Junior Cycle reforms lead to ‘positive’ shift in learning but concern voiced over student stress

Pupils struggle to balance homework, classroom-based assessments and study for exams

Students report feeling significant stress with Junior Cycle workloads and struggle to balance homework, classroom-based assessments and study for exams, according to a review into the impact of Junior Cycle reforms.

However, the overall research shows signs of a positive shift towards teaching and learning that is more student-centred and student-led and which involves greater professional collaboration among teachers.

The findings are contained in the latest report, seen by The Irish Times, of a four-year longitudinal study by researchers at University of Limerick into Junior Cycle curriculum changes.

Greater feedback

It presents the views of students and parents for the first time, as well as interviews with teachers, from 12 case-study schools.

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Teachers reported that their practice has changed in many cases to include provision of greater feedback to students and more project-based learning through the introduction of classroom-based assessments (CBAs).

They felt students had greater voice, responsibility and ownership of their learning as a result.

Teachers also reported that they were collaborating more with colleagues and had more professional conversations with colleagues.

However, most teachers believed there was a gap between the Junior and Senior Cycle. They felt the workload, expectations of students and the amount of writing in the Leaving Cert exam, in comparison to the Junior Cycle, was the cause of this gap.

From a student perspective, students favoured group work, active learning and inquiry-based “real-life” learning. CBAs were viewed positively as they facilitated this type of learning and classrooms were considered to be more fun and engaging.

Parents also said they welcomed the shift towards an emphasis on skills and valued the project-based learning that was introduced as part of the students’ CBA work.

However, the report found that, overall, the final Junior Cycle exams in June remain a “central concern” and this emphasis appears to “refract enactment of the changes”.

“This suggests that untangling Junior Cycle from this wider culture of examination preparation and assessment remains a challenge, particularly in the context of the existing Leaving Certificate,” it states.

It also found that assessment was at the forefront of the vast majority of students’ minds as they navigated everyday life at school.

While many students deemed tests to be a suitable form of assessment, large summative exams such as the Junior Cycle written exams were a source of stress for many students and most viewed them as not adequately assessing their “full potential”.

Students called for more choice and less pressure in exams and they deemed grading bands to be too broad.

Students had a preference overall for continuous assessment and were aware of the positive aspects enabled by CBAs such as inquiry-based learning, development of research and presentation skills and teamwork.

‘Futility and frustration’

However, students believed CBAs did not deliver many of the benefits that continuous assessment promises and saw them as largely disconnected from exams.

This, students said, led to a sense of “futility and frustration” because students were mainly concerned with their grades in exams.

CBA work was seen as an “extra”, which put pressure on the perceived core priority of study and exams. In addition, the perceived lack of credit attached to CBAs caused frustration.

The stress experienced in managing everyday workloads led to most students evaluating if specific content was “relevant” for the exams.

Some students were acutely aware of “playing the game” as they attempted to learn off answers and make strategic decisions about what to memorise.

“Students believed that in order to be successful at Junior Cycle they must: engage in early and sustained academic engagement, engage in diligent notetaking, build a repository of notes for study, ensure adequate preparation for any forthcoming tests and place a strategic focus on homework,” the report found.

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien is Education Editor of The Irish Times. He was previously chief reporter and social affairs correspondent