Familiar essays and an accessible aural exam would leave most students pleased with higher level Irish paper one, according to Emer McTernan, Studyclix.ie expert teacher.
“This afternoon’s paper would leave most students pleased,” she said. “Old reliable essays like the education system and scandals in sport meant most students would have had little difficulty tackling an essay question.”
John Gavin, founder of LeavingCertIrish.com, said that nearly every student in the country was expecting Brexit or homelessness to appear on the paper. “Both appeared, with the latter topic listed as the speech option under the heading: ‘the housing problem in Ireland today.’ This title was a twist on the standard topic of homelessness, requiring candidates to write a few paragraphs on the broader issue, which might have frightened off a few people. As both of these topical titles appeared under the speech and debate section, something which requires candidates to include a specific style and terminology, it might not have suited everyone.”
The essay titles covered a broad range of topics including the education system, equality in society today, violence around the world and political leaders today. “Any student who was well prepared for these topics for the oral exam should have had both the vocabulary and fluency to write a very comprehensive composition,” said Mr Gavin. “
Mr Gavin said that all of the questions on the cluaistiscint were well presented and should have been accessible to every student, while Ms McTernan said that students seemed to find the aural exam easier than in previous years.
Clodagh Sweeney, a higher level student at Jesus and Mary Secondary School said that the general essay questions made for a nice paper with few issues. The aural was far easier than our mock exams so, overall, quite happy. There were few surprises and the tape was easier than any I tried before, making for a nice introduction to a nice paper.”
Ms McTernan said that the essay questions posed at ordinary level would have been easily accessible, even to weaker candidates. “The vocabulary used was easily understood and many candidates would have been able to rely on material they had learnt for their oral exam.”
Mr Gavin said that some of the verbs used in the ordinary level listening comprehension would have challenged quite a few of the candidates, although the composition titles were very fair and provided candidates with a great range of topics to choose from.
As a postgraduate student in an Irish university, every teaching year brings its headaches. The biggest of all? Bad essays. The Irish school system isn’t equipping my students with the basic skills they need to research and write their papers. The university isn’t supporting them, and I’m left to pick up the pieces. Although I ought to be used to this by now, I’m especially dreading my return to teaching this year – because changes to Ireland’s final exam system are about to make things even worse.
In Ireland, we’ve been seeing a steady decline in academic standards among incoming undergraduate students for a while. A lecturer in my department set a diagnostic assignment in a class four years ago and 50% of them failed. Returning to that module for the first time since then this year, they set the same assignment and got a 100% fail rate.
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It’s at least partly down to a disconnect between Irish secondary education, which puts little to no emphasis on continuous assessment beyond a small amount of project work in certain subjects, and what’s expected of students at university.
I have had undergraduates stare at me in disbelief when I outline the mandatory attendance aspects of their grading, or I demand that they submit their essays on time. In one case, a student simply refused to believe me, skipped all the classes, and failed the module.
The universities themselves perpetuate a cycle: obsessed with minimising failure and drop-out rates, they tweak numbers and force lecturers to grade on a bell curve to ensure impressive statistics. I have seen students take advantage of the weighting of certain modules towards the final exam: they do nothing all term, and then turn up to the exam and scrape a pass overall.
Take this example, which epitomises how schools and universities fail to help each other. On a course that trained secondary school teachers for a particular practical subject, one final-year assignment was to produce the same portfolio as students of the Leaving Cert (Ireland’s A-levels). So many students failed that the higher-ups freaked out and instructed the lecturers to lower the passing threshold. So teachers unable to prepare their students to pass a Leaving Cert assignment are now teaching in secondary schools.
The problem is further exacerbated by the Central Applications Office university entry points system (Ireland’s Ucas equivalent). The system assigns points to final exam results on the basis of one’s grades, but the points requirements for university courses are calculated based on demand for that course. This means that a large number of low-demand liberal arts courses have very low points. People barely scraping through their examinations (which are largely essay-based) can only get on to courses that require them to write essays.
Little or no support is put in place for these students by their new institutions. Equally, minimal support is available for mature students on the Irish government’s back-to-education grants, even though many of them are straight off the dole, with a minimal or outdated educational history.
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These issues should be all in a day’s work for someone who cares about teaching. But as a postgraduate tutor I have a set syllabus and limited classroom time in which to work through it. I can’t go off-script and spend precious time teaching undergrads the basic writing and analytical skills that they so badly need. Instead, I find myself working extra unpaid and unrecognised hours meeting with students and answering emails. It never lets up. Once results are released, I am inundated with angry emails from students wanting to know why they failed. These come inevitably from those who handed in a list of bullet points instead of an essay.
I’ve been used to this additional workload, but I’ve reason to be particularly nervous this year: the Leaving Cert qualification is changing. All of the grade bands have been shifted, and what for decades has counted as a failing grade is now a low passing grade. Arts courses across the country will be getting students who are even less equipped to write analytical essays.
Until the system is completely reformed, or universities invest in running remedial writing classes for first-years, standards are only bound to decline further.
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