Op Ed: Phillippa White on Continuous Assessment


With debate still roaring over UCD’s decision to abolish passing by compensation, Philippa White believes that it is only the first step in establishing a better kind of student

This is a wonderful time of year. Despite the miserable weather, post-holiday depression and unavoidable poverty, these first few weeks back after Christmas are exciting times on campus. Essay deadlines remain as distant as the stars, introductory lectures for new subjects are as challenging as watching Made In Chelsea and ‘M’,’C’ and ‘Q’ are just three little consonants that have not yet assembled, formed an axis of evil and started to provoke terror among the unsuspecting student body.

Indeed, this is the time of the academic year when you have the time and freedom to take up a sport, finally write an article for the university paper, catch up on some reading or simply go out and socialise with your friends. After all, college life is about much more than book-learning and attaining a well-rounded education involves venturing further afield than the library.

As most of us know, however, this period of being free in the academic year is as transient as a romance in Coppers. Fleeting, like the wind, it abandons us at the first reference to ominous-sounding things like group presentations and projects, essays, midterms and that three-lettered rogue I previously mentioned.

Tragically, with the shift towards continuous assessment, rather than end-of-year exams in universities in Ireland, the amount of time the student gets for things other than study for an exam or some form of evaluation, is becoming less and less. Not only is continuous assessment robbing many of us students of a holistic college experience but it is impacting on the way we are learning our subjects and not necessarily for the better.

Before I go any further, I must point out that I have no problem with challenging students and rigorously testing someone’s understanding of their college subject is obviously crucial and always will be. However, rigorous assessment is different from continuous assessment.

The amount of continuous assessment varies from faculty to faculty but as a general trend, it appears to be becoming more important in the third level setting. Some see this as a step in the right direction and do so for multiple reasons, such as it “takes the pressure off” students at the end of the year and keeps them “up-to-date with coursework” throughout the term. Unfortunately, the wisdom behind these claims is shadier than a Lance Armstrong autobiography.

From my own personal experience in my course in Medicine, where it is not uncommon to have a midterm exam almost every week for the better part of October and November, continuous assessment has been the bane of my existence and that of my classmates for the last few years. It remains to be seen if it has in fact deepened our understanding of the coursework. With the constant threat of an exam on the horizon, we are doing well if we can cram enough information into the short-term memory just in time to spew it out onto an EDPAC sheet with a fraction of sanity still intact. By the time the midterms are over, the hangover from the cramming bender of the previous six weeks has barely worn off by the time the panic sets in for the end-of-semester exams.

The greatest problem relating to continuous assessment is that it does not facilitate reflective learning. As assessments are so integral and so frequent to assessment-led learning, the focus shifts from educating oneself in a natural, stimulating and enjoyable way to one that involves learning what is most likely to come up in the exam and this learning is, more often than not, done in a rushed, panicked and indeed immature way. You cannot digest information when you are on a constant treadmill of exams, essays and reports. There is simply no time. The result of all of this is that students are left with a shallow understanding of their subject matter. Lots of little pieces of information have been learnt but there has been no time or space to connect the dots and see the bigger picture.

Although many, including and often in particular students themselves, are quick to criticise the idea of having end-of-year exams instead of continuous assessment, the merits of such a system are in fact very obvious. Firstly, students would have more time to learn their subjects. Between the months of September and May, with the few weeks of Christmas holidays included, students would have infinitely more time to read, learn, reflect and even discuss their subjects with fellow students. I am not suggesting that the corridors and seating areas of UCD would instantly resemble a scene from Dead Poets’ Society, but there is a greater likelihood that students would exchange their ideas and discuss their subjects with one another as they would not be constantly alone in the library, cramming for next week’s presentation or exam.

Another reason why end-of-year exams would be a better option relates to plagiarism and cheating. This is probably more relevant for students studying Arts and Humanities as they tend to be dealing with essays as a way of assessment more so than others. If a student has several weeks to write an essay that is worth a certain percentage for a subject, not only do they run the risk of spending a disproportionate amount of time writing the essay and neglecting other equally important topics in the subject, but they also have the opportunity to seek out help in writing it. This help could range from a lawyer father who has plenty of opinions for their child’s tort essay, to internet sites that outsource your coursework to some teenage genius in China.

Continuous assessment is not good for students in the long-run. All it succeeds in doing is lowering the bar for academic standards in the university. It encourages students to rote-learn, cram and break their subjects down into small “manageable” pieces. Ultimately this translates into students having a very shallow understanding of our subjects, and an unexciting and spoon-fed approach towards learning. Moreover, it does not leave room for developing a passion for the subject matter, or indeed for education in general. Certainly, after I finish all my midterms or end-of-semester exams, I have no burning desire to learn more about medicine, I just have a desire to burn stuff, mostly my medicine books.

It has long been believed by many in the academic world that college is becoming less challenging for students. With things like grade inflation, passing by compensation and you guessed it, continuous assessment, it is hard not to see how we students have become accustomed to being spoon-fed and how livid we can get when this system is threatened. This was never more obvious that the reaction from students to the announcement that passing by compensation is to be abolished next year.

What is the point of university if students are only becoming masters in the art of sitting exams? Where does one learn how to reflect on subjects extensively and deeply analyse ideas and create some new ones of their own? With the current system of continuous assessment, none of these skills can be learnt. As a result, many students leave college with little academic development from the time they entered college three or four years ago.

Continuous assessment is ensuring that many graduates are leaving college with a piece of paper saying they have a degree, and little else. Except of course, a headache and in my case, a pile of singed medical books.