As a postgraduate student in an Irish university, every teaching year brings its headaches. The biggest of all? Bad essays. The Irish school system isn’t equipping my students with the basic skills they need to research and write their papers. The university isn’t supporting them, and I’m left to pick up the pieces. Although I ought to be used to this by now, I’m especially dreading my return to teaching this year – because changes to Ireland’s final exam system are about to make things even worse.
In Ireland, we’ve been seeing a steady decline in academic standards among incoming undergraduate students for a while. A lecturer in my department set a diagnostic assignment in a class four years ago and 50% of them failed. Returning to that module for the first time since then this year, they set the same assignment and got a 100% fail rate.
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It’s at least partly down to a disconnect between Irish secondary education, which puts little to no emphasis on continuous assessment beyond a small amount of project work in certain subjects, and what’s expected of students at university.
I have had undergraduates stare at me in disbelief when I outline the mandatory attendance aspects of their grading, or I demand that they submit their essays on time. In one case, a student simply refused to believe me, skipped all the classes, and failed the module.
The universities themselves perpetuate a cycle: obsessed with minimising failure and drop-out rates, they tweak numbers and force lecturers to grade on a bell curve to ensure impressive statistics. I have seen students take advantage of the weighting of certain modules towards the final exam: they do nothing all term, and then turn up to the exam and scrape a pass overall.
Take this example, which epitomises how schools and universities fail to help each other. On a course that trained secondary school teachers for a particular practical subject, one final-year assignment was to produce the same portfolio as students of the Leaving Cert (Ireland’s A-levels). So many students failed that the higher-ups freaked out and instructed the lecturers to lower the passing threshold. So teachers unable to prepare their students to pass a Leaving Cert assignment are now teaching in secondary schools.
The problem is further exacerbated by the Central Applications Office university entry points system (Ireland’s Ucas equivalent). The system assigns points to final exam results on the basis of one’s grades, but the points requirements for university courses are calculated based on demand for that course. This means that a large number of low-demand liberal arts courses have very low points. People barely scraping through their examinations (which are largely essay-based) can only get on to courses that require them to write essays.
Little or no support is put in place for these students by their new institutions. Equally, minimal support is available for mature students on the Irish government’s back-to-education grants, even though many of them are straight off the dole, with a minimal or outdated educational history.
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These issues should be all in a day’s work for someone who cares about teaching. But as a postgraduate tutor I have a set syllabus and limited classroom time in which to work through it. I can’t go off-script and spend precious time teaching undergrads the basic writing and analytical skills that they so badly need. Instead, I find myself working extra unpaid and unrecognised hours meeting with students and answering emails. It never lets up. Once results are released, I am inundated with angry emails from students wanting to know why they failed. These come inevitably from those who handed in a list of bullet points instead of an essay.
I’ve been used to this additional workload, but I’ve reason to be particularly nervous this year: the Leaving Cert qualification is changing. All of the grade bands have been shifted, and what for decades has counted as a failing grade is now a low passing grade. Arts courses across the country will be getting students who are even less equipped to write analytical essays.
Until the system is completely reformed, or universities invest in running remedial writing classes for first-years, standards are only bound to decline further.
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The Consequence of Blaming the Individual
1. Person-Blame Distracts Attention Away from Institutions
When one uses only the person blame approach, it frees the government,
the economy, and the educational system (among other institutions) from
blame. The person blame approach ignores the strains that are caused by
inequalities within the system.
2. Person-Blame Makes it More Difficult to Institute Systemic
By excluding the existing order from blame it makes it that much harder to
initiate change in economic, social, or political institutions. By replying on a
personal-blame approach, societal conditions such as norms that are racist,
sexist, or homophobic go unchallenged.
3. Person-Blame Allows the Powerful to Control Dissidents
Blaming the individual allows the government to “control” dissidents more
easily. Deviants are sent to prisons or hospitals for rehabilitation. Such an
approach directs attention away from the system.
It eliminates the individual under consideration.
Replying on a personal-blame approach legitimizes social programs aimed
at individuals. It encourages treatment of the individual in terms of
counseling, behavior modification, or psychotherapy.
4. Person-Blame Reinforces Stereotypes
Person blame also has the potential to reinforce stereotypes. (e.g., the poor
are poor because they are lazy.)
The person-blame approach tends to support the Social Darwinist position
that people are placed in the system according to their ability or inability.
C. The System-Blame Approach
System-blamers argue that societal conditions are the primary source of
They may suggest that the key to understanding social problems is
understanding the distribution of power in society.
D. Problems with The System-blame Approach
1. Sometimes Individuals are the Problem
Blaming the system also presents problems for social scientists as well.
Ultimately the system is made up of people. Society results from the
interaction of individuals. Individuals are sometimes aggressive, means, and
nasty (Eitzen, 2000:14). Systemic explanations for social problems is only
part of the truth. The system-blame approach may, therefore, absolve
individuals from responsibility for their actions.
When a robber breaks into your house, damn the problems with the system.
You have problems with that particular individual.
2. System-Blame: A Dogmatic Approach?
Blaming the system is only part of the truth. Blaming the system tends to
assume a very rigid dogmatic approach to the understanding of society. It
tends to present a picture that people have no free will (Eitzen, 2000:15).
E. Why Use the System-Blame Approach?
Since most people tend to blame individuals, we need a balance.
Since institutions are human creations, we should change them when they no
longer serve the will of the people. Democratic conceptions of society have always
held that institutions exist to serve people, not vice versa. Institutions, therefore,
are to be accountable to the people whose lives they affect. When an institution,
any institution, even the most “socially valued” — is found to conflict with human
needs, democratic thought holds that it ought to be changed or abolished (in
Eitzen, 2000: 15-16). Accepting the system-blame approach is a necessary
precondition to restructuring society along more human needs.
Eitzen, D. Stanley., Maxine Baca Zinn, and Kelly Eitzen. Smith. Social Problems. 11th ed. Boston: Pearson/Allyn and Bacon, 2009. Print. The hallmarks of this text are its focus on five themes: the structural sources of social problems; the role of the U.S. in global social problems; the centrality of class, race, gender, sexuality, and disability as sources of inequality.