News Focus
Dec 12, 2015

As Christmas Exams Become a Distinct Possibility, a Union Mandate Becomes Controversial

The union is mandated to fight for Christmas exams, a mandate that most students never voted on, and that most do not know exists.

Sinéad BakerDeputy Editor

In light of the Trinity Education Project, which aims to reimagine the Trinity curriculum in terms of teaching and assessment, the popularity of Trinity College Dublin Students’ Union’s (TCDSU) mandate to advocate for Christmas exams has been called into question.

A referendum held in the 2009/10 academic year saw over 90 per cent of voters agree that the union should campaign for the introduction of a semesterised exam structure. With this structure, both workload and assessment would be evenly distributed between the two teaching terms. This policy is now contained in Schedule Four, the union’s policy manual. It states that TCDSU will campaign so that the current annual examination structure “be replaced with a fully semesterised structure” across all courses and modules and that this would be introduced in “an effort to reduce the workload”. The only exception to the mandate is for courses and modules for which such a step would negatively impact the quality of the course, with examples given of “professional accreditation, placement, practical and final year project modules”.

This has been the policy of the union ever since. However, so far, no tangible effects have resulted from the position. As the project moves into consultation phase, however, the union will have cause to formally act on this mandate. This has provoked some students to question the mandate itself, a mandate which was created by students who are no longer in the College and that many current students do not know exists.

A discussion item submitted to the last meeting of TCDSU council, on Tuesday, November 17th, was due to focus on the fact that the union had such a mandate. The discussion has been pushed back to the next council meeting, which will take place this Tuesday, December 15th.

The project, which is a radical reimagining of how Trinity students are taught, prepared and assessed, is seeking to examine and potentially restructure the curriculum and assessment of Trinity’s courses. As part of the project, all options are being considered, including Christmas exams, at meetings with academic staff and student representatives in all areas of the College. Union representatives are technically mandated to advocate for Christmas exams at these meetings.

This policy, however, does not seem to mirror the desires of many current students. Speaking to The University Times, TCDSU’s Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences Faculty Convenor, Trish O’Beirne, said that: “From speaking to arts students about it, and the school convenors, about the fact that … they could happen if semesterisation comes in, I just don’t think they want them”. She added: “I don’t think arts students want them. I haven’t spoken to every arts student, obviously, but I don’t think they want them.”

“I don’t think arts students want them. I haven’t spoken to every arts student, obviously, but I don’t think they want them”

Indeed, there has been a move away from examinations in some departments within the faculty. This year the School of English abolished mandatory summer examinations for sophister students, instead encouraging teaching staff to devise new forms of assessment that suit the material itself. Speaking to The University Times, the Head of the School of English, Prof Chris Morash, explained the decision: “We said that assessment should be determined by pedagogy. That’s the principle. The way you assess something isn’t the project of some kind of random ratio of 50 per cent exams, 50 per cent essays or something like that.” As a result, only 10 out of 50 modules that were available to sophister English students have exams as part of their assessment, the rest using other assessment methods such as research exercises, presentations and essays.

Dr Clare Clarke, Assistant Professor of Nineteenth Century Literature within the School of English, was one lecturer who chose not to assess her students via exams this year. Speaking to The University Times via email, Clarke explained that she was “concerned” about proposals to introduce Christmas exams, adding that while such exams “might work well” in some subjects, she is “extremely wary of a ‘cookie cutter’ approach to pedagogical methods – one approach surely cannot best serve the assessment needs of a wide range of subjects and disciplines.”

She continued: “I have always believed that English literature students should be assessed using methods which allow them to develop and showcase their research skills and critical thinking over an extended piece or pieces of writing. These, after all, one imagines, are the types of valuable transferable skills that graduates from the School of English are TCD are so valued for. In lieu of exams, Clarke has incorporated forms of assessment that “develop primary research skills” and that use “the world class archival resources we have here in the Early Printed Books department”, as well as traditional essays.

In contrast, the School of Engineering introduced January exams for students in the fourth year of both the four-year bachelor’s (BAI) and five-year integrated master’s (MAI) courses. These exams, which ran for the first time in January 2015, are intended as a solution to the fact that these students typically sit amongst the highest number of exams in Trinity – usually around 12 in a two-week period in the summer. They are also intended as a way to ease pressure on students who choose to take part in an internship programme in the second term of the MAI course. The Director of Undergraduate Teaching and Learning in the School of Engineering, Dr Ciaran Simms, told The University Times that “having these exams in January, before the placement, would enable students to commit fully to their work.” However, students in the four-year programme who have no option to take part in the internship programme expressed dismay at having to study over the Christmas break to The University Times when the introduction of the exams was covered.

In a response to questions from The University Times via email, fourth-year mechanical engineering student and former Entertainmentss Officer of TCDSU, Finn Murphy stated: “In general I think Christmas exams would be a good thing if implemented properly across the entire college and faculties.” However, he added: “The problem with the ‘school by school’ approach that’s going on right now is that it’s not ideal for anyone.” In relation to the newly introduced exams for fourth-year students, he stated that because their term dates are the same for all students, their introduction is “a bit of a nightmare in terms of a break” and “there’s effectively no break at all in the year structure”.

“If College were to introduce Christmas exams, I think it should be looked at course-by-course, faculty-by-faculty or school-by-school, to see what is necessary”

The disparity in what suits the content of each course was also a concern expressed by O’Beirne: “I completely understand Christmas exams for science students and engineering students that will have ten exams in the summer”. She continued: “If College were to introduce Christmas exams, I think it should be looked at course-by-course, faculty-by-faculty or school-by-school, to see what is necessary.”

Prof Patrick Geoghegan, who has been involved with the project since its inception in his capacity as Senior Lecturer, a position in which he served until the end of the 13/14 academic year, has been vocal in his opposition to the introduction of Christmas exams. He has argued that students should not feel under constant pressure to prepare for exams, believing that their introduction would hinder the flourishing extra-curricular life that Trinity promotes. This position is echoed by O’Beirne who, speaking to The University Times, stated: “If you had exams before Christmas, events would have to be changed, the general structure of societies and what they do during the year would have to change.”

Ultimately, it is not yet clear if these exams will be introduced as part of the project. However, the mandate as it stands is in opposition not only to the views of many students, but also limits the possibilities for what the union can advocate for as part of the project’s consultation process.

Correction: December 12, 2015
An earlier version of this article stated that Christmas exams for fourth-year engineerings students were to be introduced in January 2016. In fact, they were introduced in January 2015.

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