Skip Trinity Banner Navigation

January 2008 update

In Michaelmas term '07, the Working Group on Modularisation and Academic Year Structure recommended to Council and Board (who both approved) that the College adopt a new year structure which would see:

As far as I am aware, the end-of year exams will cover both teaching blocks, though this may change in the future and there may be 'mid-term' exams in the final week before Christmas. Also, departments may or may not include a reading week in week 7 or so of each term. This year structure will be introduced in 2009/10.

Now obviously this causes problems for our proposal to have the Schol examinations retained, and the question now is when to have them. At the moment, I think our collective response and that of others in the College community has been strong enough to convince others within the Working Group (though there are still opponents to our idea) that a separate exam is necessary. However, there are going to be big changes and our discussions have ranged over a broad number of issues. For the next meeting I am to canvas opinion from the Schols on a number of specific questions. I will outline each question and some of the things we have talked about in relation to it. Then you can let me know your ideas so I can decide what position to take.

Q1. Is the notion of a separate examination agreed? Yes/No; if No, why?

Now I know our answer to this is yes, but there are still some involved in the group who loathe the idea, and hopefully the strength of our response to the Interim Report and of the arguments I have been making on your behalf are enough to carry the issue.

Q2. When should the exams take place?

Four possible ideas:
  1. Michaelmas term, at the same time as the supplemental exams.
    Now this one only appeared on the radar fairly recently. It's a big step and would involve the exams being taken at the end of the summer of second year, with Trinity Monday being moved with all its ceremony to the beginning of Michaelmas term, i.e. third year. It's a separate examination and it would take a lot of effort on students' part; it would ruin your summer plans; it is easier for College to run the exams alongside others; it goes some way to retaining the Trinity Monday traditions.
  2. Michaelmas term, during the Reading Week (week 6 or 7)
    To be honest I don't think this one is a runner and is only here for completeness.
  3. Hilary Term, before term starts (i.e. early January, probably the same week as the current Week 1 of HT, noting the later start of the new term structure)
    By virtue of the new term structure, there would be space to hold one week's worth of exams before Hilary term began. Trinity Monday would remain at the end of term, before the exams. Again, it retains the separate exam and requires plenty of motivation, this time ruining your Christmas holidays, and Trinity Monday remains intact. Is it too soon to sit exams? Students would have to nominate themselves sometime in November, presumably, and will they have covered enough material to know whether they are interested in going for Schol? Will the students have covered enough material to make the Schol exam testing enough, or would examiners be forced to introduce material from the second term?
  4. Hilary term, during the Reading Week (week 6 or 7)
    The closest time to the current timing of the Schol exams. Retains the self-selection and motivation of a separate exam, doesn't ruin anyone's holidays, and keeps Trinity Monday as it is. The obvious problems with the reading week idea is that not all departments will have reading weeks, and some may decide to organise field trips during that week which would be difficult if an accompanying lecturer was also examining a Schol subject, or if the second years were supposed to be on that field trip.

So, which option would you go for?

Q3. In what year should the Scholarship examinations be sat?

This question surfaced for a couple of reasons. Firstly, in days gone by third year was when the exam was traditionally taken. Secondly, people wondered why some great students only came into their own in their Sophister years, and so would graduate top of their class but not a Scholar. Were they not interested, not motivated, not aware or not confident enough when the Schol exam came around? The idea here is that by third year, when many students will have begun to specialise a bit more, they would be studying something they were more interested in and the students with a previously hidden flair might stand out. Also, if College is keen to retain Schols as postgrads - presumably one of the primary benefits for College - then sitting the exam in third year means (in the case of those courses like Science which specialise in third year) that you are being examined on the sort of thing which you will then be doing post-graduate study on. Finally, though no one has mentioned this, if the exams were taken in third year then College would be giving out rooms to Schols for only one year by default, and after that only to postgrad Schols (which is, presumably, more acceptable). If any of the bean-counters in College are resentful of people taking rooms for two years for free and then jetting off to further study somewhere else, this would surely placate them.

At present the exam can be taken by anyone from first to fourth year. In practice, each year one first year might sign up by mistake and a couple of third years might give it another go, but other than that it is all second years (and third year meds, etc). So, what level of material should be examined and who should be allowed sit the exams? Note that we are dealing with one of the four timing options from Q2 above - so options (a) and (b) would pretty much have to be aimed at third years to allow enough material to be covered; options (c) and (d) could be either second or third year, although for those students for whom third year counts a considerable amount towards their degree then option (d) might be seen to impinge quite a bit on their study plans. In fact, would people be too pre-occupied with their degree to want to go for the exams at all in third year? Would that mean that fewer people go for it but the same highly motivated students achieve it, or would the system then miss out not only on the 'speculative' Schol candidate who aims for exemptions but manages to get Schol but also on the overly conscientious Schol candidate, who fears to jeopardise their study for their degree?

Q4. How many exams should be sat and of what duration?

An interesting one, this. At present some students will sit 3, 4 or 5 three-hour papers, others will sit 9 or more shorter papers. The variation is huge and one thing that came across from the responses to the Interim Report was that people wanted more of a level playing field, so that it wasn't deemed 'easier' to get Schol in one subject over another. Alongside that we have the introduction of the modular system - which will probably mean more, shorter exams for most people in the normal course of their academic life. With all the calls for Schol exams to be retained because they should be different and seek to highlight a different type of student to the annual exams, it has been suggested that the Schol exams be de-coupled from the annual exams. They will not need to mirror the annual exams in number or content, meaning the examiners can ask questions that link different topics, and can ask more searching questions because there is not the need to ask questions to determine who passes and fails, only who excels. (Sadly, many examiners do appear to ask almost precisely the same questions in the two sets of exams, which I feel has led to the calls for an end to the 'duplication of work' and a loss of the sense of what Schol signifies.) So, how many exams are needed to find a Schol candidate? I'd be happy to hear your opinions, but I think the people on the Working Group are looking at 3-4 three-hour papers.

Q5. Should exemptions be permitted?

Some lecturers are completely happy with the exemptions idea; others feel it devalues the teaching they do in Trinity term, when students feel they can just skip the classes. There is also the sentiment that too many students are aiming to just scrape exemptions and have no real interest in Schols. Anyway, from the Interim Report and its responses, the general consensus seemed to be to retain them, perhaps with the qualifying grade being raised to 65% or so such that it rewarded the unsuccessful candidate but did not attract those who only wished to shorten their academic year. Other departments noted that they were unable to grant exemptions due to the necessary accreditation system of their discipline (I think Health Sciences were a case in point: dentists and physiotherapists and so on had to pass certain exams to be allowed practice, and some of these exams were in second year. The Schol exam, being different and not based on such a strict syllabus, didn't count). At the last meeting, someone pointed out that if the Schol exams are not so strictly based on the syllabus as the annual exams are, then the ECTS system -- the one that says each module is worth so many credits, and you must take so many credits during the course of your degree, and your Erasmus programme meant you had taken so many credits elsewhere, etc -- may mean that a student must pass the annual exams to be deemed to have completed a given module and earned those credits, meaning that exemptions would have to be abandoned anyway. We might need the lawyers to figure that one out.

Obviously it's frustrating that we didn't just start with these questions two years ago, but there have been plenty of useful discussions in the meantime and the academic year structure has only just been resolved, so I suppose things couldn't have gone much quicker. I think the aim is to wrap it all up this term though, so I'll keep you posted.

Anyway, that's it. Five simple questions that will go towards shaping the future of Schols for, presumably, a long time to come.

David Rickard
Scholars' representative on the Review