Wednesday 20 March 2019

Leaving Cert 'memory test' doesn't challenge students

'Learning by heart' criticised in DCU report calling for exam that encourages more creativity

Minister for Education and Skills, Richard Bruton. Photo: Gareth Chaney, Collins
Minister for Education and Skills, Richard Bruton. Photo: Gareth Chaney, Collins
Katherine Donnelly

Katherine Donnelly

The Leaving Certificate is not adequately challenging pupils in the sort of thinking skills and levels of knowledge that 16-19-year-olds can soak up, according to alarming new research.

A Dublin City University (DCU) forensic examination of Leaving Cert papers has laid bare the extent to which the traditional exams are largely memory tests that encourage "learning off by heart".

There has been much anecdotal evidence about how students rely on rote learning for the State exams, but this study provides evidence that the exam papers themselves "dictate a heavy focus on memory recall."

As about 57,000 Leaving Cert 2018 candidates await their results, the findings present a case for radical change in the assessment process in order to ensure that school-leavers are equipped for challenges ahead.

The research team, led by Dr Denise Burns of the DCU Centre for Evaluation, Quality and Inspection, investigated written exam papers in 23 subjects over the six years from 2010 to 2015.

They also interviewed 30 recent Leaving Certificate students for their 'Is It All Memory Recall?' investigation, which was conducted in collaboration with Trinity College Dublin.

Their findings reveal that a requirement on students to display higher-order skills, such as problem solving, critical thinking and creativity, was largely absent from exam papers. According to the report, between the ages of 16 and 19, young people's minds are ripe for the development of higher order thinking, but they need to be supported in this.

Dr Burns said: "We owe it to our young people to provide an assessment system that promotes quality of learning and that stimulates and challenges our young people to develop their intellectual skills at this crucial time of their growth."

Researchers used software to search for occurrences of command verbs, such as "explain", "examine" and "differentiate" in questions - and explored how they were used to test six recognised categories of intellectual skills. They found 14,910 occurrences of the 50 most commonly used verbs.

Questions requiring three lower order thinking skills - where students had to show they remembered, understood or could apply knowledge - were four to 14 times more frequent than those demanding the higher order skills of "analyse", "evaluate" and "create".

In 15 subjects, between 70pc and 97pc of all questions fell into the "remember" and "understand" categories, most notably agricultural science, biology and religious education.

Only English, art, music, history and classical studies showed evidence of some balance of questions requiring higher and lower order skills.

In 17 subjects, less than 10pc of command verbs required higher order processing, including all the science, technology engineering and maths (STEM) subjects, except technology.

As well as thinking skills, the researchers also explored four different levels of knowledge that students could be asked to deploy - the lowest being factual and the highest, meta-cognitive. In only 10 of the 14,910 occurrences did metacognitive feature, and only in English and art.

Researchers said the heavy focus on the recall of "factual" knowledge in biology (73pc) raised questions about the appropriateness of the subject as a basis for pursuing third level programmes in life sciences, which focus on the scientific methods.

Students told researchers their predominant methods of preparing for exams were to predict questions and learn answers, because that delivered results. But, when the opportunity arose in an exam to deploy problem solving and creative skills, they said they found it an enjoyable and challenging experience.

Irish Independent

Editor's Choice

Also in Irish News