When I went to university in the US I was struck by how ‘managed’ student learning was. Each module had homeworks, quizzes, mid-terms and finals. It was common for lecturers to follow a single textbook and to assign readings for that textbook. It was a radically different approach to what I was used to in UCD. In Ireland we were expected to manage our own learning: to attend lectures, to take notes, to do problem sets in our own time, to revise, in a well-planned and effective way, a full academic year’s work in advance of the final exams in May and June. When I went to America it made sense to me that they referred to their universities as “schools” because they were actually a lot more school-like than our universities.
Over the years, our system here in Ireland has become a lot more school-like. We are modularised and semesterised, we have adopted a learning outcomes philosophy and it has become the norm for lecture notes and supporting materials to be provided online. Students are assessed more often and in shorter exams (down from three hours to two hours); continuous assessment is common and often takes the form of in-class tests not unlike the quizzes employed in the American system; and the entire environment is generally more supportive and compassionate than before; students are taught, not lectured at. External examiners tend to adopt a very student-centred approach and on more than one occasion I have been ‘encouraged’ by extern examiners to break down my questions into parts in order to make it easier for weak students to pass. The consequence in many cases is that the student is effectively told how to do the question. Our concept of fairness has definitely shifted. There have also been regulatory changes: to get a 2.1 these days you need to average at least 60% whereas before it was 63%.
What all this means is that the standard of the material that students learn is not necessarily any lower but the current methods of assessment make it easier for committed and astute students to get very high marks. These days, marks in the 80s and 90s are not uncommon in quantitative subjects whereas they would have been very rare a decade or two ago. Part of the reason for this is that the good students ‘ace’ the continuous assessment which are based on a very small amount of material.
Does any of this matter? Personally I don’t think so as longs as we all know where we’re coming from. Anyway, the 70% bar for a H1 is purely arbitrary and the reluctance in the past to award marks over 70% in many disciplines was little more than a fetish and not based on any clearly articulated criteria as to what a first class honours answer should look like. Indeed, one of the more recent trends in the preparation of exam papers is the need to provide the external examiner with either model answers or well-defined statements as to what a student has to do to achieve a certain grade. This increased transparency is bound to lead to an improvement in grades as it has done in the Leaving Cert where marking schemes are well known to the students.
A final point to note concerns the exam board system. In my experience these are conducted in a fair and, as far as possible, in a consistent way. Yes individual marks are ‘moved’, mainly for compassionate reasons (e.g so that a student doesn’t have to repeat the year because he/she is a few per cent short) but the type of incident that occurred in Tralee where an arbitrary number of marks are added to every students’ score is highly irregular. Mind you, if my entire class failed my module I’d be taking a long hard look at myself and not railing against the system.