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Exam blues December 8, 2016

Posted by Tomboktu in Bits and Pieces, Education.

I’ve been back in college since September. It’s part time, postgraduate (diploma for year 1, a masters degree if you add a thesis in year 2) in a subject area specifically relevant to my work, and delivered by specialist body under the academic oversight of one of the universities in Dublin.

I don’t mind the hard work, but I am finding this course a nightmare.

Now, I’ve been at the books on and off for over a decade, including a previous masters degree a decade ago. Last year I did a course at the Law Society. It was a short enough course, but with some tough slogging at assignment time. They had reasonably short turn-around times, and strict word counts. For the early assignments, you needed to critically assess the specific primary materials – usually court judgements. For the final, major essay, you needed to find the relevant cases as well as critically assess the judgements.

The problem with my current masters is the main assessment method: closed book examinations. I had one exam last week, and have three more in the next eight days. My approach to the study has been to delve into the assigned readings, annotate them, and when I can synthesise some points I think are to be drawn from a number of them, do so. But yesterday and today, going back over my marked printouts and my notes, and drafting mini-riffs to have ready for tomorrow’s exam, I find I cannot make it stick in my brain.

Maybe I’ve become lazy in that department. At work, I write a lot of policy analyses, and within the space we operate in they’re good* — my manager doesn’t read my work closely+ any more, and the only feedback from the board for my last project was to correct a single typo. But when I am drafting those positions, I have free access to all of the sources I can find, and don’t need to remember the details.

In my last masters degree, the main assessment for taught modules was by take-home exam: two questions to be returned in two days. The questions were designed to get your analysis, and when we started, we were warned that it would not be enough to summarise the relevant literature.

But this memorising is doing my head in.

*Whether the people we give them to think they’re good is a different matter.

+ Update: Actually, that’s not quite true. She no loner reads it closely before it goes to the board, but she sits me down before a board meeting so she can understand the rationale for all of the points and any possible banana skins.


1. sonofstan - December 8, 2016

I don’t think it’s appropriate at PG level at all. Or ever really, but at least at undergraduate, there is some justification if you’re testing fundamentals of a subject or applied problem solving at a routine level.


2. lamentreat - December 8, 2016

Agree, it’s an archaic method for grown-up learning, absurdly removed from normal practices of knowledge accumulation and use.

Alas, the particular trouble you’re having with it now could be an age thing though…


3. ivorthorne - December 8, 2016

Closed book assessment as part of learning the fundamentals as a component of learning has potentially got a role to play. Acquiring fluency in the fundamentals is a legitimate target.

But when it comes to assessment of applications of the fundamentals in practice, it’s not useful at all.


4. CL - December 8, 2016

“Spend the years of learning squandering
Courage for the years of wandering
Through a world politely turning
From the loutishness of learning.”-Samuel Beckett.


5. EWI - December 9, 2016

Given the ‘specialist body’ in question, incompetent over-pettiness is really their reputation.

Liked by 1 person

Tomboktu - December 9, 2016

For bonus marks, they have Frank Dunlop’s photograph on the wall in the stairwell leading to the library.


6. Tomboktu - December 9, 2016

So, two exams in and two exam questions not covered in the lectures or readings …


Alibaba - December 10, 2016

The core of your plea seems to be a memory one, which is a component of exams at a basic level, but a more sophisticated approach requires the skills that you have in abundance. You seem to be doing all the correct things, in terms of reading/annotating/reducing, all of the things that ensure that you understand the issues and will bring those skills to the exam table. Forget about over-analysing the situation; just get stuck in.


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