So long, Michaelmas term: we won’t miss you

A case for Trinity’s new semesterisation

Photo by Joe McCallion

Exams? Not desirable. Two sets of exams? Even less desirable, it would seem. In July, it was announced that Trinity was to have exams at Christmas, a shorter Summer break, and no more fancy names for its terms.

When the announcement broke, Facebook timelines were set ablaze with students already lamenting the “loss” of Summer 2018, and there was a nice spread of both sad and angry reacts on every Facebook post that discussed the planned restructure. It seemed as if the ghost of Christmas future had arrived, and it was showing us Decembers filled with study.

However, the initial panic surrounding the new academic structure was misplaced. I very much welcome the change, and if Trinity can start it off well, then it could prove very beneficial for students. It will be difficult at first, no doubt – a college of thousands changing its entire system of work within just a few months is no easy feat. But it can be done, and we will all be fine.

Let’s take a step back, and consider the issues that many see with the new plan. One of these problems is the regrettable lack of clarity surrounding what a blanket introduction of Christmas exams and semesterisation will look like.

Is every course going to have the exact same annual frame across the board? Or will the new system be fitted and tailored individually to each subject? If it’s the former, then it’ll turn out to be a battle of the disciplines – some courses will benefit from Christmas exams, and some will get  the short straw.

Why is this so? As it stands, courses obviously vary wildly in terms of workload.  Some courses sit up to twelve exams in May, depending on module choice. So naturally, courses with this kind of workload would benefit from taking some of that pressure away from the Summer and spreading it throughout the year. That’s fine for them.

On the other hand, however, there are some courses which rely very heavily on continuous assessment – mostly arts subjects – with essays and assignments which are mostly due at around Christmas time.

The reason why these modules have so much continuous assessment is twofold: Firstly, because lecturers want to take pressure off of a final exam which would be too dense and essay-based, and secondly because these are subjects in which structured research and planned essay writing skills are a key part of the curriculum, as well as some memorisation of knowledge. These are courses like, say, history or law.

Nobody quite knows what will happen in these courses: will continuous assessment be kept, with essays and exams running at the same time, obviously leading to advanced pressure? Or will assessment now be solely exam based, meaning very heavy exams, which may not be the best measure of a student’s aptitude? Neither of these options are desirable, and people are rightly confused.

But this is a problem that can easily be fixed.  It’s obvious to me – and it should be to course directors and department heads as well – that the best solution is to have a unique and individual semesterised structure to fit each course. The problem with the proposed calendar revamp lies solely in its ambiguity – students and staff both need to be told in plenty of time what the next few years are going to look like for their own subjects.

So, that problem can be tackled. But even if the transition to the new year structure is met with some organisational hiccups – although I am trying to have faith that it won’t – I still believe that there is substantial benefit to semesterisation.

Semesterisation allows for a workload that is more evenly spread throughout the year, and makes it easier to do well in exams. Under the current system, studying for exams in May means looking over and cramming material that you most likely haven’t looked at properly since December. This material is harder to study as a result, and ends up needing a bit more time and revision than other modules.  

It’s just a lot easier to get those topics out of the way with exams in December, and students are more likely to do well in them, because there are a smaller set of exams in total. The material being examined is also still fresh in their minds, having just been covered in lectures a few weeks before.

One large set of exams in Summer is reminiscent of the Leaving Cert to me – we’re again being forced to cram a lot of material in a short space of time for a highly pressurised set of exams that your whole grade depends on. It’s just better to spread the work out.

Students can also learn how to study effectively and routinely at an earlier stage in the year, and can identify problems and fix them before it becomes too late. If a student begins studying in November and gets used to having a study routine early on, then you can be sure that that student will have a much more refined and tested exam technique by the time the Summer exams roll around.

If their study methods didn’t work in December, then they have time to change it and do better in May. As it stands now, students only really have one shot at getting it right at Summer, when there are more exams on the line.

Semesterisation will also benefit students coming over to Trinity for a semester abroad. Currently, because we don’t have semesterised exams, as the majority of the foreign universities these students are coming from do, a lot of visiting students need to have other forms of assessment organised for them – extra essays in December before they leave, or whole different sets of exams.

The restructuring would make it easier for Trinity to co-ordinate its assessment and study abroad programs with universities abroad, making the entire process easier for the students concerned.

Ultimately, a lot of Trinity students have been of the mindset that more exams must inherently mean more work. We’re too used to the luxury of having a month of study at the end of the year, and not having to properly worry about exams until about seven months into term.

Yes, semesterisation means more work in term one. But it’s the same amount of work that we’d be doing anyway in May under the current system. We get it out of the way earlier and we’re studying much smaller amounts of material, meaning less pressure overall.

What we are seeing is an overall beneficial change for the college. The only problems still to be solved are purely administrative. What we can only hope now is that there will definitely be some sort of course-specific plans, and if so, that these plans will be made clear to students and staff soon.