Aoibhinn Ní Shúilleabháin: What I would tell my Leaving Cert self

‘I couldn’t fathom the benefit of learning off essays for the rest of the paper’

What is your most vivid Leaving Cert memory?

Bizarrely, my most vivid memory is taking breaks from studying. I was quite diligent in putting in study time and in the dry, sunny evenings of April and May, I would put on my favourite jumper (borrowed from my mum, but knit by my grandmother) and go for a walk with the dog to Lough Carra in Carnacon.

Who was your most influential teacher and why?

My physics teacher Mr McMonagle probably. He encouraged our interest in physics outside of the textbooks and enjoyed conversations about black holes and the possibilities of time-travel. No one else in my class was thinking about continuing to study physics, but he encouraged my interest and worked hard to demonstrate concepts that seemed difficult at the time.

What was your most difficult subject?

History. Although I enjoyed learning and reading about it, I found it difficult to understand the purpose of the exam. I really enjoyed working on my special topic (George Moore and the cultural literary revival), but couldn't fathom the benefit of learning off essays for the rest of the paper.

How many points did you get in the Leaving?

I got 570 points, which I was very pleased with at the time. (My course was 370 points but required a B1 in honours maths – once I had my A1 in maths I was happy.)

Is today’s Leaving Cert exam fit for purpose?

No. While learning facts and figures was important for students in previous decades, it is no longer as important for our young people. Today, students need to know how to think creatively and constructively and understand how to approach unfamiliar problems. Having other forms of assessment (project-based or continuous, independent work), as well as a summative exam, would be of greater benefit of our students.

Are exams easier today than they were in the past?

The Leaving Cert is a difficult set of exams because of the import that is put on them. The exams might seem easy to those of us to have sat them – and they can be surmounted by those students who see how to use the points system to their advantage – but they are still a difficult set of exams when you consider the breadth of subjects that many students do.

What subject would you add to the Leaving Cert?

Computer science. To have some knowledge of coding (or programming) and to understand something of hardware and software is of absolute necessity to our young people.

What would you tell your Leaving Cert self?

Stick to your routine during the exams and get plenty of sleep. The Leaving Cert is an endurance test as well as an assessment of learning – but it’s also not the be all and end all.If there is a course you are hoping to do, there is always more than one way to finding a route to it.

Dr Aoibhinn Ní Shúilleabháin sat her Leaving Cert in 2001. She is assistant professor at UCD’s school of mathematics and statistics.