More myths about the CAO and the Leaving Cert

Myth 1

School-leavers are attracted to high point courses because of the prestige factor

Why this is a myth (I think!)

My experience of talking to pupils at careers fairs over the years is that the opposite is the case. Youngsters tend to be reluctant to apply for courses that they think might be beyond their reach. Their thinking seems to be that it would be a waste to put down a course as their first preference if they have little chance of making the grade.

The only way to settle this whole argument would be for the institutions to release their first preference data and, if they did, I am pretty confident that the number of first preferences for low intake courses of any description will not be much greater than the total number of places available and so these courses will account for a very small proportion of the total number of first preferences in the system. We need to stop obsessing about these so-called niche courses and think more about the fact that all sorts of stakeholders are ‘encouraging’ school-leavers to adopt a herd mentality (the real source of heat in the system) by choosing careers purely on the basis of the job opportunities that they might provide.

Myth 2

Increased third level participation rates are due to parental snobbery

Why this is a myth

Just look at the environment in which students make choices about their career. They are bombarded with advice about the supposed skills shortage in STEM, about how we are currently training students for jobs that don’t even exist yet, about how the average school leaver can be expected to change career umpteen times during their lifetime etc. etc. Meanwhile, education experts and the folk at organisations like the World Economic forum talk incessantly about how crucial it will be for the employees of the future to be adaptable, emotionally intelligent critical thinkers, adept at solving complex problems using their 21st century skills!

So what is a young person and their parents to think other than that third level education is essential if you want to survive in the workplace of the future?

Of course, things have become even more confusing in recent years as increasing numbers of middle class commentators suggest that other people’s children take up apprenticeships, the complete opposite of the whole jobs that don’t exist concept. Who’d be a school-leaver?


Myth 3

CAO points don’t matter

Why this is a myth

As I followed the Leaving Cert coverage on social media last week, it struck me just how many people were tweeting in an attempt to reassure youngsters that the Leaving Cert “doesn’t define them”. (The worst are the celebrity types who did badly at school and who boast about how well things turned out for them.) Where exactly are all these people who supposedly “define” school-leavers on the basis of their CAO points score? I’ve never met anyone who thinks that CAO points are the measure of a person. But getting a high CAO points score opens doors and gives young people the fastest route to their career of choice. Furthermore, those of us in the third level sector, while believing that the Leaving is a reasonable measure of overall academic ability, also realise that it is not a very good predictor of individual performance at third level. All sorts of other factors come in to play when a person makes the transition from second level to third level. But ask any third level lecturer if they would prefer a class of 500-pointers over a class of 350-pointers and the vast majority will opt for the former. And they do so because a class of the former will have a much better dynamic, one where there will be a good work ethic and where the majority of students will have high expectations of themselves. But we don’t make any judgement about the students as human beings and we never have.



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Myths about the CAO system

It is desperately frustrating to hear, year after year, the same nonsense being spoken about the Leaving Cert and the CAO system. So let’s try to expose (yet again!) some of the myths.

Myth 1

By offering courses with a small number of places, institutions are adding to the ‘heat’ in the CAO system thus causing extra stress for young school leavers.

Why this is a myth?

In fact, the majority of courses with low intake also have low entry points and most of these low-intake courses are in the IoT sector. (About two thirds of courses with an intake of 10 or fewer students have points below 350.) The low intake and the low points are a direct consequence of very low demand and the real ‘crisis’ in the CAO system is that the IoT sector is offering large numbers of Level 8 courses that nobody wants to do.

 Myth 2

By introducing broad entry, some of the heat will be taken out of the system.

Why this is a myth?

Contrary to what is commonly believed, the CAO system is not a simple supply-and-demand one. The relationship between supply and demand is seriously complicated by (i) the prestige of the institutions, (ii) the herd mentality and (iii) points inflation. For example, despite the huge class sizes, common entry to science in UCD has required more than 500 points in recent years while common entry to engineering in UCD, despite having the largest intake of any engineering course in the country, also has the highest entry points.

Furthermore, it is quite likely that points for construction-related courses will rise this year for the simple reason that students are once again seeing these disciplines as providing greatly improved career opportunities. As the herd moves around, the points follow. In other words, demand is extremely volatile.

Finally, it is worth noting that in 2008, about 15,000 students scored 400 or more points in the LC. By 2015, this number had increased to 20,000. At the same time, the number of students scoring <400 points remained essentially static. (This is a trend that predates the introduction of bonus points for maths.)

Myth 3

Broad entry will allow students to make more mature decisions about their specialisation of choice

Why this is a myth?

Unless an institution can guarantee all students a place in their specialisation of choice at the end of first year, broad entry will lead to a highly pressurised first year. In effect the pressure of the Leaving Cert will be transferred from school to college. As a passing comment, it is absolutely essential that colleges who are publicly advocating the increased use of broad entry should be open and transparent about how exactly they intend to allocate students to the various specialisations. And they also need to reassure students that if places are guaranteed, the quality of those specialised courses will not be compromised should the numbers be unexpectedly high.

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STEM and the gender imbalance

Hardly a week goes by without there being an article in the newspapers on the need to encourage more women into STEM disciplines. The arguments seem to be threefold. Firstly, there are serious skills shortages in certain STEM disciplines, notably ICT, and in that context, the female population is an untapped ‘resource’. Secondly, all work places are thought to benefit from diversity, especially gender diversity. The thinking is that males and females bring different skills and attributes to the table and this inevitably leads to better outcomes for the company/organisation. Thirdly, girls and young women who deep down would like to study STEM subjects are being actively, and passively, discouraged from doing so by all sorts of social and cultural pressures.

Regards the first of these, I would suggest that the existence of a skills shortage is absolutely the worst reason why any school-leaver, male or female, should study a certain discipline. While being gainfully employed is generally a pre-requisite for good mental health, being gainfully employed in a job that you absolutely hate is not. And if you study a discipline purely because of the job opportunities it presents, then it is highly unlikely that you will end up in a career that you love or even like. Furthermore, the chance to pursue higher education tends to be a  once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and for a young person to view this precious period of their life as a chance to undergo training as opposed to education seems like an awful waste.

Regarding the second point about diversity in the workplace, the idea that workplaces benefit from gender diversity seems very plausible and it’s not something that a reasonable person would argue with. But it does seem to me to be somewhat inconsistent to argue that women, by virtue of their gender, have skills and attributes that men don’t have while at the same time not being willing to entertain the possibility that women, on average, are less interested than men in disciplines like maths, engineering, computing and physics. It strikes me that commentators go to extraordinary lengths to exclude this possibility when writing about the gender imbalance in these disciplines. The problem is that when you’re in a discipline for which you have a certain amount of passion, it is quite easy to presume that everyone is like you and it can be easy to convince yourself that external factors  must  be at play if your passion is not shared by others. But maybe it’s a lot simpler; maybe a lot of girls and young women just aren’t in to maths

Regarding the third point about social and cultural pressures, there is absolutely no doubt that these pressures do exist and they start from an early age. Anyone who wanders into Smyth’s toy stores knows that gender stereotyping is deeply ingrained in our culture. But if we want to tackle it, then we have to do so in a more holistic way and not just focus on the lack of women in some STEM fields. If we want to attract more young women into maths, engineering, ICT and physics, then it is a simple matter of logic that we need to attract more young men into a wide variety of female-dominated, lower-earning professions such as nursing, dietetics, physiotherapy, radiography, social work and primary school teaching. Good luck with that I say.

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Funding higher education: asking the wrong question

The entire focus of the recent debate on the funding of HE has been on the precise way in which extra cash can be raised to deal with the obvious shortfall that currently exists. No attempt has been made to look at the cost side.

We need to ask the simple question how can the cost (to the taxpayer)  of third level education be reduced?

I suggest there are quite a few ways in which we can do this (all views personal – as usual!):

  • Give institutions more autonomy and refrain from setting arbitrary targets or imposing conditions that actually impose a cost on the institutions. Targets, no matter what they are, always impose a cost. For example, if you demand that institutions increase their research student numbers by 30% (why?), then those institutions will have to invest in research support infrastructure that will enable academics to seek and win the necessary research grants. You cannot wave a magic wand and assume that by setting a target and then exhorting academics to try harder, targets will be achieved.
  • The TU project is another instance of Government effectively setting a target that imposes a cost on institutions. The very act of merging institutions imposes a significant initial cost and an ongoing cost associated with administering an institution that might have campuses that are hours part. The proposed CIT-Tralee merger is an obvious case in point. This is all against a background where we know that the cost per student in a university is about 30% more than in an IoT. While some might argue that mergers will lead to a reduction in duplication, the effect of eliminating courses in some institutions will be to add to the burden on families who will have to fund the costs of travel and accommodation.
  • Accept that the primary function of all HE institutions is education. Demanding that institutions be drivers of economic growth, both regional and national, through the generation of intellectual property, start-ups etc., also adds additional overhead costs for institutions. In effect, costs that should be associated with job creation and economic development are lumped into the education budget when in fact they belong in the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation. We see the same thing in the broad area of health where the HSE carries out many functions that are more to do with social work than health per se.
  • Taxpayer-funded HE institutions, but especially the universities, need to get out of the business of running degree courses where the primary purpose of the programme is to provide quite specific workplace skills rather than education in a broader sense. Programmes like these are better done, using an apprenticeship model, by the private sector but perhaps in partnership with institutions. This is a model that worked well in the past but the institutions took it upon themselves to take on the cost of training everybody from computer programmers to accountants to actuaries to solicitors to health professionals of all kinds. We chose in the 1990s to fix a system that wasn’t broken.
  • The number of total student-years in the system has increased enormously because the four-year honours degree has become the dominant form of higher education. We need to at least examine this trend and ask is it really necessary that so many of our students spend four years in college or 18 years total in full time education. Some numbers on this: In March 2008, there were 38K applications for Level 6/7 CAO courses with 56K for Level 8 courses. In 2016, the figures were 34K and 65K. The trend is clear.
  • We need to seriously, once and for all, tap into the opportunities that online learning present. But there is no point in all institutions charging off and doing their own thing. Developing high quality online learning tools and environments is difficult, costly and time consuming. We need a national approach and we need to create a single institution whose sole mission would be to provide online undergraduate education in partnership with existing institutions.

In conclusion, our HE institutions need to become leaner with a renewed focus on their educational mission. At the moment we are trying to be too many things all at once. That’s my opinion anyway!

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In defence of the Leaving Cert

At this time of year it is usual for all sorts of interested parties to emerge from the woodwork and denounce the Leaving Cert. It is portrayed as cruel. It is said to be biased against those from disadvantaged areas. It is said that it rewards little more than rote memorisation and stamina. It is claimed that it does not equip students with essential ‘21st century skills’ like creativity, critical thinking, problem solving and collaboration.

The fact that the Leaving Cert is a very high stakes, one-opportunity examination does indeed cause students a good deal of stress. The claim is usually made, therefore, that by introducing continuous assessment and de-emphasising the final, all-or-nothing exam, much of this stress will be lifted. But where’s the evidence? Assessment in the third level sector is now very diverse; continuous assessment is used extensively and the semesterised system means that there are more, less-demanding examinations. But as I mentioned in a recent post, stress levels among third level students are at an all-time high. Of course financial and personal factors might be at the root of this, but there is no real evidence that the modular system, where students are assessed regularly and often, is proving to be less stressful for students. In fact, one could argue that the cumulative effect of constant, low-level stress caused by the frequent assessments is actually more damaging than short periods of more intense stress. To use the academic cliché of all academic clichés, more research is needed.

The idea that the Leaving Certificate is unfair because it favours middle class students who can afford to go to grind schools is absolutely true. But this is not really a consequence of the exam per se; it is more a consequence of our two-tiered education system in which we, as a society, have made it possible for sections of our society to buy an educational advantage over others. We do the same thing in health care where queue-jumping is not only tolerated, it is actively encouraged. This is a problem for society, not the designers of the Leaving Cert.

One of the most commonly promoted ‘fixes’ for the inequality discussed above is to introduce teacher assessment, i.e., assessment of students by their own teachers. Unfortunately, however, there are good grounds to believe (see here and here) that teacher assessment introduces biases that standardised tests do not. This is not really the ‘fault’ of teachers; it is simply an inevitable consequence of their humanity. This is one of those areas where we need to be very wary of our intuition because as pointed out by Daniel Kahneman, Jonathan Haidt and others, our intuition is often wrong because it is susceptible to all sorts of unconscious biases. As Haidt says, we are the conscious riders on our subconscious elephant and it’s the elephant who is usually in charge even if we like to engage in a lot of post-hoc rationalisation.

Does the Leaving Cert only reward rote memorisation? You certainly need to have a good memory to do well in the Leaving Cert. In fact you need a good memory to get a H1 in an honours degree programme. But as Daniel Willingham and others have point out, memorisation without understanding is actually very difficult and I think we can safely say that while many of our high-pointers have engaged in a bit of rote memorisation, they have done so while simultaneously acquiring a good knowledge and understanding of the subjects they have studied.

As for this whole concept of 21st century skills and the obsession with ‘problem-solving’ and all those nebulous concepts that educationalists like to talk about these days, there are two key points: First, predictions that the future world of work is going to be dominated by developments in artificial intelligence and automation, and that most workers will be focused on higher order activities like creativity and problem solving, are pure speculation. The world of work has changed considerably since the early 1990s when the internet first emerged, but we still need workers who are reliable and conscientious even if they are not creative; workers who have a great eye for detail even if they are not necessarily great critical thinkers; workers who even though they might not work well in groups, are innovative and original in their thinking. The world of work will always need diversity and it will always need the maintainers as much as it needs the creators.

The second point is that even if we want the education system to be a breeding ground for creative and critical thinkers, it is not at all obvious how we should go about achieving this. The great and creative thinkers of the 20th century (and there were many) were taught using what many refer to disparagingly as the ‘factory model’ of education – what you and I would call traditional, teacher-led education. There is no convincing evidence to suggest that the 21st century is so radically different from the latter decades of the 20th century that we need to fundamentally change the way we teach and assess our students. Many educationalists and self-appointed gurus seem to be making a lucrative living  saying these things but they do so in an evidence-free zone.

Even as a trained engineer, that most pragmatic of disciplines, I find it fundamentally depressing that so much of our conversations around education are, in a sense, anti-education. In fact, the word ‘education’ has largely been replaced by ‘skills’. The idea of acquiring knowledge seems to have been devalued to the point where the students being taught facts of any kind is derided because “we have Google”. But acquiring knowledge is one of the most life-enhancing things that any young person can do – it is far more transformational than acquiring problem-solving skills. It affects our entire quality of life and not just our job prospects. How can anyone understand the nuances of Brexit, for example, without having some knowledge and understanding of the British Empire and the Second World War? How can you understand the plight of the Palestinians if you know nothing of the Holocaust?

The Leaving Cert has its problems but it is the culmination of 6 years of secondary school learning and anyone who does well in the Leaving can consider themselves to be an educated person who has studied a broad range of subjects, from science to history to English Literature. Yes, the Leaving Cert does not prepare students for third level education but no system in which teachers and parents provide so much guidance (and coercion) will fully prepare youngsters for the transition that awaits them. It is our job in third level to ensure that this transition is managed well. Just as it is unrealistic for employers to expect us to produce industry-ready graduates, it is unrealistic for us to expect the second level system to produce independent-learning, third level-ready school-leavers.

The way we assess students in the Leaving Cert does need to be tweaked constantly but a radical overhaul is not justified.

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Grade inflation: doesn’t bother me

The recent and impressive study on grade inflation in the IoT sector comes at an appropriate time. Exam boards are coming to an end and the various drivers of student grades are fresh in our minds.

There is absolutely no doubt that grade inflation is occurring, i.e. third level students are getting higher grades and doing so even when their second level performance would suggest that their grades should be getting lower.

The usual explanation for grade inflation is that third level has been ‘dumbed down’ and the implication is that the dumbing down has been ‘enforced’ by management.

Just to get the second of these out of the way, I can say with total conviction that never in my 30 years in DCU have I ever felt any pressure from anybody in a managerial position to inflate the grades I give to my students, or to dumb down the material that I teach.

What I have seen over the years is an extremely compassionate body of academics, many if not most of whom are parents themselves and who inevitably want to do their best for students, even if in some cases we are a bit misguided. At exam boards, therefore, student marks are routinely raised for all sorts of quite legitimate reasons. Students are looked at holistically and most reasonable academics recognise that assessing students is an inexact science and there is almost an obligation on us to give students the benefit of the doubt, especially when they are as over-assessed as they are in the modern modular system. In my experience, this whole process is driven by us, the academics: no managers are involved.

So what about the dumbing down? The whole concept of dumbing down is predicated on the idea that there exists some objective third level standard and that this standard was set some time in the relatively distant past. Personally, there has never been any immutable standard for the courses that I teach. I set a ‘standard’ of sorts and it varies from year to year and from class to class. I used to do this unconsciously but now I do it consciously. After a few lectures and tutorials with a class I get a sense of where they are at academically and I adjust my teaching methods accordingly. In general, weaker classes require more ‘spoon feeding’ and so they experience a slightly different ‘me’ than stronger classes. But in both cases the goal is the same. As an aside, I think it is very interesting how group dynamics seem to shape the overall class performance and I think this goes some way towards explaining why CAO points only correlate weakly with third level performance. I have a feeling that a small number of students can set the tone for a class and if the tone-setters are high achievers with a strong work ethic this can rub off on the entire class. The opposite is also the case unfortunately. The important point in all of this is that the ‘standard’, whatever that means, is not constant but is constantly varying, not only downwards but upwards as well.

But even if we were to accept that there is some universal standard ‘out there’ that all autonomous institutions should be aspiring to, are there any reasons why students should be getting higher grades? Of course there are and they are all pretty predictable. Improved teaching is the obvious one and it is worth noting that many of the developments  in the whole area of third level T&L (the National Forum, for example) are driven by the IoT sector.

But there is a danger, I admit, that we are becoming ‘lawnmower academics’, cutting a swathe through the third level forest, creating a smooth, predictable path that all students can navigate, albeit a path with lots of academic hurdles of ever increasing number and ever diminishing height. But even that is not quite the same as ‘dumbing down’; it is more a case of creating a system in which it is easier, and more acceptable, to score highly. The old days of having to be a genius to get 70% are long gone, and rightly so. However, within the modern highly-managed and structured system, a system that incorporates large elements of continuous assessment, there is still plenty of scope to challenge students. And challenge them we do.

So I’m not bothered by grade inflation. As readers of this blog will know, however, I am bothered by the extent to which many students do not fully commit to their studies. These are the students who fail repeatedly and scrape through with low H2.2s or H3s when with a bit of focus they should be well capable of getting H2.1s.

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Should the second level system go modular?

This letter in the Irish Times by Seán de Brún of Mary Immaculate College has a certain air of plausibility about it. There is no doubt that a modular system where students are assessed in a variety of ways should, in theory, result in students acquiring a more rounded set of skills, skills that cannot be assessed by an end-of-year written exam.  Furthermore, the idea that a modular system might be less stressful for students than the all-or-nothing system that we have at the moment also rings true.

But there are a couple of reasons as to why I would tread carefully here:

  • Stress and anxiety levels among third level students are an increasingly worrying problem. No doubt, many mental health problems from which students suffer have nothing to do with the fine detail of the education system per se,  but there is certainly no evidence to suggest that the modular system, with its increased emphasis on continuous assessment, is reducing stress levels.
  • Although the modular system used in third level does allow one to assess students in a variety of ways, there is really no evidence to suggest that it leads to better – or worse – learning. We just don’t know and our thinking tends to be guided by little more than anecdote and gut feeling.
  • More fundamentally, though, we need to ask ourselves what the Leaving Certificate is for. In the last couple of decades, the Leaving has effectively become an entry examination for higher and further education. It is essential, therefore, that whatever way we design the second level system, it should not only provide students with a broad education (to enhance their lives in a general sense) but it should also prepare students for the rigours of third level education. Discussions about the Leaving Certificate, and indeed the entire second level curriculum, should take into account the fact that for most students, leaving secondary school represents no more than the end of the beginning of a process of lifelong learning. We should adjust our expectations accordingly.
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