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Students want overhaul of Leaving Cert course to avoid 'immense pressures' and rote learning

Research from ESRI shows students find the system produces a heavy workload and pressure to “cover the course”.

Image: Shutterstock/Monkey Business Images

HEAVY WORKLOADS AND a focus on rote learning are just some of the reasons why students, parents and teachers believe it is time to reform the current Leaving Cert cycle, according to a new study. 

Research from the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) found there was a consensus among Leaving Cert students on the need for a greater variety of assessment methods, including practical and project work.

The study carried out in 41 schools by the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment recorded what participants – students, parents and teachers – believe are the positive and negative aspects of the current senior cycle programme and how they believe current challenges could be addressed.

The majority of respondents were in favour of an overhaul of the current senior cycle, which incorporates transition year, fifth year and sixth year, to include spreading assessment out throughout the three years and using a wider variety of methods to assess student performance. 

Participants felt that such reforms would help to address current challenges, including a heavy workload and pressure to “cover the course”, which result in a focus on rote learning.

Researchers found that students surveyed were critical of the volume of work in many Leaving Cert subjects and of the concentration on assessment in an intensive period at the end of their sixth year. 

“The high-stakes nature of the exam alongside the workload involved was seen as leading to a focus on ‘covering’ the course, leading to rote learning and feelings of stress and pressure rather than authentic understanding,” the study found. 

This was echoed by a majority of parents who expressed concern about the impact of the high stakes, exam-based assessment on their children’s mental health, pointing to the volume of work involved and the focus on memorisation rather than “authentic understanding”.

Suggestions to counter this included exams taking place in fifth year as well as sixth year or more regular tests contributing to a final grade. 

Others suggested ‘semesterisation’, whereby some subjects or modules within
subjects would be studied for a specific period during the senior cycle with assessment
taking place at the end of that period.

One student said: 

If the Leaving Cert thing was divided into two different exams. At the end of fifth year, you and go do, say, your exams for three of those subjects, and then at sixth year, you only study another three subjects, and at the end of sixth year, you do an exam on those three subjects. Now, that gives space for more practical [subjects], … life skills, and things like that.

On semesterisation, another student said: 

Imagine if you could do that for all of the subjects, you could do half of it, done, and then the pressure, the immense pressure, would be taken off you straight away for next year. … And you’d be able to concentrate more and do better. 

Listening to young people

Findings from the case-study schools also indicated that senior cycle is not seen as fully inclusive of those who are less academically oriented or those with special educational needs. 

Many participants highlighted the view that the current senior cycle programme provides limited pathways to success for students with a more practical orientation. It was also noted that pathways for students with special educational needs could be improved.

Emer Smyth, one of the authors of the report, said this exercise has shown the value of listening to young people on issues that affect their lives.

“Young people provide a clear vision of the kinds of learning that would help develop them to their potential and prepare them for the changing world ahead of them. Their views should be taken into account in any changes to senior cycle.”

Many teachers and several parents felt that the new junior cycle had been introduced without consultation and were still unsure of the implications of these changes for student experiences and outcomes.

As a result, many teachers emphasised the need for any reform process to be gradual and consultative in nature and, along with many parents, cautioned against devaluing the strong currency of the Leaving Certificate. Resources, particularly continuous professional development, were seen as crucial in any change process.

John Hammond, CEO of the NCCA, said: “It’s at classroom and school level that changes in learning actually happen so it made sense for schools to be a major source of ideas and feedback in the senior cycle review.

“Their work, alongside the recently concluded final phase of consultation, which included 10 rounds of focus group meetings, 18 bilateral meetings, a national forum attended by 153 participants, and 4,300 responses to the NCCA’s online survey, provides us with a great basis upon which the review can now be progressed.” 

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Adam Daly

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