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When is extra choice not extra choice.....

Back in September, the SEC announced that there would be additional choice in most of this year's Leaving Cert exams, and in the case of physics that meant that a 2021 student would have to answer the same number of questions as the students from pervious years - but that they would have more questions to choose from.


I think most of us saw this as good news. But I did have one little quibble at the time when it occurred to me that the price of all that extra choice was that students would now face a more complex process of question selection. I've laid out the maths below, showing that a student in previous years had 224 ways they could select their eight questions, where as a 2021 student has 1260 ways of doing so. That places an increased importance on question selection, which is quite a skill in itself. Or - as I was pessimistically inclined to see it - 1260 ways of selecting questions means there could be 1259 ways to get it wrong!


Reading up in this, it appears my fears are not totally irrational. I came across 'Analysis Paralysis' as well as Overchoice, and the book 'The Paradox of Choice' - all of which seem to address variations on the idea that too much choice can make things harder rather than easier for many people.



So when the extended lockdown this Spring came along and the SEC responded by changing the plans for this years exams again, I was a little nervous. Two questions from five in section A and four from nine in section B sounded great to students, but I was worried that the overwhelming amount of choice now available to students would simply be that: overwhelming. And that this will affect some students more than others. So I did the maths again and discovered that the number of choices available to students has now rocketed all the way from 1,260 to.....1,260!



As soon as I had it done, I saw why it works out like this: 5C2 = 5C3: every time you select two items from five, you're inevitably also selecting the three items you're not choosing, so the total number of selections will be the same. Similarly in section B, where 9C4 = 9C5. But it still took me a little time to wrap my head around this: all this extra choice is not in fact extra choice? It appears so. What I'm telling myself - and students - now is that they're being asked to answer less questions, not offered more choice - and that's not the same thing!


One other effect that I hadn't initially noticed with the new plan is that for this year's exam, the relative weighting of section A and Section B has changed.

2 questions from section A will be worth a total of 80 marks, which is worth just over 26%

4 questions from section B will be worth a total of marks, which is worth just under 74%.


This means that the value of the mandatory experiments - where many students do very well - is reduced this year from 30 % to 26%. But they're doing less questions. And most will have the safety net of accredited grades, too (even if they don't know exactly where that safety net will be). So I suppose its a case of swings and roundabouts...

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