Moving away from points system may not level the playing field


Sir, – In her recent column, Joanna Siewierska, president of UCD students’ union, makes many good points but two points in particular deserve comment (“Time to change our unfair CAO points system”, Education Opinion, September 3rd).

The first is the idea, mentioned in the column, that students have different “styles of learning”.

This notion has an intuitive appeal but is discredited.

When students differ in terms of exam performance, it is often as a consequence of a combination of genetic factors and behavioural ones. (Of course, family background and social disadvantage are important factors as well.)

But, in general and all other things being equal, students who perform well in exams typically have a range of personal attributes like work ethic, resilience, ambition and an ability to plan and be organised, all attributes that have lifelong value and not just for performing in exams.

An equally important aspect of exam performance is for the student to have the good fortune to have teachers who understand and teach effective study strategies. These practices, like spaced practice, self-testing, dual-coding, etc, are well established and evidence-based. It is the adoption, or not, of these practices that leads to good performance in closed-book exams, not the fact that some students are born with “good memories”, an idea that is a bit like people boasting of having “strong immune systems”.

The second idea is that new assessment methods need to be devised that should “assess the diversity of skills and talents of young people”.

The underlying assumption here is that there is a large number of students “out there” who may have “bad memories” but have some as yet undefined skills to become highly successful in various walks of life, or, indeed, skills that will allow them to excel at third level.

Whatever about the first, the second is wrong and the Higher Education Authority produces data on an annual basis that shows that a lack of achievement at secondary school is a good predictor of failing to progress at third level.

Furthermore, Enterprise Ireland produce data on a regular basis that shows that entrepreneurship is highly correlated with academic achievement.

All in all, academic achievement seems to be a good marker for achievement later in life.

Finally, when discussing “skills” it is safe to assume that the writer is referring to “skills” such as problem-solving, creativity, teamwork, emotional intelligence, collaboration – what many these days refer to as 21st-century skills.

Even if you accept the existence of these skills (which all the evidence points to as being highly context-dependent), we do not have robust and transparent ways of assessing them.

And a key point is this: if we assess using non-examination based methods there is a real danger that we will further disadvantage the disadvantaged, for quite obvious reasons.

So rather than levelling the playing field, moving away from an exam-dominated system might well have the unintended consequence of perpetuating inequality. – Yours, etc,


Associate Professor

Bioprocess Engineering,

School of Biotechnology,

Dublin City University,

Dublin 9.