Joe’s Jotter: Improving our Current Exam System

The debate is ongoing in relation to continuous assessment at Secondary school, with a keen focus currently on the percentage and type of allocation being introduced for the new Junior Cycle. Many subjects at Junior Cycle level already have Classroom Based Assessments (CBA’s) incorporated into them. Now with a review of the Leaving Certificate taking place (more than likely to be rebranded the ‘Leaving Cycle’), I am wondering whats next? As with any change to an assessment model, we need to ensure there are transparent procedures in place and a clear sense of fairness is preserved.

Preserving Fairness

With the above in mind, firstly I feel that any continuous assessment needs to be completed during school time. If students take work home, it may become an unfair competition depending on the socio-economic background of their parents and other extrinsic factors. i.e. I feel we can’t take the chance of having any external interference in projects that students are required to complete alone. We need to make sure a level playing field is retained and that we don’t allow potential changes to tarnish or unbalance our currently solid exam system.

Should Teachers assess their own Students?

I strongly feel that projects and practical’s should not be corrected by the student’s own teacher. The department needs to hire suitably qualified personnel for these posts. They also need to properly resource schools for these assessments and allocate proper time on the timetable for students and teachers to prepare for them.

Teachers are clear that they don’t want to assess their own pupils. A teacher correcting their pupils’ work for any kind of state certification would leave our existing robust system open to all kinds of accusations. When I read articles around the world and hear of exam papers being leaked and scandals over corruption in education, it’s clear that our current Irish system actually works pretty well. People need to be careful what they wish for. ‘The law of unintended consequences’ and ‘baby and bath water’ come to mind here. The SEC and our Department of Education and Skills have a great record of always acting professionally and with the utmost integrity when it comes to the exam process. These principles need to be maintained at all costs.

According to a Jan 2019 report from the National Association of Principals and Deputy Principals (NAPD) entitled ‘Senior Cycle Reform – What do we want?’, the responses are varied in relation to the question of exam paper correction. For example, only 22% of principals, deputy principals and teachers support the practice of correcting their own students’ work, with many having concerns that a teacher would be biased against/for a student. That number increases to 30% of parents who would support such a change with a slight majority of 51% of students wanting it. Not major numbers in favour there!

How can we Improve our Current Exam System?

In order to further improve the exam system, I propose that we have a week of continuous assessment before Easter to take the pressure off the June bottleneck. Each student could still then enjoy their Easter holidays and return refreshed for the last push towards June’s finals. I think by spreading the load more, it would mean that all the focus for the student isn’t placed on one part of the academic year. This would greatly reduce the intensity levels for those two weeks in June.

Would studying a reduced amount of subjects, five for example, be another option?  I think the benefit of having less subjects would mean that students could spend more time exploring and even enjoying the ones they select. It might also take away the constant focus on how many CAO points a subject can yield and allow them to investigate topics they genuinely have an interest in. Third level courses are usually made up of quite specific content compared to our current broad based Leaving Cert. Is our second level system too broad?  Are our students ‘Jack’s and Jill’s of all trades and masters of none’?

Another potential option might be to run a compulsory Transition year (TY) and implement some continuous assessment at the end of that year. This would ensure the large majority of students would be eighteen sitting their final exams and therefore be in a better position to decide on their third level/further education options also. The students could still enjoy their trips, experiences, and work placement in tandem with assessment in certain subjects. In addition to this, I would also like to see a system where all TY’s have the opportunity to sample leaving cert subjects. This would give them a deeper understanding of subject content, prior to making those choices for 5th year.

I am all for some continuous assessment, but still feel a final exam is the best and fairest way to differentiate and separate students academically. Having said this, I would be in favour of students having around 30% (approximately one-third) continuous assessment of each subject assessed before sitting down to do the final exam papers at the end of the year. This would seriously reduce current exam anxiety.

There are always improvements we can make to our exam system, but I feel there is a still lot right with it. Some of the above initiatives would take a little pressure off our students, while maintaining the integrity of our process. Indeed, there are a many changes the department could make, and it seems some are afoot. Ultimately, I still firmly believe that final exam papers should be retained as the fairest judgement. Joe

To view last weeks feature article on ‘Twenty Five Summer Reflections for Students’, click here.

More details about Joe as a Maths Tutor for Junior Cycle and Leaving Certificate (2022), ACE Maths Assessments, and his Award winning ACE Maths Solution Books can be found via the links below.

W: https://www.acesolutionbooks.com/ace-maths-tuition
FB: http://www.facebook.com/JoeMcCormackEducationalExpert/

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Joe’s Jotter: Changing your ‘CAO’ Mind – The Final Decision (Part II)


Investigate each Course’s Content

In order to rank your courses in a way that suits you best, choose ones you really want to do (not necessarily the ones your friends are doing or ones your parents want you to go into). Choose for you and no one else. When choosing a course, be sure to examine closely the module descriptor for each course. This tells you the exact layout of the course, how many credits each module has, how the exams are assessed in it, how many hours you will spend on each module, how the learning will take place and exactly what you will learn about. Investigate the exact modules you will be studying for each potential course. This is my most important piece of advice. You don’t want to be heading into November or December thinking ‘I am not interested at all in any of this stuff’ #nightmare.

The CAO is not the Only Show in Town

If you have not applied to the CAO or do not receive a CAO offer at all come September, there are other options. You should go on the SOLAS website (solas.ie) to investigate further education alternatives. These tend to be with your local Education and Training Board. For example, Louth & Meath Education and Training Board (LMETB). Many ETB’s offer Post Leaving Cert (PLC) courses which will give you a Level 5 or Level 6 qualification. These courses are one or two years in duration and often involve practical work experience in companies. The fees for these courses tend to be much less than your standard CAO courses and grants are available in many cases also.

PLC courses attaining you a FETAC level 5 or 6 qualification are a steppingstone into higher college courses. These also allow you to see if an area of study suits you. Some courses in Colleges/Universities set aside a quota of PLC (FETAC) students to fill places each year. If you achieve the required results in your chosen PLC course, a college may accept you onto one of their courses. You can verify this by ringing up the college and asking them about accessing a specific course via the PLC route. You can find the full list of PLC courses on www.fetchcourses.ie or contact the Further Education College directly. Examples of PLC courses that students regularly progress further from are Pre-Nursing and ICT. For each CAO course, you will also be able to view (on cao.ie) what PLC requirements will get you a place on a given CAO course. This is well worth researching over the next few weeks.

To enhance your skills in a certain area, you can go also down the apprenticeship training route by checking out www.apprenticeship.ie. The apprenticeship scheme has been expanded greatly recently to include employers and jobs in many fields. Many of these companies would be delighted to take you on and help you grow and learn on the job. Apprenticeships were traditionally only for crafts like carpenters, electrician, plumbers etc. While these still exist, there are now new ones in ICT, Accountancy, Engineering, Insurance, Catering and Fintech etc.

A traineeship is also another option which can be considered. A traineeship is based around making your more employable by improving your skills. These tend to be a short duration courses (12-18 months) and are mostly run by the ETBs. Many apprenticeships and Traineeships are ‘Earn as you learn’ and therefore you can get your qualifications and have a few quid to live or pay for accommodation also.

Personally, I would have a look at alternatives like these above over the next few weeks, just in case the CAO process doesn’t go in your favour. It is good to have a little plan in the background, should you not get what you expect. You may not even need to use it, but it will certainly give you the comfort of having it there on the back burner.

Have a Plan B, C and D…..

I have spoken to hundreds of students over the years who had their heart set on one course and when they didn’t make it, they had no fall back plan. Your 2nd, 3rd, 4th, and 5th choice are really important, so you would need to be content enough to accept them should it come to that. I cannot emphasise enough about the importance of checking out the module content of each course you choose. For each course, you need to genuinely ask yourself, ‘Would I do this course’?. This will then set the platform for your Plan B, C and D. If there are limited amount of courses you really want above all others, contact the institution offering it and ask them ‘Is there any other way to get into the course by studying something else first as opposed to the direct points route?’. This could be very useful Information later should things not work out perfectly.

Remember, if there is a subject matter you really enjoy or a course you feel you would be really good at, you may need to travel and live in another part of Ireland. Do not rule out the possibility of the UK (UCAS), the Netherlands, Poland, Italy or other European (UNICAS) countries. Fees and demand have dropped for some courses in Europe that are very popular here. Usually, your results do not need to be as high to study courses in the UK and Europe, compared to Ireland. Do that bit of exploration here if your heart is dead set on something. Just like in Ireland, places in certain courses may become available when not filled in early rounds.

Six Final Key Points of Note

  1. Keep an eye on the ‘CAO alert lists’ for new courses emerging in various colleges on www.cao.ie. Courses are added here on a continuous basis in the ‘Student Resources’ section of the left hand side of the CAO Homepage. You can add these into your CAO listing before July 1st (5.15pm). These courses are not in your CAO handbook (hardcopy). They may also come in at lower points, as many students may not be aware they even exist and will not have them on their CAO listing. As this article goes to press, twenty three of the third level institutions have an ‘alert list’ with new courses on them now.
  2. If you have applied for the HEAR or DARE scheme, you will find out if you are successful or not on June 29th this year. You will be able to appeal any decision made from these schemes from July 5th. Information on HEAR and DARE is on www.accesscollege.ie.
  3. For those of you who have applied for Medicine in various Universities, the HPAT results are due out before the end of June.
  4. The Leaving Cert results are out on September 3rd with the first round of CAO offers issued four days later on September 7th at 2pm.
  5. Students will be able to view their exam scripts and appeal their ‘written exam’ results sometime after September 3rd. I will issue a further guidance document on this in early September. Separately, students will also be able to appeal their ‘accredited grade’ in September. This appeal will only encompass a clerical check, ensuring that marks were correctly transferred. Accredited grades given by your school will not be changed unless a clerical error (only) is detected. As you all know at this stage, you will receive the highest result between your ‘Accredited Grade’ and ‘Written Papers’ for ALL subjects.
  6. I would recommend you sign up to https://careersnews.ie/ to keep up to date with announcements, CAO developments and news from third level institutions. You can contact me (via the below details) for a short consultation should you need advice or more detailed information on this year’s CAO process or third level applications 2021. Wishing you good luck. Joe

To read part 1 of this article, click here.

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More details about Joe’s ACE Maths Tuition classes for Junior Cycle and Leaving Certificate Students (2022), ACE Maths Assessments, and his Award winning ACE Maths Solution Books can be found via the links below.

W: acesolutionbooks.com/ace-maths-tuition
FB: facebook.com/JoeMcCormackEducationalExpert/

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Joe’s Jotter: Exam Time is Feeding Time

Food provides all the essential nutrients that we require for healthy living and to fuel our daily activity. A car can work well, but if it doesn’t have any fuel it can’t go anywhere. Unfortunately for us, no single food provides all the nutrients required, so a mixture and range of different foods must be consumed in our diet. Research has shown that the healthier we eat, the better we feel and the more we can focus on tasks at hand.

When studying for exams, some students tend to stay up late and forget to eat and drink properly or maybe worse, they eat too much of the bad stuff. The following are five short exam nutrition recommendations (in depth discussions about added sugar have been omitted here, with it being the obvious heralded evil):

  1. Eat a breakfast

Parents: if your child skips breakfast before school, they are more likely to be tired throughout the day and will have reduced concentration levels. If breakfast is a busy time of day in your house, then feeding your children what they need quickly might be a daunting experience, but it doesn’t have to be. By stocking up on all the ingredients you need beforehand, you can deliver quick healthy breakfasts that they will enjoy.

Alternatively, if your kids aren’t hungry or everyone is in a rush out the door, make sure there are plenty of easy-to-grab pieces of fruit, yoghurt, smoothies, and muesli bars (sugar free) that can be eaten quickly on the go. In an ideal world, everyone should sit down at the same time and share food together, although I do realise that this isn’t always possible. I feel strongly that sugary cereals are a ‘no no’. Some of these cereals can contain up to one-third added sugar. I would advise all parents to check the ingredients on cereal boxes before bringing them to the checkout and ultimately the breakfast table.  

  1. Increase ‘brain food’ intake

Proteins from lean meat, fish, eggs, fruit, nuts, and whole grains are foods that help keep the brain mentally alert. Snacking on nuts and dried fruit will help prevent concentration levels dipping. Keep in mind that fruit like bananas, blueberries, and oranges all have natural sugars that will give a lift when feeling tired. Brain food is the fuel that helps us think clearly, make good decisions, and maintain concentration when fatigue develops during critical periods, for example, during the last half an hour of an exam.

  1. Snack healthy

When your head is in the books and time is ticking by, you might be tempted to skip a meal to keep up momentum. Your brain needs food and water to keep working and mental fatigue can cloud your brain, especially if an exam is close by. I would recommend the following healthy snacks to get you through study bumps: Whole wheat toast with peanut butter, fruit smoothies, berries, honey, dried fruit and nuts, hard boiled eggs, low fat chocolate milk, vegetables with dip or a low sugar granola bar. Graze away on the Guilt Free Good Stuff (GFGS) as you revise and move towards exam time.

  1. Minimise caffeine

Caffeine is a stimulant that is present in coffee and many energy drinks. Energy drinks are a total disaster in my opinion, as they provide a false high followed by a sugar crash. Sleep can also be affected by caffeine and I know a good few adults who abstain from caffeine after four p.m. as it disturbs their sleep. I would recommend water, peppermint tea or even a small glass of milk to aid sleep and as a healthy replacement for caffeine.

  1. Consume good fats

Fats are an important component of the diet and have received an enormous amount of bad publicity over the last twenty-five years. As a rough guide, saturated (bad) fats are generally solid at room temperature and tend to be animal fats (such as the fats found in butter or margarine). Unsaturated (good) fats are liquid at room temperature and are usually vegetable fats (such as olive oil, rapeseed oil, oily fish (sardines, tuna, mackerel, or salmon)). Unsaturated fats or good fats are an important nutrient for you to intake as a student. The following are other sources of Unsaturated fats: cheese, dark chocolate, eggs, nuts, coconut and coconut oil, peanut butter, pistachios, and walnuts.

Eating well and drinking plenty of water in the lead up to any exam is as important as the quality of the notes you prepare prior to sitting it. Joe

To view last weeks feature article on ‘Guiding Your Child Through the Exams’, click here.

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More details about Joe’s ACE Tuition (Maths and English) Classes for Junior Cycle (2022) and Leaving Certificate (2021) Students, ACE Maths Assessments, and his Award winning ACE Maths Solution Books can be found via the links below. Be sure to pick up your copy today!

W: acesolutionbooks.com

FB: facebook.com/JoeMcCormackEducationalExpert/

#:   #JoesJotter

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Project maths-the silver bullet or a step in the right direction?

Project Maths –the silver bullet or a step in the right direction?

Maths teacher and ASTI member Joe McCormack looks at the impact and challenges of Project Maths The new Project Maths course is well and truly upon us now at this stage. This new way of teaching and learning maths will be given a fair shot to see if it can raise maths competency and increase the cohort of students who take higher level maths. Last June, Strands One and Two of the Project Maths syllabus were examined in the Leaving Cert with students studying the new course on Probability/Statistics and Geometry/Trigonometry, alongside other topics from the ‘old’ maths syllabus. This cohort only began to study the new syllabus in Fifth Year and so the students were in the precarious position of having to try to understand the “Project Maths way” in just two years. While, in general, the “old” course saw the above topics examined as separate questions with little linkage between them, June’s exam paper, in some places, linked topics together. I welcome this new association since we now live in an integrated world where problems, both academic and real life, need to be solved using a mutli-pronged approach. The Leaving Cert class of 2013 will need to need to be even more competent in dealing with the new concepts as they take on Strands Three and Four of Project Maths. Like the 2012 students, this year’s class will have studied the old syllabus at Junior Cycle, which means they have to work hard to adjust to the new course. Most teachers would agree that it would have been more beneficial for Project Maths to be introduced to only First Year students initially, with these students working their way up through the system, building on the concepts from the foundation up. Leaving Cert 2012 The results are now out for the class of 2012, so what are their implications and what kind of reaction have they got thus far? Firstly, an increase in the numbers opting for the Higher Level maths paper was anticipated, but the surge of 35 percent on last year’s numbers exceeded expectations. In actual terms, the uptake on this paper increased from 16pc to 22pc. This year 11,100 candidates sat the higher level paper, up from 8,235 in 2011. Almost all of them (98pc) were eligible for the additional 25 bonus CAO points because they achieved a D3 or higher in the subject. This should give great encouragement and reassurance to students in two minds whether to take this level. The bonus points inevitably contributed to higher CAO cut-off points in areas such as science and technology. Points for such courses were expected to rise anyway, driven by the increase in demand from students heeding the advice of Government and employers in relation to jobs. However, this initiative does not seem to have distorted the points system as much as was expected with only approximately 3,000 students using maths as one of their six CAO subjects and thereby benefiting from the bonus points. This would indicate that different or additional measures may be needed. Employers have welcomed the results but warned there was no room for complacency. Student feedback Students’ experiences and feedback on Projects Maths, in general, are mixed. From my experience, the First Years are enjoying the common introductory course. For example, the new Probability section allows them to get involved in more practical maths in the classroom, enhancing their learning on the primary school topic ‘chance’. I believe the more practical questions will increase students’ interest in the subject because they relate more to student’s everyday experiences. The teacher will have more opportunities for open discussions on topics in class and allowing students to back up their answers with relevant information should also allow them to express themselves more, leading to them developing a deeper knowledge of topics. In parallel with this, if a student can argue their case properly in the context of what they are being asked, they could be in line for very high marks. I see this as a positive development as it will foster creativity and promote independent thinking. However, in my opinion, there needs to be a more balanced paper set at all levels. Some elements of the papers were marked too easy while topics in other areas were too difficult. I would be more in favour of questions that are fair with a more rigorous marking scheme applied, if necessary. It would be nice if students finished their Post Primary Maths experience satisfied that they did their best and that the rewards reflect their efforts. They shouldn’t feel traumatised to a point that preparation for other exams might be compromised. This year, most students got the result they deserved anyway so why should we put our students through this? We, as teachers, want to see our students given a genuine opportunity to show what they have learned. I feel that they cannot do this with complicated over wordy questioning aligned with some abstract university type problems. Surely every student deserves simple language and somewhat relevant questions on their paper? Social media has allowed students to feedback openly on the new course. The idea of being able to write on the paper is clearly one they welcome. However, practical issues must also be considered: will the length of a student’s answer be influenced by the amount of space allocated for each sub question? Unfortunately, I think a weaker student could be drawn into the idea that a small amount of space for a question might mean a very short solution is required. Also, students must be given enough room to write their answers to a particular part of a question on the same or next page. Teaching challenges There is no doubt that teachers will need to adjust to this new practical way of teaching their subject. They will need to choose their books carefully and use a wider range of resources outside these books. They will need to think outside the box and try to bring some of these new topics to life using practical examples and real life demonstrations. They will need to be more ICT proficient; I believe the Department may need to look at some more Continuous Professional Development in maths specific ICT. One of the biggest challenges for the classroom maths teacher is time. At the moment, it is hard to gauge how much time to spend on each topic and sub topic. Teachers will learn, as each year passes, to structure the course better, including the topic order and timeline. They will learn to choose the best paths through each topic while keeping a closer eye on the syllabus than ever before. However, I believe the Leaving Certificate courses at both Higher and Ordinary Level in their current format may now be too long. Looking through the available exam papers, the length of some of the questions has increased significantly. Those schools that haven’t done so already may need to introduce a double maths class on their senior cycle timetable. In parallel, I envisage a situation where schools may start investing Transition Year maths time to teach some of the Project Maths syllabus and concepts. The marking scheme will be interesting too with the new credit system seeing students being marked from zero up. At present there are a number of graded versions inside the marking scheme. After seeing how this year’s papers were marked, many teachers I spoke to felt the Department hasn’t yet hit the target with the weighting of marks. Students and teachers need to be given more concrete information on how the exam is being assessed. I welcome the Department’s Initiative to create a “Professional Diploma in Mathematics” course. This is a free two year course to upskill maths teachers and to support the implementation of Project Maths. There is an incentive there for many maths teachers to improve their skills and the Department has, in fairness, improved the resources available to teachers via the Project Maths team. In general, we as maths teachers are still a little sceptical about Project Maths. There is also a concern about some topics that have been removed from the syllabus that may be necessary for some mathematically related university courses. In a survey of 253 members of the Irish Maths Teachers Association (IMTA), over 77 percent thought students would benefit if maths teaching in schools was combined with industrial visits to view real-life application of maths. The Government has little money to spend; industry must be encouraged to support the work of maths teachers as much as possible to bolster the effectiveness of Project Maths.

Project maths-the silver bullet or a step in the right direction?

Project maths-the silver bullet or a step in the right direction?
Project maths-the silver bullet or a step in the right direction?More details about Joe as a Maths Tutor for Junior Cycle and Leaving Certificate (2022), ACE Maths Assessments and Solution Books via the links below.