Leaving Cert by rote: Critical thinking seen as vital skill

Future generations should be assessed on ability to solve problems and think creatively

Students frequently indicated they could not recall information they had learned off for the Leaving Cert a mere two months later. File photograph: Getty Images

In recent years many media reports have stated that the Leaving Cert is “all rote learning and memory recall”.

Is this belief justified? A recent study in Trinity College investigated this belief through analysis of exam papers and marking schemes for 23 subjects, using key words that signified whether students had to think for themselves or rely on memory recall.

The study also interviewed 30 students who had completed the exam on 10 subjects.

A significant finding was that the major method of preparing for the exams was predicting the questions, preparing answers and learning them off.


As this method is regarded as getting good results, it is understandable that it is preferred by both teachers and students when there is so much at stake.

However, it raises serious questions as to the quality of learning, as students frequently indicated they could not recall information they had learned off for the exam a mere two months later.

It is reasonable to conclude that the “high stakes” nature of the exam contributes to this situation. However, the interviews also indicated that, in some subjects for some students, the engagement with learning was deep and genuine.

Many students spoke strongly of their growth in appreciation for literature, declaring their love for particular poets and their new interest in reading novels. Other subjects that elicited significant enthusiasm were art, classical studies, music and religious education.

The analysis of exam papers gave some indication that the belief that it is all “memory recall” has some basis.


A software programme was used to find all the verbs of instruction in the papers, such as “describe the structure of the lymphatic system” or “explain the term “transnational company”. These verbs were then divided into intellectual skills.

This analysis indicated that the exam papers did not rely entirely on memory recall, though it indicated an extremely low occurrence of the higher skills such as problem-solving and critical thinking.

Subjects were also compared on the emphasis each placed on different skills.

Six subjects had their highest emphasis on memory recall, six on performing the techniques; eight subjects had a spread of skills and three prioritised understanding.

English had by far the most emphasis on the highest intellectual skills and was the only subject that had its highest weighting on making judgments based on criteria. (The analysis of exam papers related to 2005 to 2010, so the analysis of maths papers was prior to the full implementation of project maths).

The very low instance of the highest skills across most subjects is a definite concern, given that teenage years are a crucial time for the development of critical thinking and problem-solving. Also, the syllabuses for the Leaving Cert subjects emphasise the importance of these skills. Yet this study indicates they are starkly absent from the exam papers.

On the whole, the study suggests that there is need for reform. In 2004 the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) made proposals for reform of the Leaving Cert.

They included assessment over a longer period of time, such as two or three years, and an element of school-based assessment. School-based assessment has been a contentious issue in Ireland in recent times. However, international practice supports it as it facilitates assessment of a wide range of skills, many of which seem to be absent in the current examination papers.

Teacher professionalism

School-based assessment can also enhance teacher professionalism. When the UK decided to revert from school-based assessment, it was a political rather than an educational decision and was not supported by educational researchers.

However, research makes it clear that for school-based assessment to be implemented effectively, there are three requirements: trust in teachers, an effective system that provides for comparability of standards, and significant professional development of teachers. It is also very important to secure public understanding of such a system.

While the NCCA maintains its vision for reform of the Leaving Cert, it has acknowledged that the proposal for reform must be resource intensive. Let us hope resources will be allocated for suitable and effective reforms of our assessment system so that future generations will be assessed on their ability to solve problems, evaluate critically and think creatively. After all, assessment drives the learning.

Dr Denise Burns is the author of the new study and a researcher at the centre for evaluation, quality and inspection at DCU's Institute of Education