Quality in Third Level

I recently set an in-class assignment for my second year class to whom I give a short course on Heat Transfer. The students were given half an hour to answer the following question:

The U-value, or heat transfer coefficient, is used frequently in everyday life, especially in the areas of energy efficiency and energy rating. A family member asks you to explain this parameter. In the space below, write out the explanation you would give to him or her.

Below are four selected answers, chosen pretty much at random. They are reproduced exactly as written so the typos are not mine.

I am not showing these for a cheap laugh at the expense of students and should point out that receiving answers like this is a regular occurrence and no longer makes me stop in my tracks.

Answer 1

Overall heat transfer coefficient, say your using a system and you need to record how long it takes this system to heat up, The amount of time it takes This system to Heat up is used to calculate the overall heat transfer coefficient is the Resistance of the heat transfer. Recently In our engineering labs, we had to do an experiment to Record the a series of values over time and from these values and our experimental graph we were given an equation to calculate the heat transfer coefficient. However the experiment had been set up wrong and Recorded the cooling down of the liquid Rather than the Heating up. It is used in many different formulas.


Answer 2

The U-value is an important parameter and can be used in lots of calculations of Resistance. It can also be used alongside area to calculate heat transfer in a bioreactor with a jacket, so calculating heat in the bioreactor and the heat of the jacket. If you want to measure the resistance of two separate identies in the same system you put 1 over h either of them and add them together. Because we are able to find out this U value it allows us to make the most of a system allowing us to sustain energy more effectively which is important in all areas of industry and economy. It is important in the household and in industry to have a good energy rating and to sustain michenery to last longer.


Answer 3

The U-value describes the transfer of heat. It described how efficient something is in transferring heat. In the home there are many applications of heat transfer. For example kettles or toasters. Kettles take in energy, in the form of electricity & use it to boil water. The energy is converted from electrical energy to heat energy which crosses the barrier into the water & heats up. It is necessary to have a kettle which transfers the heat efficiently. Otherwise too much electricity would be used, thus wasting money. So kettles have an energy rating which tells us how efficient it is. This efficiency is expressed by a value of U. Every electrical object is given a U-value. The more energy efficient (i.e., best U-value) the more expensive the ulensil is. However, an energy efficient object will save you money on using less electricity.

Answer 4

The U-value is a measure of how quickly a system can cool down or heat up. It the overall heat transfer coefficient. The term coefficient means that it is used in a formula containing variables. The U-value can be determined by the following equation: U=(1/h1+1/h2+….1/hn}^-1. This means putting one over each heat transfer coefficient, adding them, then raising the total to a power of -1. The U-value is useful for determining how insulated a house or appliance is. Its units are W/m^2K).

In internet parlance, wtf !  How can a second year university student be so incoherent? Am I just seeing a small, unrepresentative sample of third level students or is this indicative of a wide-ranging problem?  If the latter is the case, and if it has been going on for a significant period, those of us who have not been shouting from the rooftops about it should be deeply ashamed.

I may be overreacting here and getting cranky, intolerant and unrealistic in my expectations of students.  However, to put my mind at ease I would like to see a forensic assessment of quality and standards in Universities, benchmarked against the best international standards. That means panels of experts, rather like a fraud squad, getting down and dirty with exam papers, lab reports, essay assignments, the lot.  There are many, I’m sure , who will say that we already have such a system in place via the extern examiner system. In my experience, this is not rigorous enough.


Update: Thanks to all of those who have replied with some very long and detailed replies. They are appreciated as are all other comments – good and bad – on my other posts.  I don’t have time to follow these up as much as I should and apologies for that. On this specific post, it is clear that people are seeing some horrific stuff out there.


About Greg Foley

A lecturer in Biotechnology in Dublin City University for more than 25 years. Trained as a Chemical Engineer in UCD (BE and PhD) and Cornell (MS). Does research on analysis and design of membrane filtration systems.
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6 Responses to Quality in Third Level

  1. Pingback: Ninth Level Ireland » Blog Archive

  2. Chris M says:

    I like the idea.

  3. It’s a very real problem. However, you’d find that tutors / teachers have complained about declining standards of literacy since ancient times. What’s odd is that students are more fluent than ever but there’s a disconnect between the words they use and the semantics they intend. It’s a kind of “new speak” where all their friends understand but those who are 15 or more years older than them are vaguely lost. Grammar is undoubtedly an issue but, in many respects, vocabulary has increased. It’s just that so much of it is highly idiomatic and students are not aware of our old-fangled ideas of etymology 😉 Language is evolving perhaps. It reminds me a bit of Burgess’ Clockwork Orange but without the bowler hats! There is also a pervading expectation among students that they can give answers which are carelessly and casually structured and phrased to questions requiring precise and detailed responses. This must be coming from the leaving cert in my opinion. What else could be setting their bar so low? According to their LC results they’re all genii.
    A few years ago I set a class an exam question where the answer was contained in an excerpt from a standards document provided with the examination paper. The phrasing of the question was suitably technical and required an understanding of several words in the attached specification including “monotonic”, “incremental” and “atomic”. Accepting that the terms have specific meanings in relation to computer science, a general understanding of their meanings would produce an obvious answer that would take under a minute to gain 10% of the marks. I found that only 2 students out of 25 attempted the question and both produced the correct answer. This is very worrying as it implies that the other students were, at the time they left college, unable to understand and thus implement a relatively simple, text-based, network communications protocol due to their inadequate language skills. They had no problem in writing code (they had been writing it for years) but they were at a disadvantage when it came to basic comprehension and communication skills.

    I dearly wish that 2nd level could concentrate on developing 3 skills. 1) literacy 2) mathematical problem solving 3) lateral thinking. I often think that with the correct teachers and assignments we wouldn’t need a pressure cooker state examination like the LC. All 3 can be made fun and enjoyable.

  4. Ernie Ball says:

    I’m in a very different subject area, but have observed the same phenomenon. I don’t think it is just that students can no longer write. I think that they can no longer think or, more charitably, don’t want to think. I’m in the middle of correcting student essays and not only is the prose absolutely dire (my kingdom for a single student who knows how to form the possessive!), but the thought is rarely anything but superficial. Questions are always taken in the most narrow, factual way and thereby rendered utterly uninteresting. In a group of 60 essays, perhaps two are worth anything. The rest are garbage. If I graded them according to the standards I was graded by, those two would get low B grades and virtually everyone else would fail. But I cannot do that, now, can I? So the 2 low Bs get As and everyone else is adjusted up accordingly.

    Though I hate to say it, I don’t think it’s entirely a generational thing. We get a lot of Erasmus students and they are always much better in every way than any of our local students. I think Irish students are: 1) damaged by the leaving cert; 2) damaged by Catholicism and its methods of teaching/indoctrination; 3) lazy; 4) repressed and therefore interested above all in partying as much as possible; 5) terrified of standing out from the crowd or being “up themselves” and therefore beaten into mediocrity; 6) utterly lacking in intellectual curiosity.

    It should also be said that the current wave of managerialism and its rage for “quality control” is making matters work. The insistence on course descriptions written in terms of “learning outcomes” only serve to reinforce the students’ ideas that learning is about amassing a certain amount of information, rather than becoming conversant in a subject area.

    I fear for the future of this country.

  5. Ernie Ball says:

    er, making matters worse, not “work.”

  6. cormac says:

    As regards basic writing skills, the last two answers are well above the average I see from my students, believe it or not.

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