Leaving Cert Angst

The constant chatter about the Leaving Certificate is a little tiresome. My wife hates it because it makes me  wander around the house ranting to myself. Nonetheless, I can’t help contributing to the discussion, even if it’s just to get away from working through pages of algebra. Here are some random points.

Rote Learning

Rote learning is an entirely predictable effect of having a high stakes exam based on a tightly defined syllabus that is assessed with well-defined marking schemes. Rote learning has always occurred but has now become something of an art form, precisely because we have designed a more transparent and accountable assessment system. It is seen as good educational practice for students to know exactly what is expected of them by the examiner. Furthermore, rote learning is an intelligent and efficient way of approaching this type of examination. Why take the risk of being able to construct a coherent, articulate essay in 40 minutes when one can ‘learn one off’ in advance? Indeed, there is absolutely nothing wrong with doing this as long as you write the essay yourself. In effect, the exam becomes continuous assessment by default. On the other hand, bad rote learning may involve learning off solutions to specific mathematical problems without really understanding the methodology. You can see the consequence of this approach when you look at exam results where students do very well in maths modules, but very badly in engineering modules.

Bonus Points for Maths

I find it hard to see how you can justify giving bonus points for maths unless you can demonstrate that maths carries a greater workload. The fact that it requires two papers would suggest that this is the case and the same can be said for English and Irish. I don’t accept that economic imperatives should intrude on the education system to the extent that they make it inequitable

Project Maths

I heard a person on the radio the other day defending Project Maths on the grounds that the methods it employs are ‘research-based’. I’m reading an interesting book on education research at the moment by Daniel T. Willingham whose writing I admire. He has quite a ‘no nonsense’ approach to education, based  on his expertise in cognitive science – not any reactionary tendencies. One of his key points seems to be that much education research is  less than scientifically rigorous. (He’s not convinced by the whole idea of ‘learning styles’, for example.) Anyway, this is something that I hope to return to in time.

Continuous Assessment

Around this time, there are frequent calls for more continuous assessment at second level. One thing I have noticed from looking at student performance over the years is that exam performance and CA performance are quite well correlated. In other words, people who do well on CA tend, on average, to do well in exams. So, I’m not sure that CA would really affect relative student performance at second level. Mind you, it might develop skills that exams don’t.


I have always thought that we have unrealistic expectations of the education system. Third Level people complain that school leavers don’t have critical thinking skills. Employers complain that graduates lack all sorts of skills. In effect, each level expects the level below to provide them with the ‘finished article’. I think we would reduce the generally level of angst around the place by recognising that the level below provides us with raw material and not the finished product. In Third Level, we have four years to develop our students so it is a little bit pointless to complain constantly about the skills of school leavers. If our graduates leave with poor critical thinking skills, that’s our fault, not the fault of the Leaving Cert.

Running in Circles

Isn’t it funny how we constantly seem to run in circles when planning all aspects of society? The calls for a return to common entry, fewer grades, even bonus points, are all a throwback to the seventies and eighties when such things were the norm. By the way, this didn’t mean less pressure, it just postponed it. In 1980 when I started engineering, doing badly in first year meant being sent to the graveyard of Civil Engineering! That has gone full circle as well!


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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One Response to Leaving Cert Angst

  1. Pingback: Ninth Level Ireland » Blog Archive » Leaving Cert Angst

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