The Department of Aeronautics has recently faced a growing number of criticisms from its current batch of third year students with regards to difficulty of exams they faced last summer,when taking their second-year examinations.
One exam in particular, Mechanics of Flight was found so difficult by students that the Head of Department's email inbox was filled with complaints soon after the exam. One student described the people in the examination room as "shuffling pages not knowing what to answer and at first many people thought that they'd been given a fourth year paper by mistake."
Complaints to the Head of Department, Prof. Richard Hillier were met by a response to Luke Taylor, year rep at the time, indicating that he could make no comment on the specific paper, but that the standard moderation process - including external examiners - would be taking place.
It is unclear at this stage if the complexity of the exam had anything to do with the departure of the lecturer, who set the paper a few months before the examination period.
Students also found difficulty in other examinations in particular Structural Mechanics and Dynamics, and Mathematics. In the former, information was missing from the question paper, however one room of students was told that and the other was not. The exam itself was also more difficult when compared to previous examinations and students had also complained throughout the year regarding the quality of the lecturer. This was displayed by both the SOLE results and bringing up the issue in student-staff meetings where the issue was always answered by "the department is aware of it and working towards resolving it".
An additional question was added to the Mathematics exam, leading most students to believe that the other questions would be made shorter, however this was not the case. Most found that the exam lacked sufficient time.
Students were also disappointed to find a mistake in a prove-it question in an Aerodynamics paper where the mistake itself was spotted by a student. Many students had spent a lot of time doing the question over and over wondering why they couldn't get the "correct" answer. When the error was acknowledged by the Aerodynamics lecturer (also the Head of Department) there was no mention of giving extra time until a student requested it. After this mistake, many students find it difficult to believe that two external examiners can sufficiently moderate the marks of over 280 students in the department, when a handful of people could not spot mistakes in the question paper itself. It is also to be noted that the mistake in the question was not a typographical error as all three answers were out by a factor of three.
Students who passed all their modules were surprised to see only one page for the pass list and it later emerged that of the 76 students who sat the exams, 28 had retakes or had failed completely. Most of the students who had failed the Mechanics of Flight exam were not convinced that their marks had been moderated sufficiently. Fourteen had to retake the Mechanics of Flight and eleven the Structural Mechanics and Dynamics exams. In total 24 people were required to take SQTs in 2006, compared to 10 in 2005 and 8 in 2004. SQTs only bring students up to the minimum "pass" level and do not contribute as much as a full exam to the overall degree score.
At the start of term third year reps arranged a meeting for the 20th November, with the Head of Department and Director of Undergraduate Studies, Dr Brian Falzon. To ensure that the students were debating over a valid point, they decided to get results from the previous five years for 1st and 2nd year examinations and compare them with the results for summer 2006 examinations. The students clearly stated that this was for statistical purposes and they did not want names of students. This request was initially granted by the Departmental Secretary, but later blocked by the Head of Department.
When asked about the blocked request, Prof. Hillier responded by asking what the motivations were for obtaining the data. He further went on to say that he did not want it circulating around the student body. The suggestion proposed by Prof Hillier was that he brought the data with him to the meeting; this was of course insufficient as despite the great analytical abilities of Aero students it is impossible to gather meaningful information from raw data in a matter of minutes!
A few graphs were shown to the students and it was clear from those that the current 3rd years had the best exam results for their first year exams from the last five years and in a somewhat dramatic reversal of fortune, had the worst exam results for their 2nd year when compared to the last five years.
Prof. Hillier could not make it to the meeting on the 20th due to illness, however it continued with Dr Falzon, the year reps and Deputy President (Education & Welfare) Ben Harris in attendance.
When contacted by Live! Mr Harris commented: "Firstly it is extremely worrying that the academic standing of students has been damaged due to factors outside their control. Whatever the reasons behind the exam difficulties the department should have responded to concerns raised by students over the summer and taken action to ensure that no student was disadvantaged. Furthermore, the attitude displayed by certain members of staff within the department has not helped the situation.
However I feel the meeting on Monday with Dr Brian Falzon was encouraging as there were clear signs that there is a willingness to engage with students and recognition that there are serious issues about the exams. Hopefully this will lead to students finally receiving the credit they deserve for the exams."
Mr Patel, 3rd Year Aero rep, sent his views to Live!, saying "I believe our meeting on Monday with Dr Falzon was productive and I really do appreciate the efforts on Dr Falzon's part to recognise our case. Whilst our motives were focused behind our year 2 exams, I think this meeting proved a constructive opportunity for staff and students alike to perhaps focus attention on improvements that both could benefit from. I cannot speculate on the outcomes that we are now waiting for but I am optimistic that our comments on the specific exams will be considered."