Learning Without Assessment and The Willie Clancy Summer School

If you’re ever lucky enough to find yourself in Miltown Malbay, County Clare, Ireland, around the early part of July each year you will find a most wonderful musical and learning event taking place: the Willie Clancy Summer School. Sadly, one of its founders Muiris Ó Rócháin passed away this year. Many years ago I made a TV documentary called Up Sráid Eoin about the wren boys of Dingle and Muiris featured prominantly in the film. Ar dheis De go raibh a anam usual (trans: May he be honoured at the right hand of God) . Now let me tell you about this school. It uses a form of cascade to facilitate musicians of all levels (and ages) to improve their playing of traditional music. The development of Irish set dancing skills is also an integral part of the week long programme. So experts teach the proficient, the proficient teach the novices etc.. In addition, there is a very strong social aspect to playing traditional music, its fullest expression is through group playing with a mixture of fiddle, flute, tin whistle, uilleann pipes, accordion, guitars, banjo and bodhráns. Throughout the week there is a mix of structured classes and spontaneous Read More …

Ssshhh!!! Exams in Progress!

This is a quiet but busy time in National College of Ireland semester one exams are now in progress.  We are encouraged to keep as quiet as possible as each room on the campus is now used to its fullest extent to facilitate the process. There is always tension associated with exams.  Students of all ages and all backgrounds find the prospect of being tested daunting. This is very understandable we live in a culture of measurement and accountability and education is an expensive process.  So, especially for the self-motivated,  we all want to see how much we know and how well we have progressed. As discussed previously, there is a useful distinction between goals and achievements that are measured by independent criteria such as exams or tests and other achievements that are socially referenced such as how other people regard performance.   For many students the exam results provide important feedback on how they have coped with the learning challenges associated with a course.  At some point in the future the result–put simply as a number–will be revealed.   However, this will only be a very small part of the story.  The student, and the student alone, will know how to Read More …

Leaving Certificate Results

Today’s top story is the issuing of results to almost fifty eight thousand (58,000) Leaving Certificate students. This event is widely reported in national newspapers, radio and television news.  Much of the coverage deals with the failure rates for different subjects.  Of special interest is the success rates for Science, Engineering Technology and Mathematics- the so called STEM subjects.  It is reported that some 4,300 students have failed Mathematics. The availability of a talented young workforce is often cited as part of the attraction of Ireland as a location for inward economic investment. Poor results do not help the international perception of our education system. Employers are increasingly looking for critical thinking, creativity and problem solving skills in their new recruits.  It is reasonable to ask to what extent the results of the Leaving Certificate Exam may be taken as an indication of a person’s future potential as an innovative thinker and an effective contributor to the knowledge economy. Take for example the substantial cohort of young people who have failed Mathematics.  Are we justified in writing off the potential of these people as college students, future inventors, knowledge workers, scientists, entrepreneurs and innovators?  I feel not. Letter to Sam Read More …

“Grade Inflation” Getting Everything Wrong

This is a really important issue for Ireland and for everyone in the education sector.  It is vital that get a clear understanding of what the problem is and what we need to do to rectify it. First of all, the problem we need to solve is not “Grade Inflation” and it would be a huge mistake if we were all to get in a muddle comparing the numbers of first class honours’ degrees or 600 point Leaving Certs in the past few years. Just like all measures based on our social circumstances, such as the spending power of the average weekly wage or the average life-expectancy, over time we should expect to see a gradual improvement in similar measures of quality and achievement in our education system. Today, we are educating more people to a higher standard than ever before and I will be surprised if the emperical evidence from the soon-to-be released study will not show this to be the case. But I do not believe we should be congratulating ourselves – there is a problem and a new challenge and we need to get to the heart of it. Let me use one source Dr Craig Barrett, Read More …

Knowledge Surveys

I came across an interesting piece on Knowledge Surveys from Edward Knuhfer and Dolores Knipp (linked above). They advocate the use of Knowledge Surveys as a tool in support of learning and instruction.These surveys consist of a series of questions – similar to a set of exam questions – but the difference is that the learner is asked not to answer the question but to rate their own ability to respond. For example – consider the following questions: Q1 Describe three characteristics of an constructivist theory of learning? Q2 Compare constructivism with social constructivism? Q3 Outline practical applications of a behaviorist approach to learning? Now, in a traditional assessment the student would be asked to write short essays on the above. With a knowledge survey the student is asked to rate their level of knowledge as: A – I feel confident that I could answer this question B – I know about 50% of what may be involved and perhaps if I went away for twenty minutes I could find the missing information C – I am not confident that I would be able to answer this question at all Do you get the gist? The knowledge survey gauges a Read More …

What are we teaching in schools?

Two very interesting comment pieces appeared in today’s Irish Times. The editorial commented on the draft report by the National Economic and Social Forum on the connection between school literacy levels and social exclusion and inside, a piece by Breda O’Brien (link above) on creativity and second level education. It is interesting to connect the two pieces.As a society we have a responsibility to prepare young people for the future – this is what we expect of our education system – but we cannot possibly know what the future has in store. As the educational philosopher John Dewey put it – the best we can do is to teach children how to experience the present to its maximum extent. Our children are poorly served by an archaic education system where state exams focus on selective recall and pure luck. Notice that we have the State Exams Commission not the ‘educational assessment’ commission indicating that they are only concerned with ‘exams’ one form of educational assessment. This is like an orchestra that can play any music as long as it is composed by Mozart! Future oriented skills such as critical thinking, inquiry, creativity and collaboration are largely undervalued in the present Read More …

Course Entry Requirements – Recognising Learning from Experience

If you are thinking about taking a course, for example any of the NCI courses in the prospectus, you may see in the entry requirements that it is necessary for students to have a specific level of degree (e.g. honours degree) or a certificate or diploma to gain entry. These conditions are necessary so that all students are able to participate effectively and teaching staff can make certain assumptions about the level of prior knowledge people will have. However, there is a down side to this in that sometimes very good potential students miss out because on paper they are not deemed to meet the entry level requirements.We’ve all come across examples in our work where people with significant experience and competence in a particular field are not necessarily the most qualified in the formal academic sense. Not many people know this but there is a mechanism whereby anyone can obtain a formal academic credit (yes I mean a degree, diploma or certificate) by means of providing evidence that they have achieved the learning outcomes equivalent to a recognised qualification.No this is not some e-mail scam to give people cheap meaningless degrees from a little known US private college – Read More …

Leaving Cert English Fiasco – There Was Another Way!

Big Problem! In assessment terms, the majority of our state exams may be characterised by unseen (in advance) questions and time limited tests.The shock news of today is the fact that through some unfortunate human error the questions for Leaving Cert English paper 2 were inadvertently distributed to a small group of students intending to sit paper 1.“The integrity of the exam had been compromised by the regrettable incident” said the Minister for Education Batt O’Keefe.The State Exams Commission considered they had no option but to cancel today’s paper 2 exam and ordered that a new paper 2 should be taken by students this Saturday.This is no small inconvenience it is very distressing for the students concerned, it will cost a lot of money and it has discredited the operational effectiveness of those responsible for organising the exams. Was there any alternative? The simple answer is yes and it is a great shame that some lateral thinking was not applied to the problem. The issue had to do with the consequences of some students knowing the questions one day in advance.Let’s suppose that we want the exam process to adhere to two principles that may have been undermined by the Read More …

Plagiarism Reframed

Mention plagiarism to any third level academic and you are likely to be greeted with groans and laments.This is one topic that gets into people’s hearts – it leads to animated discussions and hard views. It is unwise to be regarded as soft on the issue. It is annoying, very annoying to be reading something presented as a student’s original work when it dawns on you – this is familiar – or – this is not the same style of writing as expected.Plagiarism is genuinely offensive to many academics – it offends one’s sense of academic integrity and is regarded as a dishonourable practice and a form of cheating.Many also feel that the student is trying to make a fool out of them – the tables are reversed – instead of the assignment being a test of the student it is a test of the examiner. Assuming the examiner will not spot the obvious is a form of insult. In most institutions plagiarism is treated as a disciplinary rather than learning or teaching matter – student’s face expulsion, suspension and fines if they are found guilty of the charge.Remarkably, despite clearly stated policies and warnings to students – it seems Read More …