Archive for Examinations

The Week Ahead

Posted in Biographical, Maynooth with tags , , , , , on August 28, 2022 by telescoper

I’m aware that tomorrow (Monday 29th August) is a Bank Holiday across the Irish Sea, but here on the Emerald Isle we had our August Bank Holiday at the start of the month so tomorrow I’ll be working. Among the important events to take place next week is the final Examination Board of 2021/2 on Wednesday morning at which we see all the results of all the students not just those from our Department. After that final check the marks will be released to students on Friday 2nd September and they’ll be able to discuss their situation with staff on Consultation Day which is Tuesday of next week (6th September).

The term of my appointment as Head of the Department of Theoretical Physics ends on Wednesday August 31st. I did try to step down a year ago. Here is what I wrote then:

Over the last few days, in an exhausted and demoralized state, I have been looking back over the best part of two years I have been Head of the Department of Theoretical Physics at Maynooth University – most of which has coincided with the Covid-19 pandemic. Frankly, I have found the burden of administration on top of the heavy teaching load required of me to be unmanageable. Because we are a very small Department teaching a full degree course, all of us have to teach many more modules than is reasonable for for staff who are expected to do research as well. I had to teach five modules* last academic year; that would have been bad enough even without having to do everything online and without the additional and frequently onerous duties associated with the Head of Department. There is no prospect of that burden decreasing for the foreseeable future.

For reasons which now escape me I agreed to carry on for one more year until the end of the three-year term to which I was appointed. I regret that “the burden”, far from decreasing, has continued to increase, to the extent that last year we had to cope with staff shortages too.

As it happens I will be spending Thursday and Friday at the Irish National Astronomy Meeting which this year is at the historic Dunsink Observatory (just outside Dublin and not far from Maynooth). I was last there on a trip to Dublin many years ago so I am looking forward to seeing it again as well as listening to the talks. The programme seems very broad and varied, so it should be interesting. The last one of these I attended in person was in Armagh in 2019, before Covid intervened and meetings became virtual. I’m not giving a talk this time, so hopefully it will be a fairly relaxed occasion.

Knowing that I was due to step down as HoD on 31st August I booked a week’s annual leave the following week (5th-9th September inclusive). I have had very little opportunity to take holidays over the past three years, so I am looking forward to a little bit of peace and quiet before the academic term starts. Before that, however, I have two research papers which are almost finished and which I’d really like to submit by Wednesday (and another which will have to wait until I return from leave). I’ve had little time to do research over the last three years either.

This year’s Leaving Certificate results are due out on Friday 2nd September and first-round CAO offers go out on Thursday 8th August. There will then be a scramble to allocate places, but I shall be blissfully out of the way for at least part of that. I will of course be back for the start of teaching (for returning students on 19th September and for new students on 26th September). As I have mentioned before that there is a serious student accommodation crisis in Ireland which will probably disrupt the studies of many students. I have yet to hear of any steps that my institution is taking to mitigate the looming disaster. It’s going to be a very challenging Semester, even without being Head of Department.

Oh, and on Monday I will be attending a virtual briefing about the plans from my Union (IFUT) to ballot its members for industrial action, of which more anon….

Examining Again

Posted in Biographical, Education, Maynooth with tags , , on August 5, 2022 by telescoper

ChorizoGate distracted me from mentioning on here that the Repeat Examination period started on Wednesday. I usually write a post at the start of an Exam period to wish all the students good luck, but this time the first examination for which I am responsible took place yesterday morning, and I’ve already marked the scripts so in that case the die is already cast. I send my best wishes to all other students taking repeat examinations, though, including the first-years taking my paper later on this afternoon.

Today’s examination doesn’t finish until 5.30pm so I’ll have to collect the scripts on my way home to mark them over the weekend. I have another three examinations on my own modules next Wednesday but because of ongoing staffing issues I am also responsible for marking several examinations for modules I didn’t teach. I’ve got a busy week ahead so I want to finish marking today’s paper before it starts,

I also 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 during the year,  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 (usually 40%). 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 reasons as in the UK but the mark obtained is not capped. When I’ve told former UK colleagues that our repeat examinations are not capped they generally  don’t  like the idea because they feel that it might 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 in my Department, 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 again 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 strategy.

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

The Pagan University Year

Posted in Education, Maynooth with tags , , on June 22, 2022 by telescoper

This morning we had the usual end-of-year meeting of the University Examination Board. It’s been a difficult year so it was a longer meeting than usual but it went reasonably smoothly. Marks will be released to students either tomorrow or Friday. That basically concludes the formal business for the academic year.

The proximity of this important event to yesterday’s Summer Solstice got me thinking again about the academic year and how it relates to the old pagan calendar.

In the Northern hemisphere, from an astronomical point of view, the solar year is defined by the two solstices (summer, around June 21st, and winter, around December 21st) and the equinoxes (spring, around March 21st, and Autumn, around September 21st). These four events divide the year into four roughly equal parts each of about 13 weeks.

Now, if you divide each of these intervals in two you divide the year into eight pieces of six and a bit weeks each. The dates midway between the astronomical events mentioned above are (roughly) :

  • 1st February: Imbolc (Candlemas)
  • 1st May: Beltane (Mayday)
  • 1st August: Lughnasadh (Lammas)
  • 1st November: Samhain (All Saints Day)

The names I’ve added are taken from the Celtic/neo-Pagan (and Christian terms) for these cross-quarter days. These timings are rough because the dates of the equinoxes and solstices vary from year to year. Imbolc is often taken to be the 2nd of February (Groundhog Day) and Samhain is sometimes taken to be October 31st, Halloween. But hopefully you get the point.

Incidentally, the last three of these also coincide closely with traditional Bank Holidays in Ireland, though these are always on Mondays so often happen a few days away. The first has not been a holiday but from next year there will be a new Bank Holiday that occurs on or near 1st February, which completes the set of cross-quarter-day holidays.

Anyway, it is interesting (to me) to note the extent that the academic year here in Ireland is defined by these dates.

Usually the first semester of the academic year starts on or around September 21st (Autumnal Equinox) and finishes on or Around December 21st (Winter Solstice). Half term (study week) thus includes the Halloween Bank Holiday (Samhain).

After a break for Christmas and a three-week mid-year exam period Semester Two starts on or around 1st February (Imbolc). Half-term is then around March 21st (Vernal Equinox, which roughly coincides with St Patrick’s Day March 17th) and teaching ends around May 1st (Imbolc). More exams and end of year business take us to the Summer Solstice and the (hypothetical) vacation. Most of us get to take the 1st August holiday (Lughnasadh) off at least!

So we’re basically operating on a pagan calendar.

Back to Online Examinations Again

Posted in Biographical, Covid-19, Education, Maynooth with tags , , , on November 26, 2021 by telescoper

This afternoon teaching staff at Maynooth University were informed of changes to the plans for the January examination session: all examinations will now be held remotely, apart possibly from those for some final-year modules; for the latter the lecturer will decide whether they should be on campus or remote.

It’s worth mentioning that a petition set up recently by the Maynooth University Students Union urging the University to switch exams online attractive over 4,000 signatures.

As I said a while ago I think this is a very sensible move. I was chatting to some students before a lecture earlier today and I think they will all be relieved that a decision has been taken and they can make sensible plans for the Examination Period. I am teaching one module for first-year students and one for second-years this semester so both of these will definitely be going online.

We now have done three full cycles of online examinations since the pandemic started: May 2020, January 2021 and May 2021, plus two sets of repeats. I think we have a pretty good idea what we are doing with them and have got three weeks before the end of term to make any changes to the papers we have written for January. Since the online examinations are effectively open-book tests we tend to exclude bookwork – stating results which the students could easily look up – and concentrate instead on problem-solving tasks. Online examinations done this way are certainly no easier than in-person papers, and emphasize what is probably the most useful skill we try to develop.

I am glad we have some clarity on the examinations. We still have three weeks of teaching to finish before the end of term, though, and no changes have been announced to plans for lectures and tutorials. I told my class this afternoon however that as of Wednesday 8th December I will have exceeded 6 months since my second Pfizer dose. There is very little chance I will get a booster dose by then so I will be working from home from that date until the end of term. That means I’ll be doing three first-year lectures and three second-year lectures from home using my famous blackboard. I explained this decision to my second-year class today and they were supportive.

Questions of Examinations and Lectures

Posted in Covid-19, Education, Maynooth with tags , , , , on November 20, 2021 by telescoper

The deterioration of the Covid-19 situation in Ireland continues apace, with a 7-day average of new cases currently around 4300 per day and 640 people in hospital with 121 needing intensive care.

No doubt due to vaccination the number of deaths remains mercifully low, just 43 reported last week. Let’s hope that lasts.

We have four more weeks of teaching at Maynooth University this semester after which we have the Christmas break and then, in January, the examination period. The current plan is for the examinations to be of the traditional kind, taken in an exam hall on campus but how long this will indeed be the plan is anyone’s guess.

Here at Maynooth we have been told here that a decision will be taken next Friday (26th November) on whether on-campus examinations will go ahead after Christmas. With just three weeks of the term left at that point, this seems very late. If the decision is taken next week to go ahead and the pandemic continues to deteriorate (which is likely, with a surge in transmission expected over the holiday) then that decision may have to be reversed in January.

The Minister responsible for Higher Education, Simon Harris, has indicated that third-level institutions may have to introduce special mechanisms to help students prevented from attending exams in person by Covid-19.

I really hope this is not going to be interpreted as meaning that we have to offer both online and on campus examinations.

That’s partly because of the workload issue: we’ve already written our examinations on the basis that they will be held in person and would have to write another set and get them ready with just three weeks of the term left. We’ve been landed with heavy increases in workload at short notice before I don’t think I’m the only person to be a bit fed with it. Another issue, is that is fairness. I think it is important that all students should take the same examination in the same way otherwise one group might be disadvantaged relative to the other. It would be fairer simply to allow students who can’t take the on-campus examinations in January to take the August repeat in the usual manner.

It’s not for me to decide, of course, but I think it would be sensible to take the decision immediately to switch to online examinations in January. That way staff and students will know straight away where they stand. If it turns out the pandemic does go as badly over the next two months then this might seem to have been excessively cautious, but what would really be lost? We have done three examination periods online now during the pandemic and I think that by now we know how to do it reasonably well.

Examinations are still some time in the future of course, but we still have four weeks of teaching to get through. I have seen anecdotal evidence from colleagues that attendance at lectures and tutorials has fallen rapidly since the mid-term break. I have heard directly from some students that they do not feel safe travelling to and from University and are wary of the large crowds on campus.

My own experience is that lecture attendance has held up reasonably well in my modules, but I deliver my lectures as webcasts and record them anyway so am quite happy if students want to watch them remotely or offline at a subsequent date. Many of them are taking other subjects which are taught in bigger classes which are all online anyway and in that case there is little incentive to come onto campus for one module when everything else is remote.

Simon Harris seems to have nailed his colours to the “return-to-campus” mast so even if there is a drastic surge in Covid-19 over the next few weeks I think the official line will be that we carry on teaching in person. Students however are probably more sensible that either politicians or University managers and will revert to online learning for all practical purposes by simply not coming to campus. And who could blame them?

Repeat Message..

Posted in Education, Maynooth with tags , , , on August 3, 2021 by telescoper

Back to work after yesterday’s Bank Holiday and almost immediately it’s the repeat examination period at Maynooth University, which starts tomorrow. Technically these examinations are called supplemental assesssments, but we generally call them repeats.

My first supplemental assessment is tomorrow afternoon, actually. I have another on Thursday and three next week. All these papers are to be held online as has been the case for the past year and a bit. Perhaps the next set of examinations in January 2022 will be back to normal, but we have to wait and see about that.

The main purpose of writing this post was to wish all students taking exams this month the very best of luck!

I also 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 during the year,  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 (usually 40%). 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 reasons 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. Because of the difficult circumstances this year the usual fees for a repeat examination are waived for Maynooth students this time, but I haven’t seen a noticeable increase in the number of students taking repeat papers.

When I’ve told former UK colleagues that our repeat examinations are not capped they generally  don’t  like the idea because they feel that it might 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 strategy.

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

Boards of Examination

Posted in Biographical, Education, Maynooth with tags , , on June 11, 2021 by telescoper

We’ve at last staggered to the end of a week dominated by Examination matters. For myself that consisted of preliminary Examination Boards for Theoretical Physics and Engineering (for which we teach modules in Engineering Mathematics) followed by Final Examination Boards in both subjects with External Examiners present. Those final meetings both took place today so it’s been a particularly busy end of the week.

That’s not quite the end of the examinations business for the academic year, however, as we have the Final Final Examination Board in about ten days’ time. That is when marks from all Departments come together to determine the final results for students who are taking degrees in combinations of subjects. We have quite a number doing Joint Honours with Mathematics, for example. It does add an extra level to the process, but I think that’s a price worth paying for the flexibility we offer to students.

This final Examination Board takes place on 23rd June and students will get their marks a couple of days later on 25th June. Even that won’t be the end, because some students will be taking repeat examinations in August, but at least it signals a gap in the assessment cycle during which we can hopefully think of other things for a while.

Obviously I’m not going to comment on the marks for individual students but nobody will be surprised to hear that the Covid-19 pandemic has obviously had a big impact on some. It also had an impact on our External Examiner for Theoretical Physics who actually caught Covid-19 recently and became quite ill. Thankfully she is now feeling better and well enough to join us remotely today.

The Repeat Examination period takes place in August and will again be conducted remotely but hopefully the 1st Semester examinations next year will be under more normal circumstances. It’s not so much that I’m worried that our online examinations are somehow inappropriate, it’s just that it does take far longer to mark them than paper examinations and this year it has been extremely tight getting everything ready for the deadline by which marks must be committed to our central system (which is Monday 14th June).

Anyway, we’ve now done the job so I have an opportunity to thank all the staff in Theoretical Physics for their hard work and diligence!

Now it’s definitely wine o’clock.

Marking Blues

Posted in Covid-19, Education, Maynooth with tags , , , on May 21, 2021 by telescoper

“May is a pious fraud of the almanac.” – James R. Lowell

The rainy weather we’ve been having for the last few days has at least deprived me of distractions from the job at hand: the marking of examinations and other assessments. Examinations started here in Maynooth last Friday (14th May) , a week ago today, and as I write this morning another one has just started. That’s the third in the past week. Yesterday I managed to finish all the assessments for one Module, just in time for today’s batch to arrive. It’s not only examination marking of course, I’ve also had computational physics projects to assess and feedback to write. Suffice to say that it’s a busy time of year.

When I was getting this morning’s examination online timed assessment ready it suddenly struck me that some of the students taking it belong the year group that entered the University in September 2018, and are the first students I will have seen all the way through the degree as they are taking their last set of exams now and will graduate this summer.

Of course when I say “will have seen” I’m not really being honest. I’ve hardly seen any of them since last March. Although I have spoken to them via Teams I haven’t even seen them virtually, as students virtually always have their video on mute during online teaching sessions.

Because of the Covid-19 restrictions, the students on three-year programmes have had most of their teaching online since last Spring, and by the time they finish the current set of examinations half their assessment will have been online.

You’ll have to ask students whether the lack of face-to face interactions has impacted their learning, but speaking for myself as a lecturer it has made life very difficult. Lecturing to a camera is not easy, and the absence of visual cues from the audience makes it difficult to know whether what you’re saying is sinking in. I guess we’ll find out when we look at the examination grades.

Thinking about the group of students who will form the graduating class for this year, though, the saddest thing is that they will shortly finish their exams and complete their degrees. We the staff won’t have the chance to congratulate them properly, nor will they the students be able to celebrate properly with each other (as they are scattered all over the country).

Although we’ve worked very hard to do what we can over the past year and a bit, I can’t rid my mind of the feeling that this group in particular has been let down very badly. I know the circumstances are beyond our control and all that, but they just haven’t had the educational experience they expected and deserve. At least – we hope – other groups can look forward to something like normality, possibly from next year, but for this group that’s it for their third level education. It’s really not fair.

I have said so before on this blog that I think any student who wishes to should be able to repeat the last year at university free of charge in recognition that they have been severely short-changed. It seems to me that would be the right thing to do, which is why I don’t think the Government will allow it.

Now, it’s still raining so I’ll try to get some more marking done while the exam goes on.

Remote Exam Time Again

Posted in Education, Maynooth with tags , , , on May 14, 2021 by telescoper

It’s Friday 14th May 2021 which means that it’s the first day of the Summer examination period here in Maynooth, so let me begin by sending my best wishes to everyone taking examinations today and over the next few weeks, wherever you are. It’s a lovely morning in Maynooth. It seems to be a law of Nature that examinations always take place when the weather outside is nice.

For readers elsewhere in the world, 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.  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.

Each examination is usually of two hours’ duration. We’ve kept that length after moving examinations online, although students are given extra time to scan and upload their answers. The question papers themselves have been slightly adapted online use by having much less “bookwork”. Generally these assessments are unsupervised and students are allowed to consult notes and textbooks so there is little point in asking them to copy out standard derivations and formulae. That means we can concentrate on the problem-solving aspects of theoretical physics, which are the most interesting bits (and perhaps the most challenging).

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 most of the papers here offer no choice of questions to be answered. Elsewhere  it is quite common to find 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.

My first examination is this afternoon. The subject is (3rd Year) Computational Physics. This is an unusual module as a majority of the marks (60%) come from continuous assessment in the form of four class tests (20% altogether) and a mini-project (40%). The exam is a theory paper concerned with such topics as accuracy and stability. There are two questions on the paper, both of them compulsory. Next week there is my (4th year) Advanced Electromagnetism paper with four questions, again all compulsory. Obviously I’ll have to wait to see how the students do.

In the meantime here are some tips for students

  1. Try to get a good night’s sleep before the examination!
  2. Be ready well before the start and try to ensure you won’t be disturbed for the duration.
  3. If you’re doing an unsupervised examination, download the paper and any supplementary material needed  at the start to avoid problems if you get disconnected.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. Don’t rush! Students often lose marks by making careless errors. Check all your numerical results on your calculator at least twice and remember to put the units!
  7. Show your working! Especially in an unsupervised examination you need to convince the examiner that you actually did the problem rather than looking up the answer on the net somewhere.
  8. 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.
  9. Try to finish the paper at the assigned time, i.e. use the upload time for uploading rather than doing more work. There is always the chance that you might run out of time for upload if you’re rushing right at the end.
  10. If you’re scanning and uploading answers, check that you have submitted everything you intended to. I have had several examples of missing pages over the last year…

Anyway, once again, good luck and best wishes!

Remote Exam Time

Posted in Education, Maynooth with tags , , , on January 7, 2021 by telescoper

It’s the day before the start of the January examination period at  Maynooth University so I thought I’d do a quick post on the topic of examinations or, as they are right now, online timed assessments.

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.  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.

Each examination is usually of two hours’ duration. We’ve kept that length after moving examinations online, although students are given extra time to scan and upload their answers. The question papers themselves have been slightly adapted online use by having much less “bookwork”. Generally these asssessments are unsupervised and students are allowed to consult notes and textbooks so there is little point in asking them to copy out standard derivations and formulae. That means we can concentrate on the problem-solving aspects of theoretical physics, which are the most interesting bits (and perhaps the most challenging).

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 most of the papers here 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 both my examinations are not until next week, I’ll have to wait to find out how my students 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!
  2. Be ready well before the start and try to ensure you won’t be disturbed for the duration.
  3. If you’re doing an unsupervised examination
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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!
  7. 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.

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

P.S. It snowed overnight in Maynooth, although only a centimetre or so…