Matsec review discussed during science seminar
The Department of Maths, Science and Technical Education of the Faculty of Education organised its annual Science Education Seminar in collaboration with the Malta Council for Science and Technology on January 11. The main aim of this seminar was for student teachers specialising in science subjects to familiarise themselves with the objectives and recommendations of the Matsec Review, published last year.
The student teachers packed the hall at Villa Bighi and were welcomed by Carmel Borg, the dean of the Faculty of Education, and Leonard Bezzina, head of the Department of Maths, Science and Technical Education.
Frank Ventura, lecturer in the Department of Maths, Science and Technical Education and a member of the review team, outlined the main sections of the review and identified the major recommendations made by the review team. Roger Murphy from the University of Nottingham, who was an external consultant in the review, gave his own perspectives on the Matsec examinations and the recommendations.
In his presentation, Professor Ventura outlined the recommendations made by the Matsec review as focusing on four main areas: (1) Matsec structure and operations; (2) the examinations; (3) communications with stakeholders; and (4) the financial operation. The student teachers were mainly interested in the recommendations which concerned examinations.
These recommendations were explained by Professor Ventura as including: (1) moving the April/May session of the examination to June/July; (2) the introduction of vocational qualifications; (3) the introduction of a computerised examination system certifying functional competence; (4) standardising and streamlining oral examinations in the languages and coursework and school-based assessment; (5) improving the system of revision of papers; (6) retaining the current differentiated paper system.
The student teachers were asked to react to these recommendations and come up with a question for the Matsec review team. They discussed the issues in seven groups and when they presented their questions it was clearly evident that for them the issue which was of most concern and which they felt needed more discussion was the issue of moving the examinations from April/May to June/July and the resits from September to November. In fact six out of the seven groups questioned this recommendation.
Questions asked by the student teachers included:
What will happen to those students who sit for the supplementary sessions in November/December as proposed? Will they miss the academic year? If students are allowed to enter post-secondary education and then they fail their exams will they be suspended from the course started?
What is the purpose of having resits in November/December if students will not be able to apply for post-secondary schools?
Has the effect of missing a whole academic year on the students' personal life, self-esteem and self image been taken into consideration? If the examinations are extended to June/July these are very hot months and students might not be able to concentrate.
If students lose a scholastic year they will find a job. Will students want to go back to studying after a year of work?
These questions are all very pertinent and stress the concern of student teachers for students who if they fail their examination will have to miss out on a year of studies. Professor Ventura argued that only five per cent of students actually benefitted from the resits and probably with a longer school year and the addition of five weeks to the school year proposed than these five per cent students would pass straight away in the first sitting of the examination.
The student teachers were also concerned that, by not being able to resit the examination, this will create more pressure on the students.
As stated by a student teacher: "...this means that students sitting for resits will miss an academic year. This would increase the students' stress levels... In the end we must remember that it is the student who is the most important... so we must not make life harder for students."
Another student teacher related her own experience: "I had to go through the supplementary session in September for only one subject. I didn't fail Maths because I got a Grade D, but I needed a Grade C to continue my studies. If these resits weren't in Septemtber I would probably have got discouraged in the long run, found a job and settled in it... this is because when one needs money one cannot just wait years to get a decent certificate..."
The idea that once one started working he/she would not want to go back to studying was very predominant among the student teachers.
Another student teacher stated that missing a year would lead students to seek jobs throughout the year with the possibility that they would not return back to the benches of education but keep on working. Therefore, instead of trying to elevate the number of post-secondary students, the contrary might happen and the number of students attending tertiary education will be even lower than before.
The student teachers suggested that rather than moving the examination sessions further, one should focus on what Professor Murphy in his presentation described as "stagnated syllabi". If the content of the syllabi is revised and made more relevant to the lives and needs of students then perhaps the pressure on both teachers and students is reduced. If the syllabus is more concrete and more practical, then the students enjoy what they are doing and learning becomes something worthwhile rather than passing an examination.
The student teachers suggested that syllabi should be made "...more relevant and connected to everyday life experiences... the syllabi should promote more practical applications of theories, in such a way that the theories become more concrete and realistic to those students who find it difficult to assimilate abstract theories..."
Other concerns raised by student teachers asked whether it was feasible to retain the Paper IIA and Paper IIB differentiated system. While most student teachers agreed that this system gave students more opportunity to sit for the examination, especially those from the Area Secondary schools, the reason for the choice of paper needs to be looked into in greater depth since at times students played it safe and ended up getting a grade lower than they deserved.
As described by one student teacher: "In Physics, I was an average student. But I panicked that I would not be able to handle Paper IIA so I played it safe and chose Paper IIB. In this way I felt relaxed that in this subject I didn't have to do a great effort. I also did the University of London' Physics exam and I achieved an A in it. One should understand that students do make wrong choices in papers. Students can and do underestimate themselves and by choosing Paper IIB do not acquire the result they should have acquired..."
Another important issue was the choice of language and whether the examination papers for certain subjects such as science should be also in Maltese.
Some student teachers said: "...students should have the opportunity to choose to answer the exam questions in English or Maltese. Students who have a good level of science but find it difficult to express themselves in English would at least be able to show their ability in Science."
While there were still many issues that needed further discussion and debate and which needed more in-depth research to assess the impact of the recommendations made, the student teachers felt that the Science Education Seminar had helped them understand more the Matsec system and, as Professor Murphy stated in his concluding comments, helped them appreciate the achievement of having a successful examination system in a small state such as Malta. The review will surely help this system improve and enable students achieve their full potential.
Dr Chetcuti is senior lecturer at the Department of Maths, Science and Technical Education, Faculty of Education, University of Malta.