Archive for Examinations

Reflections on Exam Marking

Posted in Education, Maynooth with tags , , , on January 21, 2023 by telescoper

At long last I’ve finished my marking my examination scripts. I’ve also entered the marks onto a spreadsheet and combined them with coursework so I’m almost done with this task. They just need one more check through and I can upload the results onto the system. in good time for next week’s departmental exam board meeting. It took a lot longer than I had anticipated because we have a big first-year class this year. So much for my New Year resolution not to work at weekends…

I’m a bit tired now so I thought I’d just rehash an excerpt from something I posted a while ago on the subject of examinations and what I believe to be the over-assessment of students at modern universities.

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 – and not only at Third Level- 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. The first-year module I teach is different, being 7.5 credits. Projects, and other continuously-assessed work do not involve a written examination, but the system means that a typical  student will have four or five written examination papers in January and another four or five in May. Each paper is usually of two hours’ duration.

One consequence of the way modularization has been implemented throughout the sector is that the ratio of assessment to education has risen sharply over time  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…

 

Marking Schemes

Posted in Biographical, Education, Maynooth with tags , , , on January 17, 2023 by telescoper

It’s 3.40pm so I’ve reached the tea interval on the first day of marking the scripts from my first-year module on Mechanics and Special Relativity. Blogging will be a bit thin until I’ve completed this task, which will take even longer than usual as we have more students on this module than in previous years, up by more than 50% on last year. At the current rate I estimate it will take me until Friday to finish.

It turned very cold here at the weekend and I realized I had run out of food for the birds so I had to dash out to the shops on Sunday and replenish my stock. When I refilled the feeders it only took a few minutes for the robin to arrive, closely followed by starlings, a magpie, some sparrows, a woodpigeon, and then some more starlings. While I was waiting for my pot of tea to brew I filled the dispensers again.

I woke up this morning to find a very hard frost in Maynooth. The temperature hasn’t risen above zero all day so the frost is still there now. I am at home while I do the marking, which gives me an excuse not to venture out into the cold (except to feed the birds). It’s nice to be in the warm, but marking at home ensures that I am not interrupted by anyone but myself and especially not a student who might wander into my office on campus with all the scripts lying around.

Some scripts (side view)

For the last two years we’ve held this examination as an online timed assessment, but now uses old-fashioned written answer books which are much easier on the eye. I still find however that I can only managed about 30 scripts in one sitting before my attention starts to wander. I’ve therefore divided them into five packets, taking a break when I’ve finished each one. Thirty is about the number of overs you get in a session of Test Match Cricket, though I don’t stick very strictly to the same timings; I don’t always have lunch at 1pm, for example.

I’ve often discussed the process of marking examinations with my colleagues and they all have different techniques. What I do is mark one question at a time rather than one script at a time. What I mean by that is that I go through every script marking all the attempts at Question 1, then I start again and do Question 2, etc. I find that this is much quicker and more efficient than marking all the questions in each script then moving onto the next script. The reason for this is that I can upload into my mind the model answer for Question 1 so that it stays there while I mark dozens of attempts at it so I don’t have to keep referring to the marking scheme. Other advantages are that it’s easier to be consistent in giving partial credit when you’re doing the same question over and over again, and that also you spot what the common mistakes are more easily.

Whichever way you do it, grading this number of examinations is a long job, a marathon not a sprint. We also owe it to the students to be as fair as possible, all of which means taking it at a steady pace.

Now, it’s 4pm and time for the resumption…

First Day Back

Posted in Biographical, Education, Maynooth with tags , on January 3, 2023 by telescoper

So here we are, then, 3rd January 2023 and my first day back after the Christmas break. Maynooth University Campus has been largely deserted, though a few of my colleagues have been in today.

Quite a few people seem to have been down with various bugs over the holiday, including a few that have tested positive for Covid-19. We haven’t had information about actual case numbers since before Christmas but I expect a big increase when the figures are announced later this week. Hospitals are already under pressure here in Ireland so things could be quite difficult during the next few weeks.

My plans to do an in-person revision lecture were foiled by the fact that the teaching room I planned to use was locked so I adopted plan B which was to put up some lecture recordings to help the students with their revision ahead of the examination period which starts on Friday. That’s a bit early, really, as 6th January (being Epiphany) is still very much a part of the Christmas season for many people. I remember trying to arrange a meeting on January 6th years ago with a European collaboration only to be met with complete disbelief. At least the first examination for which I am responsible isn’t until Saturday.

For many of the students taking examinations in subjects I have been teaching, these will be the first University examinations and I’m sure many of them are a bit apprehensive, so I thought I’d pass on some advice.

  1. Try to get a good night’s sleep before the examination and arrive in plenty of time before the start. Spending all night cramming is unlikely to help you do well. Prepare well in advance so you’re relaxed when the time comes.
  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. You’re under no obligation to answer the questions in the order they are asked.
  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.

Preparing for Exams

Posted in Biographical, Education, Maynooth with tags , on December 14, 2022 by telescoper

Just time for a very quick post today to mark the fact that this afternoon I did my last lecture of the 2022 calendar year, a revision class on special relativity. I’ll be back to do further classes in January ahead of the examinations but that’s it for me until after Christmas. It’s been a very hectic term so I’m glad it’s almost over.

Thoughts are now turning to the exams, I ended today’s lecture with some tips about examinations as the January session will be the first most students have ever had at third level. The tips I passed on today included:

  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!

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).