Study raises questions over quality of Leaving Cert learning

TCD research: Key skills such as critical thinking and problem-solving ‘starkly absent’

Research has found the main method of preparing for the Leaving Cert exam was to predict questions, prepare answers and learn them off. File photograph: Peter Thursfield/The Irish Times

Research has found the main method of preparing for the Leaving Cert exam was to predict questions, prepare answers and learn them off. File photograph: Peter Thursfield/The Irish Times

 

A new study which raises serious questions over the quality of learning for the Leaving Cert has found that students frequently were unable to recall information they learned just two months after the exam.

The research carried out at Trinity College Dublin found crucial skills such as critical thinking and problem-solving were “starkly absent” from the exams over a five-year period.

Instead the main method of preparing for the exam was to predict questions, prepare answers and learn them off.

The study involved analysing written exam papers and marking schemes for 23 subjects from 2005-10, using key words that signified whether students had to think for themselves or rely on memory recall.

Thirty students who recently completed the exam across 10 subjects were also interviewed.

The study of exam papers showed that while they did not rely entirely on memory recall, they reflected an “extremely low” occurrence of higher skills such as critical thinking.

English was found to have by far the most emphasis on the highest intellectual skills, while chemistry and physics were found to have a spread of intellectual skills. Biology and home economics placed their highest emphasis on memory recall.

Maths had its strongest emphasis on performing techniques. A small number of subjects, including business and history, placed the greatest emphasis on understanding.

Debate

The study comes at a time of mounting debate over reform of both the Junior and Leaving Cert. Policymakers say the exams need a much greater emphasis on continual assessment and skills for the modern workplace, such as critical thinking.

The National Council for Curriculum and Assessment, a State advisory body, drew up plans that feature many of these reforms at Leaving Cert level in 2004.

However, a long-running dispute over reform of the junior cycle has stalled any changes.

The main secondary school teachers union argues teachers should not have to assess their own students, while many argue that memory recall still plays a key role in learning.

The study’s author, Denise Burns, now a researcher at DCU’s Institute of Education, said it was not a surprise that rote-learning was common as it was seen as getting good results. But she said this approach raised “serious questions as to the quality of learning”, as students frequently indicated they could not recall information they had learned off just two months after the exam.