The Minister is hell-bent on making an impact as he winds down his time in politics. He talks a lot about rote learning – in fact he tends to lecture us in an annoying kind of way on the evils of it – and he is determined to stamp it out. There’s no harm in having that ambition but the Minister is naïve if he thinks it’s a straightforward process. The greatest cognitive weapon that any of us has is our memory and our first port of call when trying to solve any problem is to go to our long-term memory to find a solution that we may have found to a similar problem in the past. That is, after all, why people value experience so much. So in a high stakes assessment, it is a natural instinct for students to rely, excessively, on memory. Preparing an essay or learning off solutions to problems that you think might come up is a sensible strategy.
The rote learning problem is a bit like the performance-enhancing drugs problem in sport. In order to stem its tide, the examiners would have to be akin to drug-testers; they would need to stay one step ahead of the rote learners. And that’s why when the Minister suggests that the use of continuous assessment (whatever that is) in the Junior Cert will eliminate or at least lessen the emphasis on rote learning he is being highly simplistic. Rote learning will always find a way even in continuous assessment where it will soon become known what the teacher ‘wants’ – and that’s what he or she will get. Likewise, Project Maths will inevitably descend into rote learning despite its lofty ambitions to create mathematical modellers of second level students.
So how does the system stay one step ahead of the rote learners? Well, it can constantly tinker with the exam or the assessment, throwing in the unexpected, constantly keeping the student guessing. Good luck with that I’d say. A more pragmatic approach, and one that is probably fairer, is to just do what we do at Third Level. We assess students in lots of different ways: final exams, in-class tests, term papers, laboratory reports, mini-theses, literature reviews, group activities, oral presentations. While much of this comes under the generic heading of ‘continuous assessment’ the formal end-of-term exam remains of central importance. The third level system is not immune from rote learning but at least a range of talents are rewarded, including the important life-skill of being able to perform under pressure.