Jun 28, 2016

Trinity Approves Christmas Exams and Earlier Start to Year

Trinity’s University Council today approved changes to the academic year structure that will see the introduction of an assessment week before Christmas.

Sinéad Baker and Dominic McGrath

Trinity’s University Council today approved changes to the academic year structure which will see both the introduction of a Christmas exam week and a two-week earlier start to the year for all students.

A report submitted by Trinity’s Senior Lecturer, Dr Gillian Martin, to today’s meeting of the council, a copy of which was obtained by The University Times, advocates for a system of semesterised learning and assessment, in which a Christmas exam week will be introduced in addition to an exam week at the end of the academic year. The changes, put forward as part of the Trinity Education Project, will take effect in the 2018/19 academic year.

Martin’s report gave the council a choice of two options, both of which would see the introduction of a Christmas exam week across the board and the earlier start to the year. Both proposals also aim to reduce the total number exams sat by students, reducing the number of formal examination weeks from four to two and calling for a diversification of the way that students are assessed.


The report states that this reduction “sends a clear message as to the type and extent of the cultural change which we wish to bring about in terms of how we assess and how much we assess”.

The only difference between the two proposals is that one proposal allows for an afternoon with no timetabled teaching, which would allow students to engage with activities beyond the classroom. The report does not advocate for this structure on the basis that it “creates a number of challenges, for which we do not see ready solutions”.

At the last meeting of University Council on June 8th, members were “generally supportive of the direction” of these proposals, draft minutes obtained by The University Times say. The proposals had been revised after being brought to University Council on May 11th.

A forum on proposals for a revised year structure held on April 18th saw no students in attendance, despite a college-wide email invitation. Thirty-one academics and eight administrative and professional staff attended the forum.

The idea of introducing Christmas exams has been criticised by members of the College community in the past. Prof Patrick Geoghegan, who served as Senior Lecturer until the end of the 2013/14 academic year and was involved with the project since its inception in this capacity, has been vocal in his opposition to the introduction of Christmas exams. Geoghegan has argued that students should not feel constant pressure to study for exams, believing that their introduction could hinder extra-curricular life for Trinity’s students.

Similarly, speaking to The University Times in December, Trish O’Beirne, TCDSU’s Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences Faculty Convenor, said: “From speaking to arts students about it, and the school convenors, about the fact that … [Christmas exams] could happen if semesterisation comes in, I just don’t think they want them”. O’Beirne did not attend either meeting of University Council in which academic year structure was on the agenda, and neither James Bryant, the Engineering, Maths and Sciences Faculty Convenor or Dale Whelehan, the Health Sciences Faculty Convenor and incoming Education Officer, were present at the June 8th meeting. Molly Kenny, Education Officer of TCDSU, was present at both meetings, however.

Speaking to The University Times yesterday evening, Kenny noted that not all courses would necessarily feature Christmas exams, pointing out that “summative” exams would have to be justified, rather than putting them in “just because there’s a week there”. However, given the reduction in the number of weeks available for assessment at the end of the year from four to one, it is likely that, without top-to-bottom changes to the way students are assessed, most courses will have to hold some Christmas examinations.

Martin’s report states that a cultural change will have to take place for these changes to be implemented, and that this will not be possible “if current practice is simply transposed to the new academic year structure”. It notes that academic staff must be encouraged “to consider a broader range of both formative and summative assessment practices”.

Speaking to The University Times yesterday about the Trinity Education Project, and changes to the academic year structure, the Vice-Provost noted the potential for systematic change from the project: “The big change is that at the moment we have four weeks of timetabled assessment, but the proposal is that we radically reduce the numbers of assessments per module and per programme, and that we just have one week of assessment each semester”.

This was an attempt, she said, to end the culture of over-examination within Trinity.

This year, the School of English abolished mandatory summer examinations for sophister students, embracing alternative forms of assessment to suit the material. Speaking to The University Times before Christmas, the Head of the School of English, Prof Chris Morash, explained the decision: “We said that assessment should be determined by pedagogy. That’s the principle. The way you assess something isn’t the project of some kind of random ratio of 50 per cent exams, 50 per cent essays or something like that.”

Morash, as the incoming Vice-Provost of the College, will take over as Project Sponsor of the Trinity Education Project on July 4th.

Trinity College Dublin Students’ Union (TCDSU) currently has a mandate to advocate for the introduction of Christmas exams, after over 90 per cent of voters agreed that the union should campaign for a semesterised exam structure in a referendum held in the 2009/10 academic year.

A discussion about Christmas exams was raised at a council meeting of Trinity College Dublin Students’ Union (TCDSU) in December. Speaking at that meeting, Kenny had noted that the proposal to introduce Christmas exams was not a blanket proposal, and that Christmas exams were not suitable for every course. She further noted that the project was looking to diversify assessment and lessen the emphasis on examinations.

In response to students concerned about the union’s mandate to advocate for Christmas exams, Kenny stated: “The motion was passed at a time, and now a lot of those students are no longer in college”.

The Trinity Education Project aims to review and change the education offered to undergraduate students in Trinity, including how they are taught and assessed. The project began as a review of the undergraduate curriculum during the 2012/13 academic year.

Edmund Heaphy and Eleanor O’Mahony contributed reporting to this piece.

Sign Up to Our Weekly Newsletters

Get The University Times into your inbox twice a week.