Back to the future: changes to the CAO system

The proposed changes to college entry are largely to be welcomed. Basically the plan is to

(i) to reduce the number of denominated entry courses and move to a system based more on common entry

(ii) reduce the number of Leaving Cert grades

(iii) reduce the predictability of the exams.

The introduction of denominated entry really dates back to the beginnings of DCU and UL, then the NIHEs. Those institutions were built around some genuinely pioneering and often interdisciplinary programs, rather than the traditional faculty-based programs of the Universities. Denominated entry made sense.

But the other institutions followed suit and soon the number of programs mushroomed, often as a means of ‘chasing’ students. (Programs with words in the title like forensics, enterprise, innovation, green, etc. all have stamp of ‘marketing’, at least to my cynical eye.) In this kind of environment, increasing the number of distinct grades in the Leaving Cert made sense. But it looks like things have gone too far – the number of programs on offer, often with very similar content and in the same institution, has become almost farcical. Trinity, for example, currently has no less than five Law degrees in the CAO system; one ‘pure’ Law and four ‘Law and Somethings’. Furthermore, there are many programs that are somewhat ‘eyebrow-raising’. (Have a rummage though and you’ll see what I mean. Most of these programs are in the IoT sector where attracting a sufficient number of high calibre students is a problem.)

So, it makes sense to turn the clock back a little, especially since DCU and UL have since morphed into pretty conventional institutions, whatever they might claim. But there will be some consequences. First year will once again become a high stakes year just as it was when I started Engineering in UCD in 1980. Then, to do badly in your first year exams meant being consigned to the ‘graveyard’ of Civil Engineering, or heaven forbid, Agricultural Engineering. ‘Ag’ has since mutated into Biosystems Engineering which sounds altogether more attractive.

What this means is that there will be renewed focus on the first year experience. Most institutions are conscious of the problems with teaching huge first year numbers and have made genuine efforts to improve retention rates. But the system is still built around lectures and we all know that lecturing to 300+ chattering students is not good practice. Solutions will be costly. The online route is an obvious one but first year students need personal contact and support. That requires a lot of input from academics

Reducing the predictability of exams is a tricky one. Predictability, both at second and third levels, has been a feature of our exam system for many decades. It is by no means a new phenomenon. (Some day I will tell you about how I got 70+ in a third-year electrical engineering module without having the faintest idea what I was doing!) While it would seem that ‘teaching to the test’ has become an art form these days, exams are fundamentally unchanged from 1980. By the way, if you don’t think rote learning is alive and well in the third level sector, I suggest you chat to your students.

Reducing predictability while remaining fair and true to the syllabus is hard, especially if one is to have a robust and transparent marking process. Indeed, the Learning Outcomes fetish makes it even harder. Furthermore, perceptions of fairness have become inextricably linked with predictability. There is a minefield to be crossed here.

It remains to be seen what reduced predictability would mean in practice but one thing is sure: the design of the exam has a huge effect on how people learn and this is something that needs to be done right.


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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