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In My Opinion: First-year students entering third level have been taught to learn -- not to reason

Students face several challenges when entering third level. Having spent the previous year as the most senior class in school, they arrive in an alien environment at the bottom of the ladder.

The sense of identity provided by school uniforms is gone, as is the supervision of teachers. This puts an increased onus on students to take responsibility for their education.

Most students cope well with these changes. An arguably greater difficulty is the seismic change in intellectual demands. Trained in memorisation and regurgitation, an accepted norm in the Leaving Cert, students now suddenly have to develop analytical, critical thinking and problem-solving skills.

Clearly, Irish second-level students are not well prepared for higher education, a fact outlined in the Hyland Report.

I have seen first-year students struggle when challenged for their opinion, or when asked to critically analyse a statement. Few would argue the fault lies with the teachers, who are renowned for their dedication.

However, changes in the second-level method of assessment and curriculum may have a significant role in facilitating a smooth transition to third level.

Most Leaving Certificate subjects contain elements that develop analytical thinking. Mathematics is an obvious case, but other subjects, like history, also foster a spirit of inquiry and independent thinking. A problem with the current system though is that the time teachers can devote to higher-order learning is limited by the pressures of syllabus coverage.

A solution may be to recognise a module like problem-solving as a separate part of the curriculum. Elevated in this way, it would contribute to a student's Leaving Certificate points, and would therefore receive the attention it merits.

Problem solving involves four distinct stages; defining the problem, preparing one's problem-solving plan, implementing that plan, identifying a solution. This process involves skills such as critical thinking, logical reasoning, integration of issues, creative thinking, decision-making, and analysis.

As well as easing the transition to third level, a Leaving Cert module would enhance a student's general life skills. As the module would involve group problem-solving, it would also improve communication and teamwork skills.

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An alternative form of assessment is open-book exams. This would allow students to bring a full set of material to the exam.

This would encourage students to understand what they study and focus on the application of knowledge rather than simply regurgitating facts they have memorised, thus developing students' analytical and critical-thinking skills.

As students would have open access to course materials, exam questions would have to be less predictable, and consequently students' answers would be less formulaic. This month, I have three classes doing exams in UCC, and two are being conducted on an open-book basis.

Derry Cotter is a Lecturer in Accounting in University College Cork. He is author of Great Eagle Wood, a young person's guide to the challenges facing the global economy, and the forthcoming Problem Solving and the FAE (Final Admitting Exam) , to be published by Chartered Accountants Ireland.

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