Trinity students object to pressure of ‘impossible’ exam changes

Students highlight ‘steep decline’ in participation in clubs and societies

Hundreds of Trinity students have  objected to pressure of ‘impossible’ exam changes. Photograph: Alan Betson

Hundreds of Trinity students have objected to pressure of ‘impossible’ exam changes. Photograph: Alan Betson

 

Hundreds of students at Trinity College Dublin say its new system of Christmas exams and continual assessment is putting students under huge pressure and resulting to a steep decline in participation in societies.

The university has broken with its 400-year tradition this year by introducing both Christmas and summer exams, along with continual assesment.

The moves were aimed at inroducing a fairer system of assessment and easing some of the pressure linked to single set of exams in the summer.

However, a large group of students have objected to the changes, which form part of a series of reforms known as the Trinity Education Project (TEP).

An open letter to Provost Patrick Prendergast, which draws attention to what students say are the “failures” of the new system, has been endorsed by more than 300 students.

Counterproductive

“ In a radical move for a university whose reputation revolves so much around the past, Trinity broke with tradition in 2018 and completely restructured the academic year,” the letter states.

It claims the changes have “catastrophically failed” or, at best, have proved “countrerproductive”.

“The changes brought about by TEP are not equivalent to semesterisation as seen in other Irish universities... Trinity students must complete larger amounts of continuous assessment for fewer marks. So, although our workload during the year is greater, the main emphasis still remains on a final exam,” the letter states.

Trinity, which has been appoached for comment, has previously said the changes were carefully crafted and introduced with the support of a majority of the university fellows.

It has said the move to continual assessment would allow greater feedback for students as they learn through assessments, projects or presentations.

ProfChris Morash, Trinity’s vice-provost, previously told The Irish Times that the college was “battling against the effect of the Leaving Cert” in which students are trained “within an inch of their lives” to deal with a single final exam.

“This isn’t giving students feedback on what they did right or wrong – it doesn’t help learning,” he said,

In a statement to The Irish Times regarding the letter Prof Chris Morash said: “Trinity has been engaging fully with our students in relation to the new reforms of the Trinity Education Project from the outset.

“Students are members of all of TEP’s working groups and elected Students’ Union representatives have been very active in introducing all of the project’s reforms to date.

Prof Morash said the union was organising an information session at the end of January where he would respond to questions along with colleagues Prof Kevin Mitchell, and the Associate Dean Undergraduate Science Education Áine Kelly.

Have Your Say - does continual assessment lead to stress?

“Specifically on some of the concerns raised by the students in their letter, it is worth noting that with the introduction of TEP the number of final exams has actually declined. Furthermore, it encourages increased participation in clubs and societies.”

Flawed

The students’ letter says the implemention of the changes has been flawed.

“The most obvious flaw in the Trinity Education Project is the degree of pressure it places on already overburdened students,” the letter states.

“ The past term has shown that the implementation of TEP ensures that heavy continuous assessment (in the form of essays, lab reports, and assignments) precludes necessary study.

“Students across College must now complete continuous assessment, traditionally done over the winter break, in addition to their regular coursework - something not feasible while simultaneously preparing for important exams.”

This new system, the letter states, is promotes “end of term cramming, contrary to the College’s aims of implementing a more integrated programme of learning”.

“Furthermore, condensing what was formerly a seven-week exam period into a little under two weeks has naturally increased the amount of pressure on students. A single week is wholly inadequate to study for exams and the crowded exam timetables mean that preparation between assessments is impossible.”

The letter also draws attention to reports that engagement with societies and extra-curricular activity is in steep decline since the changes were introduced.

“We strongly believe that the immediate and long-term consequences of your implementation strategy are entirely at odds with the interests of students. As you contemplate any further changes we respectfully urge you to tailor them to those they purport to benefit,” the letter concludes.

“We ask that you listen to what we are saying and that you buck the trend of recent years to dismiss out of hand the claims and protests of students.”

Full text of open letter from Trinity College Dublin students:

Dear Provost Prendergast,

As students and active members of the Trinity College community, we write to express our immense dissatisfaction with the implementation of the new Trinity Education Project (TEP). We call on you to address the adverse effects TEP has had on students and engage with student representatives to avoid the persistence of undeniable flaws in your Project.

The ultimate aim of TEP is to “prepare [STUDENTS]for living and working in this rapidly changing world”. This was originally intended to be achieved by promoting a wide range of skills, high levels of student engagement, and a diversification in methods of assessment.

By abolishing a 400-year old examination system, whereby a single set of exams in May was preceded by three weeks of study in April, College sought to implement greater continuous assessment across disciplines, ease pressure around exam time, and thus ensure a more holistic programme of learning. In a radical move for a university whose reputation revolves so much around the past, Trinity broke with tradition in 2018 and completely restructured the academic year.

We, the undersigned, believe that you have catastrophically failed, not only to achieve the goals of the Trinity Education Project but, more significantly, to produce a viable strategy for its implementation. At best, your strategy has proved counterproductive. Considering the scattered strands of Trinity’s Administration, where communication between faculties is non-existent and layers of bureaucracy complicate even the simplest of changes, some saw this failure as inevitable.

However, the expectation of failure in no way mitigates the extensive damage wrought by this poor execution. To avoid lasting harm to both students and the College’s prestigious name, remedial action must be taken and students’ concerns taken into consideration.

The changes brought about by TEP are not equivalent to semesterisation as seen in other Irish universities. Instead, we have been subjected to a bastardisation of two systems. Relative to those studying at other institutions, Trinity students must complete larger amounts of continuous assessment for fewer marks. So, although our workload during the year is greater, the main emphasis still remains on a final exam.

For many science students, taught modules have no continuous assessment. Labour-intensive lab reports are assessed separately so that terminal exams count as 100% of a module’s grade. Furthermore, in other Irish universities, deadlines are staggered so that students can effectively manage their respective workloads and alternatively concentrate on essays or exams. In Trinity, these deadlines converge and thus the amount of time students may devote to consolidating and comprehending information is minimised.

The most obvious flaw in the Trinity Education Project is the degree of pressure it places on already overburdened students. The past term has shown that the implementation of TEP ensures that heavy continuous assessment (in the form of essays, lab reports, and assignments) precludes necessary study.

Students across College must now complete continuous assessment, traditionally done over the winter break, in addition to their regular coursework - something not feasible while simultaneously preparing for important exams.

Consequently, the new system promotes end of term cramming, contrary to the College’s aims of implementing a more integrated programme of learning. Furthermore, condensing what was formerly a seven-week exam period into a little under two weeks has naturally increased the amount of pressure on students. A single week is wholly inadequate to study for exams and the crowded exam timetables mean that preparation between assessments is impossible.

Another major failing is the absence of a unilateral approach to the implementation of TEP. Faculties within College have adapted to the new policy in different ways, as they believe best suits their existing framework. For example, economics students have not been semesterised and are now in a position where a single end-of-year exam may count for 20% of their degree, again blatantly contradicting the ethos of this new exam system.

The failings of the above strategy are further compounded by its poor execution. Throughout Michaelmas Term 2018, problems were encountered during several exams, with many attributing these to the rushed changeovers between assessments. The new system involves far fewer exam locations and a denser timetable, making it highly inflexible.

In a recent Christmas exam session at the RDS, over 1,000 students were given the incorrect papers, with the exams being delayed for ninety minutes owing to an error with the seating plan. These exams were not concluded until as late as 9.30 pm, with many students then sitting another exam at 9.30 am the next morning. Under TEP there is no room for exams to be rescheduled and, consequently, no time for alternative solutions to be found to administrative issues.

Unsurprisingly, the consequences of such an unreasonable system are already in evidence. The College newspapers, Trinity News and the University Times, recently reported that engagement with societies, a collection of over 120 award-winning student-led groups that champion extra-curricular activity, is in steep decline since the Project’s introduction.

From the outset you have stressed that your goal is “to meet and […]exceed the expectations of […]current and future students”. Creating excess stress and uncertainty does not meet the expectations of students who came to Trinity in pursuit of academic excellence and extracurricular opportunities. Furthermore, pushing students over the edge, to the point of burnout, does little to prepare them for the “real world”. Instead, your Project serves only to detract from our college experience and devalue our education by damaging Trinity’s international prestige and influence.

We strongly believe that the immediate and long-term consequences of your implementation strategy are entirely at odds with the interests of students. As you contemplate any further changes we respectfully urge you to tailor them to those they purport to benefit. We ask that you listen to what we are saying and that you buck the trend of recent years to dismiss out of hand the claims and protests of students.

-- This letter, drafted by a small group in of students in Trinity College Dublin, has been publicly endorsed by over 320 other students who have added their names to the list of signatories.