Archive for Leaving Certificate

Leaving Off

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

So yesterday the Government of Ireland announced that this year’s Leaving Certificate examinations will be cancelled. That decision seems to have surprised quite a few people but to me it looked inevitable once the Covid-19 Roadmap was published last Friday. If you recall these examinations would normally take place in June but this year had been initially been postponed to happen in late July and into August. Now they’re cancelled altogether.

Not many details are available about the scheme proposed to replace the examinations but it will be based on an assessment made by schoolteachers based on previous performance moderated in some way by the Department for Education & Skills, which has oversight of the process.

Most of the reaction I’ve seen on social media from students is that they’re delighted they won’t have to sit the examinations. Questions arise however about how fair the new system will be, especially given that it is being assembled at such short notice.

I note that the Government press release states that

Students will also retain the right to the sit the 2020 Leaving Certificate examinations at a date in the future when it is deemed safe for state examinations to be held.

The Leaving Certificate isn’t just about entry into Third Level Education but it does raise specific issues for that sector. One is how many students who would potentially enter Higher Education in September will defer until they can take the Leaving Certificate proper. If many do that then the implications for University finances in the short term are significant.

Another issue is that Universities have been planning on the basis that because of the delayed Leaving Certificate, newly enrolled students would not be arriving until November. Now it looks like they will come in September along with the returning students, so we now need a Plan B.

On the face of it, it seems good news that we will no longer have the staggered academic year required in Plan B to contend with. On the other hand, if institutions have to operate with strict social distancing measures in place when they reopen, as is likely, the increased number of students in September will make this even more difficult – especially since first-year classes are the usually larger ones. I can’t see any way of coping unless a significant part of our teaching is done remotely. Recorded lectures and virtual tutorials look set to be part of the “new normal” for some time.

The decision to cancel the Leaving Certificate raises other questions but I don’t want to get into a discussion of the rights and wrongs of that decision (in which it seems Ireland’s universities had very little influence) . All I will say – and I’m sure that I speak for all my colleagues at Maynooth University – is that we will do our utmost to operate the new admissions system in a way that is as fair as possible to potential students, and to deliver the best education we can with the resources available within whatever constraints we are under in September. Whatever we do won’t be perfect, but we’ll do our best.

Until then there is no need for students or staff to get even more stressed than we are already, so I hereby invoke the calming influence of Maynooth University Library Cat.

The Riddle of the Leaving Certificate

Posted in Covid-19, Education, Maynooth with tags , , , on May 3, 2020 by telescoper

I’ve been studying the ‘Roadmap‘ outlining the gradual relaxation of Covid-19 restrictions that, all being well. will begin on May 18th. There are five phases of this process, each lasting three weeks. At any point the process can be stopped or reversed if the data suggest things are going wrong.

It’s quite consistent with how I imagined it might work when I wrote about it a couple of weeks ago:

As a physicist I see the change being rather like an adiabatic process, carried out in quasi-static fashion, in a series of reversible steps…

Some measure of social distancing will remain even after the completion of all five phases, and will probably stay in place until a vaccine for Covid-19 is available.

I first noted this in Phase 1:

Which suggests that some staff may be allowed onto campus. At my University (Maynooth), however, teaching will have finished by May 8th. By May 18th the exam period will have started but it is not obvious that the above can be interpreted as allowing staff into their offices to mark examinations and project assessments. Speaking for myself I would find that useful. I suppose we will find out fairly soon what it means.

On the whole the Roadmap seems to me quite reasonable. It is rather broadbrush in character, which is understandable, though that does mean many details need to be worked out. There is however one very surprising omission which leads to a serious contradiction and is causing considerable confusion.

According to the Roadmap, Irish schools will not reopen until Phase Five, which commences on August 10th, just in time for the start of the 2020/2021 academic year.

On the other hand it has already been announced that the School Leaving Certificate examinations (which start in June in a normal year) would commence on July 29th. Moreover the Education Minister has previously indicated that these examinations would only happen after two weeks of classroom teaching for students who have been having only remote teaching during the Lockdown.

If schools are not to reopen until August 10th then it is not possible for the Leaving Certificate to start on July 29th. Even if the classroom teaching bit is scrapped there won’t be anywhere for students to sit the examinations!

There’s no mention of the Leaving Certificate in the Roadmap which suggests that the Government hasn’t thought it through yet. It seems to me virtually certain that a u-turn is coming up and the Leaving Certificate is going to be cancelled after all. Students will probably welcome this outcome but I’m not sure what it would mean for this year’s University admissions!

On the other hand I am informed by a reliable source that the Government is adamant that the Leaving Certificate will go ahead on 29th July as planned. The question is how?

Lockdown Prolonged, Leaving Certificate Postponed

Posted in Education, Politics with tags , , , on April 10, 2020 by telescoper

I’ve just listened to the latest update on the Covid-19 situation in Ireland. One entirely predictable announcement made this afternoon was that the current restrictions on movement will continue until Tuesday May 5th at the earliest. Monday May 4th is a Bank Holiday in Ireland.

I would personally be surprised if the measures now in place were eased before June, actually, but it seems sensible to wait and see if the situation improves before making a decision on further extensions.

(Incidentally, I am keeping track of the Covid-19 numbers in Ireland on a page here.)

Another announcement made today is likely to be more controversial: that this year’s School Leaving Certificate examinations, due to start on June 3rd, will postponed until “late July or early August”.

Among many other things, this will cause those of us involved in University teaching quite a few problems to solve. A lot of thinking caps will be getting dusted off right now!

On the normal cycle, Leaving Certificate results are available in mid-August and successful students begin their University courses in mid-September.

Assuming that there is a delay of two months in sitting the exams and no time can be made up in the marking and moderation process, we’re looking at students not being able to start their courses until mid-November, just a few weeks before the normal end of the First Semester. I have heard suggestions that new students could start in October but these have not included any explanation of how to speed up the process enough to make this possible.

It seems possible to me that, because starting in November would create more problems than it would solve, new students might actually have to defer entry until January, which means in turn that their Second Semester would have to take place during the period June-August. That, in turn, will require staff to abandon any plans for summer research activity and, for some science disciplines, will involve labs being kept open when they are usually closed for upgrades.

Presumably the proposal will be that returning students will follow the usual academic year timetable, but there’s a problem there too if students have to repeat modules from the 1st year which are to be taught on a different calendar.

I’m sure that none of these problems are insoluble but I’m equally sure that the powers that be haven’t really thought about them. Ireland’s current Government does not give the impression of being that interested in universities or the staff who work in them. In recent weeks lecturers have worked exceptionally hard to switch to online teaching and assessment only to have these efforts conspicuously ignored in a recent statement by the Minister for Higher Education Mary Mitchell O’connor. No doubt the Government will again just take it for granted that we’ll sort things out on their behalf.

Maynooth Offers

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

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

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

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

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

Admissions Matters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is there a role for rote learning?

Posted in Education, Maynooth with tags , , , , , , , on May 7, 2019 by telescoper

So here we are, then, back to work here in Maynooth for the last week of teaching. Or, to be precise, the last four days – yesterday was a Bank Holiday. With university and school examinations looming, it is no surprise to find an article griping about the Irish Leaving Certificate examinations and the fact that teachers seem to encourage students to approach them by by rote learning. This is something I’ve complained about before in the context of British A-levels and indeed the system of university examinations.

Over my lifetime the ratio of assessment to education has risen sharply, with the undeniable result that academic standards have fallen – especially in my own discipline of physics. The modular system encourages students to think of modules as little bit-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 because that seems to imply that they think their brain is no more than a memory device. It has become very clear to me over the years that school education in the UK does not do enough to encourage students to develop their all-round intellectual potential, which means that very few have confidence in their ability to do anything other than remember things. It seems the same malaise affects the Irish system too.

On the other hand, there’s no question in my mind that a good memory is undoubtedly an extremely important asset in its own right. I went to a traditional Grammar school that I feel provided me with a very good education in which rote learning played a significant part. Learning vocabulary and grammar was an essential part of their approach to foreign languages, for example. How can one learn Latin without knowing the correct declensions for nouns and conjugations for verbs? But although these basic elements are necessary, they are not sufficient. You need other aspects of your mental capacity to comprehend, translate or compose meaningful pieces of text. I’m sure this applies to many other subjects. No doubt a good memory is a great benefit to a budding lawyer, for example,  but the ability to reason logically must surely be necessary too.

The same considerations apply to STEM disciplines. It is important to have a basic knowledge of the essential elements of mathematics and physics as a grounding, but you also need to develop the skill to apply these in unusual settings. I also think it’s simplistic to think of memory and creative intelligence as entirely separate things. I seems to me that the latter feeds off the former in a very complex way. A good memory does give you rapid access to information, which means you can do many things more quickly than if you had to keep looking stuff up, but I think there’s a lot more to it than that. Our memories are an essential part of the overall functioning of our brain, which is not  compartmentalized in  a simple way.  For example, one aspect of problem-solving skill relies on the ability to see hidden connections; the brain’s own filing system plays a key role in this.

Recognizing the importance of memory is not to say that rote learning is necessarily the best way to develop the relevant skills. My own powers of recall are not great – and are certainly not improving with age – but I find I can remember things much better if I find them interesting and/or if I can see the point of remembering them. Remembering things because they’re memorably is far easier than remembering because you need to remember them to pass an examination!

But while rote learning has a role, it should not be all there is and my worry is that the teaching-to-the-test approach is diminishing the ability of educators to develop other aspects of intelligence. There has to be a better way to encourage the development of the creative imagination, especially in the context of problem-solving. Future generations are going to have to face many extremely serious problems in the very near future, and they won’t be able to solve them simply by remembering the past.

Age, Memory and Learning

Posted in Education, Maynooth with tags , , , , , , , on August 20, 2018 by telescoper

Today’s a big day for prospective students at Irish universities. It’s the day when the Central Applications Office (CAO, the equivalent of the UK’s UCAS) makes offers of places to students based the Leaving Certificate results that were announced last week. Thus begins the process by which universities find out how many students we will have for entry next month. Lectures here at Maynooth start on 24th September, with an induction week before that, so there promises to be quite a rush to get everything sorted out.

The first thing that struck me thinking ahead to this year’s new entry of students was that the majority of students starting this autumn either here in Ireland or in the UK were born in the year 2000. That means that I’ve been a Professor (at four different universities: Nottingham, Cardiff, Sussex and Maynooth) all the time they have been alive! Yikes I feel old!

The other thing that struck me among all the press coverage of the Leaving Certificate in Ireland is the significant amount of griping about how these examinations are basically just memory tests and the system encourages rote learning. This is something I’ve complained about before in the context of British A-levels and indeed the system of university examinations.

Over my lifetime the ratio of assessment to education has risen sharply, with the undeniable result that academic standards have fallen especially in my own discipline of physics. The modular system encourages students to think of modules as little bit-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 because that seems to imply that they think their brain is no more than a memory device. It has become very clear to me over the years that school education in the UK does not do enough to encourage students to develop their all-round intellectual potential, which means that very few have confidence in their ability to do anything other than remember things. It seems the same malaise affects the Irish system too.

On the other hand, as a number of people have pointed out in opinion pieces (e.g. here) and letters (here and here), a good memory is undoubtedly an extremely important asset in its own right.

I went to a traditional Grammar school that I feel provided me with a very good education in which rote learning played a significant part. Learning vocabulary and grammar was an essential part of their approach to foreign languages, for example. How can one learn Latin without knowing the correct declensions for nouns and conjugations for verbs? But although these basic elements are necessary, however, they are not sufficient. You other aspects of your mental capacity to comprehend, translate or compose meaningful pieces of text.

The same considerations apply to STEM disciplines. It is important to have a basic knowledge of the essential elements of mathematics and physics as a grounding, but you also need to develop the skill to apply these in unusual settings. I also think it’s simplistic to think of memory and creative intelligence as entirely separate things. I seems to me that the latter feeds off the former in a very complex way. A good memory does give you rapid access to information, which means you can do many things more quickly than if you had to keep looking stuff up, but I think there’s a lot more to it than that. Our memories are an essential part of the overall functioning of our brain, which is not  compartmentalized in such a simple way.  For example, one aspect of problem-solving skill relies on the ability to see hidden connections; the brain’s own filing system plays a key role in this.

Recognizing the importance of memory is not to say that rote learning is necessarily the best way to develop the relevant skills. My own powers of recall are not great – and are certainly not improving with age – but I find I can remember things much better if I find them interesting and/or if I can see the point of remembering them. Remembering things because they’re memorably is far easier than remembering because you need to remember them to pass an examination!