Gearing Up for the Exam?: The Experience of Junior Certificate Students

October 24, 2007

Authors: Emer Smyth , Allison Dunne , Merike Darmody , Selina McCoy

Gearing Up for the Exam? explores the experiences of third year students, who are facing their first state examination, the Junior Certificate exam, and highlights what schools can do to enhance student learning and their engagement with school. This study completes the first phase of a major research project being undertaken by the ESRI on behalf of the NCCA that follows the educational experiences of 900 students in twelve schools from first year onwards. It is the first study of its kind in Ireland. The main findings of the study are: The Junior Certificate exam sets the tone for student experiences in third year: students find schoolwork more difficult, spend more time on homework and study, and have less access to the kind of ‘fun’ lessons which help engage them in learning. Students also become more negative about school and their teachers as they move into third year. The exam focus within third year and the influence of friends can lead to many students (a quarter of those in the study) taking ‘grinds’ outside school, mainly in Maths. The majority of students taking grinds are from middle-class backgrounds. School and classroom organisation make a crucial difference to how students get on in the Junior Certificate examination. Ability grouping has a significant effect on student outcomes: students in lower stream classes achieve lower grades in the Junior Certificate exam than similar students in other classes. Their underachievement reflects less access to higher level subjects, a slower pace of instruction and lower expectations among teachers and students. The day-to-day interaction between teachers and students in a school influences student engagement with schoolwork and therefore their achievement levels. Students are more likely to underachieve if they are frequently ‘given out to’ by teachers and ‘act out’ within class. Schools can promote student achievement by: Having a more flexible approach to ability grouping; Facilitating access to higher level subjects; Actively engaging students in lessons, using diverse teaching methods; Having a positive social climate with constructive feedback between teachers and students; Having a positive behaviour policy and encouraging student involvement in school life. Third year is a time during which students choose the programmes and subjects they will take for the senior cycle. Student choices on entry to senior cycle differ according to the school they attend. This means that different groups of students take the different senior cycle programmes. Transition Year, for example, tends to attract students who have already had a very positive experience of the schooling system. In contrast, students entering the Leaving Certificate Applied programme tend to be drawn from those who have had a more negative experience of school life.

  • Publication Details

    Research Area: Education
    Date of Publication: October 24, 2007
    Publisher: The Liffey Press in association with the ESRI
    Place of Publication: Dublin

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