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Leaving Cert students rely on rote learning and memory recall to get through exams
Leaving Cert students rely on rote learning and memory recall to get through exams

Leaving Cert students rely on rote learning and memory recall to get through exams

A new study has found that Leaving Certificate students rely heavily on rote learning and memory recall to get through their exams as opposed to critical thinking and creative skills.

The research, carried out by Dr Denise Burns, Centre for Evaluation, Quality and Inspection at DCU’s Institute of Education, and completed at Trinity College Dublin (under the supervision of Dr Ann Devitt), challenges the effectiveness of the Leaving Certificate assessment to foster creativity and intellectual stimulation among students.

It also suggests that the current method of preparing for the Leaving Certificate provides an advantage to students who can afford grind-based schools and classes which use a rote-learning approach.

This situation perpetuates the socio-economic divide in academic achievement, particularly in access to third level.

The findings encourage a move towards a school/classroom-based assessment which could lead to the examination of a broader range of skills.

It also highlights the need to establish clarity in the current curriculum on the expected level of technique proficiency that students should acquire in subjects after a number of years. As an example, what level of laboratory skills should students of Biology achieve?

The research investigated the intellectual skills and knowledge in the written examination papers of twenty-three subjects in the Leaving Certificate in Ireland from 2005 to 2010, taking into account 688 documents examining over three million key-words.

An analysis of the examination papers provided an indication of the intellectual skills that the written examinations intended to assess, while interviews with thirty students provided insights into the actual experiences and practices during the examinations.

Key Findings: 

●Higher order intellectual skills such as problem solving, critical thinking and creativity were found largely absent from the examination papers in many subjects.

●Students indicated that their predominant methods of preparing for exams was to predict questions, prepare and learn answers; finding that this was the most effective method to achieve results.

●The study questions whether the current assessment recognises the key development stage for those aged between 16-19, a crucial juncture for intellectual growth.

●It found that analysis and creativity were almost completely absent except for Art, English and Music. Subjects such as Biology, Agricultural Science and, in fact, some of the STEM subjects leaned heavily towards memory recall skills.

●Heavy focus on the recall of “factual” knowledge in Biology (73%) raises questions about the appropriateness of the subject as a basis for pursuing third level programmes in life sciences which focus on the scientific methods.

●Student testimonies highlighted that when the opportunity arose in an exam to deploy problem solving and creative skills, students found it an enjoyable and challenging experience.However, many expressed anxiety about the volume of information they had to memorise in some subjects, including Geography and Biology.

●In a high-stakes written assessment, it is possible to have novel tasks that prevent a mechanical memorisation of rehearsed responses.

Dr Denise Burns, Centre for Evaluation, Quality and Inspection at DCU’s Institute of Education commented:

“We owe it to our young people to provide an assessment system that promotes quality of learning and that stimulates and challenges our young people to develop their intellectual skills at this crucial time of their growth.

Classroom assessment could facilitate assessment of a broad range of intellectual skills, including some practical skills, for example laboratory skills in Science subjects.

To be effective, classroom assessment needs trust in the professionalism of teachers, professional development for teachers and an effective structure for comparability of standards.

Last February, the NCCA (National Council for Curriculum and Assessment) initiated another review of the Leaving Certificate. We earnestly hope that, this time, reform of Leaving Certificate assessment will be successful.”

The research methodology included the deployment of a software programme to identify verbs of instruction with the cluster of words occurring before and after the verb.

The 50 most frequent verbs comprised 14,910 instances, from ‘explain’ with 1,713 instances to ‘differentiate’ with 38 instances.

As the same verb can require different intellectual skills in different subjects and in different tasks, each of the 14,910 occurrences was assigned an intellectual skill depending on its context.

For this process, a six-step procedure was developed, including reference to the marking scheme and the Chief Examiner’s Report. This process indicated that overall, the lower order skills of remembering and understanding were far more frequent than the higher order skills of analysis, evaluation and creativity. 


The paper “Is it all memory recall: An empirical investigation of intellectual skills requirements in Leaving Certificate examination papers in Ireland,” by Denise Burns, (Centre for Evaluation, Quality and Inspection, School of Policy and Practice, Institute of Education, Dublin City University) Ann Devitt, (School of Education, Trinity College Dublin) Gerry McNamara, Joe O’Hara and Martin Brown (Centre for Evaluation, Quality and Inspection, School of Policy & Practice, Institute of Education, Dublin City University) is published in Irish Educational Studies.