Archive for Examinations

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!

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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.

Reflections on the Examination Period

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

Tomorrow (11th January)  is the start of our mid-year examination period here at Maynooth University. It’s therefore a good opportunity to send a hearty “good luck” message to all students about to take examinations, especially those who are further on in their courses for whom these papers have greater importance. In particular I’d like to send my best wishes to students on my fourth-year module on Astrology Astrophysics and Cosmetics Cosmology, whose paper is at 9.30 tomorrow morning.

I’m a bit too busy for anything particularly profound today, as I’m off to the airport after lunch to get a flight to London for an event at the IOP tomorrow, so I thought I’d just rehash an excerpt from something I posted a while ago on the subject of examinations.

My feelings about examinations agree pretty much with William Wordsworth, who studied at the same University as me, as expressed in this quotation from The Prelude:

Of College labours, of the Lecturer’s room
All studded round, as thick as chairs could stand,
With loyal students, faithful to their books,
Half-and-half idlers, hardy recusants,
And honest dunces–of important days,
Examinations, when the man was weighed
As in a balance! of excessive hopes,
Tremblings withal and commendable fears,
Small jealousies, and triumphs good or bad–
Let others that know more speak as they know.
Such glory was but little sought by me,
And little won.

It seems to me a great a pity that our system of education – both at School and University – places such a great emphasis on examination and assessment to the detriment of real learning. In particular, the biggest problem  with physics education in many institutions is the way modular degrees have been implemented.

I’m not at all opposed to modularization in principle. I just think the way we teach modules often fails to develop any understanding of the interconnection between different aspects of the subject. That’s an educational disaster because what is most exciting and compelling about physics is its essential unity. Splitting it into little boxes, taught on their own with no relationship to the other boxes, provides us with no scope to nurture the kind of lateral thinking that is key to the way physicists attempt to solve problems. The small size of each module makes the syllabus very “bitty” and fragmented. No sooner have you started to explore something at a proper level than the module is over. More advanced modules, following perhaps the following year, have to recap a large fraction of the earlier modules so there isn’t time to go as deep as one would like even over the whole curriculum.

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

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

 

But I digress.

One consequence of the way modularization has been implemented throughout the sector is that the ratio of assessment to education has risen sharply over the last decades with a negative effect on real understanding. The system encourages students to think of modules as little bite-sized bits of education to be consumed and then forgotten. Instead of learning to rely on their brains to solve problems, students tend to approach learning by memorizing chunks of their notes and regurgitating them in the exam. I find it very sad when students ask me what derivations they should memorize to prepare for examinations. A brain is so much more than a memory device. What we should be doing is giving students the confidence to think for themselves and use their intellect to its full potential rather than encouraging rote learning.

You can contrast this diet of examinations with the regime when I was an undergraduate. My entire degree result was based on six three-hour written examinations taken at the end of my final year, rather than something like 30 examinations taken over 3 years. Moreover, my finals were all in a three-day period: morning and afternoon exams for three consecutive days is an ordeal I wouldn’t wish on anyone, so I’m not saying the old days were better, but I do think we’ve gone far too far to the opposite extreme. The one good thing about the system I went through was that there was no possibility of passing examinations on memory alone. Since they were so close together there was no way of mugging up anything in between them. I only got through  by figuring things out in the exam room.

I don’t want to denigrate the achievements of students who are successful under the current system.  What I’m saying is that I don’t think the education we provide does justice to their talents. That’s our fault, not theirs…

Student access to marked examination scripts

Posted in Cardiff, Education, Maynooth with tags , , , on May 25, 2018 by telescoper

I’m currently waiting for the last couple of scripts from my Physics of the Early Universe examination to arrive so I can begin the task of marking them. The examination was yesterday morning, and it’s now Friday afternoon, so I don’t know why it takes so long for the scripts to find their way to the examiner, especially when marking is on such a tight schedule. I’m away next week (in Ireland) so if I don’t get papers by this afternoon they won’t be marked until I return. The missing two are from students sitting in alternative venues, but I don’t see why that means they take over 24 hours  to get to the marker.

(By the way,  `script’ refers to what the student writes (usually in a special answer book), as opposed to the `paper’ which is the list of questions to be answered or problems to be solved in the script.)

Anyway, while I’m waiting for the missing scripts to arrive I thought I’d mention that here in the School of Physics & Astronomy at Cardiff University we have a system whereby students can get access to their marked examination scripts.  This access is limited, and for the purpose of getting feedback on where they went wrong, not for trying to argue for extra marks. The students can’t take the scripts away, nor can they make a copy, but the can take notes which will hopefully help them in future assessments. There’s a similar provision in place in the Department of Theoretical Physics at Maynooth University, where I will be relocating full-time in July, based around a so-called `Consultation Day’.

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 the experience here at Cardiff: 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!

 

An O-Level History Examination from 1979

Posted in Biographical, Education, History with tags , , , , on April 18, 2018 by telescoper

I have in the past posted a few examples of the O- and A-level examinations I took when I was at school. These have been mainly science and mathematics papers as those are relevant to the area of higher education in which I work, and I thought they might be of interest to students past and present.

A few people have emailed me recently to ask if I could share any other examinations, so here are the two History papers I took for O-level in June/July 1979. Can that really have been almost 40 years ago?

These were Papers 5 and 12 out of an unknown number of possible papers chosen by schools. My school taught us exclusively about British and European history from the mid-19th to early 20th centuries; you will observe that in both cases `history’ was deemed to have ended in 1914. It’s possible that some of the other papers paid more attention to the wider world.

I have no idea what modern GCSE history examinations look like, but I’d be interested in any comments from people who do about the style and content!

Why not give back to students their marked examination scripts?

Posted in Education with tags , , , on July 6, 2017 by telescoper

Well, the examination period is over and we’re now in that curious interregnum in the academic year that lasts until graduation, when we get to congratulate students properly and send them on their way into the big wide world. I hope the weather is a bit cooler for that event. It’s no fun at all for either staff or students wearing a suit and tie with a heavy gown on top when the temperature is 30°!

Anyway, yesterday I had a meeting with a (Masters) student about one of his recent examinations, and it prompted me to write a short post about the reason for our discussion.

Here in the School of Physics & Astronomy at Cardiff University we have a system whereby students can get access to their marked examination scripts. By `script’ I mean what the student writes (usually in a special answer book), as opposed to the `paper’ which is the list of questions to be answered or problems to be solved in the script. This access is limited, and for the purpose of getting feedback on where they went wrong, not for trying to argue for extra marks. The students can’t take the scripts away, nor can they make a copy, but the can take notes which will hopefully help them in future assessments.

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 cause a big increase in workload and lead to  difficulties with students demanding their marks be increased. That has never been the experience here at Cardiff: only a handful take up the opportunity and those that do are told quite clearly that the mark cannot be changed. This 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!

 

 

 

The Culture of Over-Assessment in STEM

Posted in Education with tags , , , , on December 7, 2016 by telescoper

This afternoon I went to yet another meeting about assessment and feedback in University teaching involving members of staff and students from the School of Physics & Astronomy here at Cardiff University as well as some people from other schools and departments. Positive though this afternoon’s discussion was, it didn’t do anything to dissuade me from a long-held view that the entire education system holds back the students’ ability to learn by assessing them far too much. This is a topic that I’ve blogged about a few times before over the years (see, e.g., here) but given that the problem hasn’t gone away (and indeed is probably going to get worse as a result of the Teaching Excellence Framework which the Westminster government is trying to impose on universities),  I make no apologies for repeating the main points here.

One important point we need to resolve to pin down essentially what is meant by “Research-led Teaching”, which is what we’re supposed to be doing at universities. In my view too much teaching is not really led by research at all, but mainly driven by assessment. The combination of the introduction of modular programmes and the increase of continuously assessed coursework has led to a cycle of partial digestion and regurgitation that involves little in the way of real learning and certainly nothing like the way research is done. I don’t know why we’ve got into this situation but it can’t be allowed to continue.

I’m not going to argue for turning the clock back entirely but, for the record, my undergraduate degree involved no continuous assessment at all (apart from a theory project I opted for in my final year. Having my entire degree result based on the results of six three-hour unseen examinations in the space of three days is not an arrangement I can defend, but note that despite the lack of continuous assessment I still spent less time in the examination hall than present-day students.

That’s not to say I didn’t have coursework. I did, but it was formative rather than summative; in other words it was for the student to learn about the subject, rather for the staff to learn about the student. I handed in my stuff every week, it was marked and annotated by a supervisor, then returned and discussed at a supervision.

People often tell me that if a piece of coursework “doesn’t count” then the students won’t do it. There is an element of truth in that, of course. But I had it drummed into me that the only way really to learn my subject (Physics) was by doing it. I did all the coursework I was given because I wanted to learn and I knew that was the only way to do it. I think we need to establish that as a basic principle of education in physics (and similar subjects).

The very fact that coursework didn’t count for assessment made the feedback written on it all the more useful when it came back because if I’d done badly I could learn from my mistakes without losing marks. This also encouraged me to experiment a little, such as using a method different from that suggested in the question. That’s a dangerous strategy nowadays, as many seem to want to encourage students to behave like robots, but surely we should be encouraging students to exercise their creativity rather than simply follow the instructions? The other side of this is that more challenging assignments can be set, without worrying about what the average mark will be or what specific learning outcome they address.

I suppose what I’m saying is that the idea of Learning for Learning’s Sake, which is what in my view defines what a university should strive for, is getting lost in a wilderness of modules, metrics, percentages and degree classifications. We’re focussing too much on those few aspects of the educational experience that can be measured, ignoring the immeasurable benefit (and pleasure) that exists for all of us humans in exploring new ways to think about the world around us.