a lot of the syllabus for a module, which they have to in order to test all the learning outcomes. To accomplish this, questions can be split into parts that may be linked to each other to a greater or lesser extent to explore the connections between different ideas, but also sufficiently separate that a student who can’t do one part can still have a go at others. With such a paper, however, it is a  dangerous strategy for a student to focus only on selected parts of the material in order to pass.

As an examiner, the Maynooth style of examination also has the advantage that you don’t have to worry too much if one question turns out to be harder than the others. That can matter if different students attempt different questions, but not if everyone has to do everything.

But it’s not just the number of questions that’s important, it’s the duration. I’ve never felt that it was even remotely sensible for undergraduate physics examinations to be a speed test, which was often the case when I was a student. Why the need for time pressure? It’s better to be correct than to be fast, I think. I always try to set examination questions that could be done inside two hours by a student who knew the material, including plenty of time for checking so that even a student who made a mistake would have time to correct it and get the right answer. If a student does poorly in this style of examination it will be because they haven’t prepared well enough rather than because they weren’t fast enough.

The structure of the Maynooth examinations at more introductory level is rather different, with some choice. In my first year module on Mechanics & Special Relativity, for example, there is a compulsory first question worth 50 marks (split into several pieces) and then the students can pick two out of three shorter questions worth 25 marks each. This is a somewhat gentler approach than with the more advanced papers, partly adopted because we have quite a few students doing the General Science degree who taking Mathematical Physics as one of their 4 first-year subjects but will not be taking it further.

As their examination is not until Wednesday, I’ll have to wait until later this week to find out how my first-years have done. This will be the examination taken at University level for most of my class, so let me take this opportunity to pass on a few quick tips.

  1. Try to get a good night’s sleep before the examination and arrive in plenty of time before the start.
  2. Read the entire paper before starting to answer any questions. In particular, make sure you are aware of any supplementary information, formulae, etc, given in the rubric or at the end.
  3. Start off by tackling the question you are most confident about answering, even if it’s not Question 1. This will help settle any nerves.
  4. Don’t rush! Students often lose marks by making careless errors. Check all your numerical results on your calculator at least twice and – PLEASE – remember to put the units!
  5. Don’t panic! You’re not expected to answer everything perfectly. A first-class mark is anything over 70%, so don’t worry if there are bits you can’t do. If you get stuck on a part of a question, don’t waste too much time on it (especially if it’s just a few marks). Just leave it and move on. You can always come back to it later.

Readers of this blog are welcome to add other tips through the comments box below!

Oh, and good luck to anyone at Maynooth or elsewhere taking examinations in the next few weeks!

 

Exams and Anniversaries

Posted in Biographical, Education, Maynooth with tags , , , on January 9, 2020 by telescoper

Tomorrow (10th 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 tomorrow.

On 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 Kingdom places such a great emphasis on examination and assessment compared to learning and understanding.

Also on the equivalent day yesterday I was about to travel to London to attend my first LGBT+STEMinar at the Institute of Physics in London. Tomorrow I’ll be doing a similar thing, getting up at stupid o’clock
to travel to Birmingham for the 2020 event. The main difference this year (apart from the change of venue) is that I’m not giving a talk this time. This is good news for me (because it means I can relax a bit more) and for the attendees (because they don’t have to listen to me rambling on like they did last year).

I won’t be able to stay to the end of the LGBT+STEMinar, however, as I have to get to London. As I have mentioned previously here, 2020 marks the bicentenary of the Royal Astronomical Society:

According to the brief history published on the RAS website:

The ‘Astronomical Society of London’ was conceived on 12 January 1820 when 14 gentlemen sat down to dinner at the Freemason’s Tavern, in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, London. After an unusually short gestation the new Society was born on 10 March 1820 with the first meeting of the Council and the Society as a whole. An early setback, when Sir Joseph Banks induced the Duke of Somerset to withdraw his agreement to be the first President, was overcome when Sir William Herschel agreed to be the titular first President, though he never actually took the Chair at a meeting.

To be precise, the Society only became the `Royal Astronomical Society’ in 1831 when it was granted a Royal Charter by William IV, but its roots go back to 1820.

It’s not only the Royal Astronomical Society that has survived and prospered for two hundred years. The group of `gentlemen’ who met for dinner in January 1820 has also carried on in the form of the RAS Club which is, of course, older than the RAS itself. The Dining Club always meet on the second Friday of the month, which means that tomorrow is the closest date to that very first meeting. There will therefore be a special club dinner tomorrow night, with more guests than usual. I’m looking forward to it a lot, actually, although I’m slightly apprehensive about the fact that I’ll be relying on the train to get me there in time!

Repeat Message..

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

Back in Ireland and straight away it’s the repeat examination period at Maynooth University, which started yesterday. My first one was yesterday, actually, for just one student, and I’ve been virtuous and marked the script already.

I’ll be marking quite a few more repeat exams over the next week or so, so here’s a message for any student anywhere taking any at this time:

I thought it was worth mentioning for any university teachers out there reading this that although they are held at roughly the same time of year in the two countries there’s a difference in the way resits are handled in the institutions I’ve worked at in the United Kingdom and the way repeats work here in Maynooth which is implied by the slightly different name.

In UK institutions with which I am familiar students generally take resits when, because they have failed one or more examinations the previous May they have not accumulated sufficient credits to proceed to the next year of their course. Passing the resit allows them to retrieve lost credit, but their mark is generally capped at a bare pass. That means the student gets the credit they need for their degree but their average (which determines whether they get 1st, 2nd or 3rd class Honours) is negatively affected.

This is the case unless a student has extenuating circumstances affecting the earlier examination, such as bad health or family emergency, in which case they take the resit as a `sit’, i.e. for the first time with an uncapped mark.

Here in Maynooth, repeat examinations are generally taken for the same reason as in the UK but the mark obtained is not capped. Indeed, some students – though not many – elect to take the repeat examination even if they passed earlier in the summer, in order to increase their average mark. Another difference is that all students have to pay a fee  for each repeat they take; resits in the UK do not attract additional fees.

When I told former colleagues at Cardiff in the pub last week that repeat examinations are not capped they didn’t like the idea because they felt that it would lead to many students playing games, i.e. deliberately not taking exams in May with the intention of spreading some of their examination  load into August. There’s not much sign of students actually doing that here, to be honest, for the reason that the results from the repeat examination period are not confirmed until early September so that students that deploy this strategy do not know whether they are going to be able to start their course until a couple of weeks before term. That could cause lots of problems securing accommodation, etc, so it doesn’t seem to me to be a good ploy.

Anyway, I’d welcome comments for or against whether resits/repeats should be capped/uncapped and on what practice is adopted in your institution.

Old-School Physics

Posted in Education, History, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on July 27, 2019 by telescoper

The recent circulation to his staff of daft (and in some cases erroneous) rules to be used when writing documents has led to much hilarity on the media we call social. Among the obvious errors are that the correct abbreviation for `Member of Parliament’ is `MP’ not ‘M.P.’ and that `full stop’ is actually two words (not `fullstop’). On top of those his insistence that civil servants use Imperial units for everything actually may be unlawful as the official system of units for the United Kingdom is the metric system.

The latter exhortation has caused a particular outcry among people under the age of about 50 (who have never been taught Imperial units), and especially scientists (who understand the obvious superiority of the SI system).

Anyway, all this reminded me that many years ago when at Cardiff there came into my possession a book of very old school and university physics examinations, which are of interest because I’ve been posting slightly less ancient examples in recent weeks. These examinations were set by the University College of South Wales and Monmouthshire, which was founded in 1883,  an institution which eventually became Cardiff University. I find them absolutely fascinating.

The papers are rather fragile, as is the book containing them, so I daren’t risk trying to scan them systematically in case flattening them out causes damage. Here instead are a few random examples that I photographed on my desk, in the manner of an old-fashioned secret agent. Sorry they’re not all that clear, but you can see them blown up if you click on them.

The collection is fairly complete, covering most of classical physics, at all examination levels from university entry to final Honours. Of course there are no questions on relativity or quantum physics appear (which had yet to be invented) but other than that – and the units! – they’re not too different from what you might find in the examinations for the early stages of contemporary physics programmes.

Admissions, Consultations and Congratulations!

Posted in Education, Maynooth with tags , , , , , , on July 2, 2019 by telescoper

Some good news for Maynooth University arrived this morning. Yesterday (1st July) was the deadline for applicants to Irish universities to change their mind about first preference courses through the Central Applications Office (CAO) which, for UK readers, is roughly equivalent to UCAS). That deadline having passed, CAO has now released details of the number of first-choice applicants to each course at each university.

The news for Maynooth University is very positive, in that it has received its highest-ever (>4,200) first preference applications. This figure represents a 7% increase on Maynooth applications from last year. In particular the number of students applying for the Bachelor of Science degree is up a whopping 33% on last year!

I like our `Omnibus’ Science degree programme, for reasons which I’ve discussed here and am glad to see it’s proving so attractive to students.

Of course it now remains to be seen how many of those students get the required points on their Leaving Certificate examinations (which have just finished) but the prospects are looking good! I’m particularly looking forward to meeting new students in Theoretical Physics next year!

Yesterday was also an important day for existing Maynooth students. The main University Examination Board was held last Thursday and yesterday students received all their results. Of course I saw all the marks last week but couldn’t say anything before the final results were released so it was nice yesterday to join in the congratulations of the final-year students in Theoretical Physics who have done extremely well this year. You couldn’t wish to meet a nicer, friendlier and harder-working group of students and I’m delighted for their success. Some will be leaving to pursue studies abroad,  but some are staying on to do Masters programmes here so there will be some familiar faces still around in Theoretical Physics next year.

An innovation this year is that the Examinations Office has set up an Exam Results Information Centre to advise students on what to do if there are issues arising from their results (such as taking repeat examinations):

For subject-specific inquiries to do with academic matters we have a Consultation Day tomorrow (Wednesday 3rd July) during which students can, if they wish, ask to see their marked examination scripts as well as asking other questions about their academic studies. This is something I feel very positively about too (as I wrote here). I’ll be on duty in Theoretical Physics tomorrow, actually. If Theoretical Physics students can’t make it in tomorrow then just email us and we’ll try to arrange another time.

 

 

Boards and Consultations

Posted in Education, Maynooth with tags , , , on June 10, 2019 by telescoper

Back from Helsinki, I’m now in the midst of Examination Board business. That’s two Boards for me, one for the Department of Theoretical Physics and the other for the Department of Engineering (as I’ve been teaching Engineering Mathematics).  We’ve already Preliminary meetings for both and this afternoon had the `Final’ Board for Engineering in the presence of the external examiners. The Final ‘Board’ for Theoretical Physics with the external is on Thursday. But that’s not the end of it – there is an overall University Examination Board that covers all courses in the University to formally bring an end to the examination process.

That’s quite a lot of Boards.

It is not until after all the Boards have done their business that the students get their marks and not long after that we have a Consultation Day, where

Staff will be available in all Departments to discuss results with students. Students are entitled to see their examination scripts if they wish, these will be generally available on this day or at another mutually convenient time.

When I was Head of the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences at Sussex University I tried to introduce such a system there, but it was met with some resistance from staff who thought this would not only cause a big increase in workload and but also lead to  difficulties with students demanding their marks be increased. That has never been my experience elsewhere: only a handful take up the opportunity and those that do are told quite clearly that the mark cannot be changed.  Last year I had only one student who asked to go through their script. I was happy to oblige and we had a friendly and (I think) productive meeting.

If I had my way we would actually give all students their marked examination scripts back as a matter of routine. The fact that we don’t is no doubt one reason for relatively poor performance in student satisfaction surveys about assessment and feedback. Obviously examination scripts have to go through a pretty strict quality assurance process involving the whole paraphernalia of examination boards (including external examiners), so the scripts can’t be given back immediately but once that process is complete there doesn’t seem to me any reason why we shouldn’t give their work, together with any feedback written on it,  back to the students in its entirety.

I have heard some people argue that under the provisions of the Data Protection Act students have a legal right to see what’s written on the scripts – as that constitutes part of their student record – but that’s not my point here. My point is purely educational, based on the benefit to the student’s learning experience.

Anyway, I don’t know how widespread the practice is of giving examination scripts back to students so let me conduct a totally unscientific poll. Obviously most of my readers are in physics and astronomy, but I invite anyone in any academic discipline to vote:

And, of course, if you have any further comments to make please feel free to make them through the box below!

Suddenly the End of Term

Posted in Biographical, Education, Maynooth with tags , , , on June 1, 2019 by telescoper

Yesterday I finished the last of my marking duties, and put away the exam scripts and other assessments. I had to rush to get them all done in time for this weekend because I will not be here for most of next week. That’s been quite difficult because of all the other things going on and has led to quite a few late nights!

The marks will of course need to be validated and uploaded to a database in advance of the meetings of the Examination Boards which take place the week after next in the presence of the External Examiner. It will be some time, therefore, before everything is finalised and the students get their marks. (In case you didn’t realise, that was a hint to any students reading this not to pester us for their marks…)

The last examinations took place this week and all of a sudden the campus is deserted. Most of the students at Maynooth University don’t actually live here so many of them depart as soon as their last examination is over. The effect is dramatic. There’s been a particularly noticeable change in the vicinity of the Library, which was crammed full of students during the examination period but yesterday morning was deserted. Our friendly feline celebrity will have a lot less company for the next few months but I’m sure he’ll still be well looked after..

Not everyone has disappeared for the summer, of course. The postgraduate will still be around, and we have quite a few students in Theoretical Physics staying for (paid) internships: I have two working with me and I’m looking forward to starting them off on their projects.

This is actually a Bank Holiday Weekend, so everyone will be off on Monday and the campus is closed, which makes  for a nice end-of-term break for some of us. Not all staff had exams early enough to finish in time like I did, however, and no doubt some will have to spend the weekend marking scripts. The June Bank Holiday (Lá Saoire i mí Mheitheamh) in Ireland is actually the equivalent of last week’s late May Bank Holiday in the UK, in that both have their origin in the old festival of Whitsuntide (or Pentecost) which falls on the 7th Sunday after Easter. Because the date of Easter moves around in the calendar so does Whit Sunday, but it is usually in late May or early June. Here in Ireland the Bank Holiday is always on the first Monday in June whereas on the other side of the Irish Sea it is on the last Monday in May.

Finally I noticed last night that the season of concerts from the National Concert Hall in Dublin is now over. The new season will start in September. I’ve been too busy this term to get to many of these but I’ll try to plan things a bit better for the new season.