Coming to terms

Jasmine Latter, first-year, asks Professor Guild and Patrick O’Hare for their views on semester reform. *Thechanges described below are now in place.

Screen Shot 2014-07-31 at 8.45.16 PMWith the university introducing changes to the academic year, many students are concerned about the impact this could have on their social and educational experience at university. The loss of reading week will be the greatest concern to many, but with everyone in the same boat, and the advantage of a longer Christmas holiday the changes may have a silver lining.

The following interviews will hopefully shed some light on what the reform will involve and how it could affect students.


Screen Shot 2014-07-31 at 8.44.50 PMProfessor Guild

What can we expect from the semester reform? Changes to the academic year in response to feedback from international students, will mainly affect semester 1. Some internationals, namely North Americans who came for one semester, found it inconvenient to fly back home for Christmas then return for exams and leave again, with regards to air fares and travelling. The feedback must have been significant for the university to have listened. The semester reforms next year are changes brought into effect by the University – not the Medical school.

Reading week has been done away with, so there will be no break to revise for the MSA. Exams will all be over before Christmas, which means we could still be here on Christmas Eve, but this would be unwise of the University.

When the timetable reform was initially announced students responded positively to the prospect of having a proper Christmas vacation, and then there was the realisation that there would be no chance to study for exams without also having to keep up to date with work. Orientation week has also been brought forward by a week – the university is restricted to how early it can start the academic year in September due to A-level results.

The Medical School does not have any plans to change the format of exams, but 3 written and 3 OSCE exams would not be practical to do before Christmas. As there cannot be an OSCE before Christmas, there won’t be one until May, but you will need to prove that you are capable of each of the skills throughout the year. Instead of an OSCE at the end of the 1st semester there will either be sessions with demonstrators where you will have to successfully carry out the skill; or you may have to upload a video of you carrying out the skill to be reviewed by a member of staff. You will need to accumulate skills throughout the year, not leave them until the big OSPE exam in May in order to focus on the written exams. This OSCE will be in the same pass/fail format as in previous years.

What are the advantages and disadvantages to the semester reform?
All exams will be out of the way for Christmas so all of January will be off. The downside is that there will be a very long period of uninterrupted study from September until the Christmas vacation,  so students will not have the opportunity to focus on studies without being introduced to new information at the same time.

The semester reform will probably mean students feel more pressured, and this will also affect staff who will be under greater demand from students to provide additional opportunities to practice applying knowledge. Staff also won’t get as much of a break, with continuous higher intensity workload over semester 1 and then marking while the students are off over Christmas.

Do you think that marks will be lower as a result?
No, we look carefully to see how students perform in the exams and use standard setting to adjust the grades. We assess how difficult we think the exam is and predict what result we would expect. If the class performs worse than is expected then the pass mark will be lowered, and if there is significant changes, which I don’t think there will be, then standard setting will take this into account.

Is there a risk of students learning for exams as opposed to broadening their knowledge base?

Well, those who learn for the exam and cram are always going to do so, whereas those who do learn the course and have a good understanding will continue to do so. It’s not something we can teach you, it’s more something we can help students to get good at. Many of the exams are about applying the knowledge, so those who understand what they have learned will always do better than those who memorise for the exam.

We think the reform will put pressure on you to keep up to date with work, and we expect more of you to be anxious without the safety net of reading week to catch up on everything.

It’s about time management, you can’t put it off, and those who do will realise that, with days to go to exams, they should have kept up.

Do you think the added constraint could effect medical students’ extra-curricular pursuits?

It’s all about balance. If you treat medical school like a 9 to 5 job then there’s no reason why you can’t take time out with your family or friends.

It’s the under workers that concern me. Without reading week they will be forced to keep up with work. Social interactions are important, so students could study together and help each other out. It’s what I did as a student and you are going to be working in teams for the rest of your life so might as well start now. Without reading week, the more social may realise that they have to work hard – you need knowledge to be a consultant, not a great handicap on the golf course!

Would the medical school have a quieter week prior to exams?
The Medical School can try to rearrange things to be quieter before the exams. This is relatively easy for lectures, but practicals are more difficult as there are four classes for each practical and we can’t have people missing out on these. Most staff realise that you need to study, although some are not as sympathetic, so we can try to rearrange classes but we can’t cancel things and we can’t give days off.


Screen Shot 2014-07-31 at 8.44.59 PMPatrick O’Hare, President of the Students’ Association

What are the advantages and disadvantages to the semester reform?
The principal advantage for students is that they don’t have to return home for Christmas and then be back in St Andrews for exams. This has an added advantage from a carbon footprint point of view, since international student will be taking less flights. In terms of disadvantages, clearly the loss of reading week is a big one, and there is less of a chance to catch up over Christmas.

How do you think the loss of reading week will affect students?
Reading week has been something cherished by St Andrews students, as a time to study but also to travel with friends. However, taken as a whole, the first semester does only last a few months and students will have all of January to rest, travel, work, etcetera.

Does the semester reform actually benefit students?
Semester reform benefits all students. It means that they can return home for Christmas and not worry about exams during social time that could be spent with their families. This particularly benefits international students only in that they have significantly larger travel costs and distances to return home.

How do you think this will affect standards of work?
It is unfortunate that semester reform means that reading week will be lost; it should be emphasised however that this decision was taken before our time in office. My only suggestion to students would be that they balance coursework throughout the semester and don’t let it stack up. It may take time for current students to get used to but I’m sure new students won’t feel overworked. I don’t believe that standards will be affected.

How do you think it will impact student’s social life?
I realise that medical students often have a heavier workload than some other students. I would hope that the Dean of Medicine can work with the relevant academic staff to ensure that work is adequately distributed throughout the semester. I hope that the legendary partying of the medics isn’t lost! In any case this first year will be something of an experiment and I’m sure that tweaks can be made in response to feedback.

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