Posted tagged ‘education’

The highs and lows of examinations

September 3, 2008

My own English-language education experience was remarkably consistent for its entire duration. Both at school and at university, I received instruction through face-to-face contact with teachers, and at the end of the course I was tested in a written examination on my retained knowledge, with the exam typically determining how I was deemed to have performed in the subject. At school the exam result was balanced by what we would now call continuous assessment, but mostly the overall result depended on the examination. At university there was, at the time, no continuous assessment at all: the exam result was absolutely everything.

My German language experience was somewhat different. At my secondary school in Germany, I was tested at various intervals during the year through so-called ‘Arbeiten’, which were written assignments, some (but not all) performed under exam conditions. These were staggered through the year, so that I gradually built up my performance profile. The final grade on leaving school was determined by the exam called the Abitur, which had a written and an oral element.

Fast forward to 2000, the last year during which I undertook regular teaching duties at my then university, the University of Hull. My main module – the one I taught by myself – did not have an examination element at all, but was assessed entirely through project work carried out during the year. Other modules to which I contributed had mixed elements of examination and continuous assessment.

In fact, it has for a while been a topic of pedagogical debate as to whether exams are a good way of testing ability and achievement, or a bad way. Opinions are divided. Some believe that as they are conducted in conditions where things such as plagiarism and cheating can be controlled they are a more accurate reflection of a student’s performance; others believe that they encourage memory exercises only and discourage intellectual ingenuity or independent thinking. Others simply don’t know and hedge their bets (and support a mixed mode).

It is perhaps time that this issue was handled more systematically. It is of course likely that not all learning can be tested in the same way. First years students need to be assessed differently from final year students, and those doing a PhD need to be tested in a wholly different way. But we do need to have a clear understanding, on pedagogical grounds, of what is right in each case, and there should be more consistency, even in a system that allows for variety. And we need to come to an understanding of the potential and risks involved in online testing, with multiple choice or other formats.

There has been some research on this – see this book, for example – but in practice there is little sign that an integrated approach based on evidence and analysis is being applied. It is probably time for that now.


Learning by rote

July 31, 2008

I believe I am about to say something heretical, so please do not be alarmed. But I have to confess that whenever someone speaks dismissively about learning by rote – as happens all the time – I feel uneasy. On the one hand, like pretty well everyone else I believe strongly that learning is something much more, and much more important, than just acquiring data and facts. New pedagogical methods offer much richer insights to students than would have been available in the past.

But on the other hand, data and facts also matter. For example, I am always truly amazed when, in some meeting or other, it becomes necessary to determine the answer to 7 x 8, and everyone reaches for their calculators. And how many people these days can recite literary or poetry quotes from memory? And recently I asked a small group who were in discussion with me what the dates were of the First World War – and nobody could answer correctly.

It seems to me that education is about understanding and appreciating, but also about learning. Learning is greatly facilitated by the development of memory, and having at one’s immediate disposal a good selection of key facts is a vital tool in the development of judgement and decision-making.

By the time I was 13 years old I could at will (and I still can) recite the main arithmetic tables, I could recite from memory some 150 or so poems, and I knew a large number of dates in history. And I can say that I still use a good deal of this knowledge in my daily life and work.

Maybe I’m just a traditionalist fuddy-duddy, but I strongly believe that we are failing to educate and train young people today if we are not giving them the opportunity to acquire these skills. Access to the internet and other sources of information is great, but it is not a substitute for knowledge that we hold ourselves and that we can use as needed.

Too many lawyers

July 21, 2008

Some time ago I managed to attract some attention by saying that Ireland didn’t need any more lawyers. My starting point was that too many parents were pushing their children into law as a career choice, and that the glut of lawyers would make us a more and more litigious society. Now that we are experiencing an economic downturn – temporary, we hope and trust – my fear is that this trend will accelerate, as people imagine that law is a safe choice.

As I am a lawyer myself by background, I don’t want to suggest that there is anything wrong as such with wanting to be a lawyer. But while there are a number of good reasons for wanting to go into the legal profession, having the right number of points isn’t one of them. And a country that has too many lawyers pays a high price – in the cost of insurance in particular.

This country needs more people who will take risks and start things – who will be entrepreneurial and innovative. We need more start-up businesses, more social entrepreneurs, more scientific innovators, more people in independent trades. These are the people who will help us to the next level of success and prosperity. We know very well what skills are needed to achieve that, but the pattern of higher education choices doesn’t match that. This is something we shall have to address, or we shall all pay the price.

The unpredictable world of a university President

June 5, 2008

Next month I will have been a university President for eight years. In July 2000 I took up the post of President of Dublin City University (DCU). Rather than being a development or extension of my previous career, it was in fact a whole new life, unrelated pretty much to anything I had done before except that it was also in a university. Previously I had been Dean of Social Sciences (and Professor of Law) at the University of Hull in Northern England, and before that again I had been a Lecturer in the Business School of Trinity College Dublin. I had seen my career as being focused on research and scholarship, and on teaching talented people of all ages. But suddenly all that was over, and I had become a ‘chief officer’ – the administrative and academic and business head of a large organisation.

It is sometimes asked what value university Presidents add to the life and success of their institutions. I may not be the best person to suggest an answer, but in these notes I shall try to set out a little what in fact I do, from day to day, and how this may affect my own institution. But I should also add that while DCU has achieved extraordinary successes in recent years, I do not claim much of the credit: this is due to the talented and hard-working people who make up the university – faculty, staff and students – and without whose dedication nothing would be possible.

As I develop these notes, I shall welcome comments and questions. I can also be contacted at

Ferdinand von Prondzynski