Wednesday, September 09, 2015

The Savage Consequences of Repeating an Exam in an Award Year

Yesterday I wrote about my experiences in repeating exams in both my first and second years in Trinity back in 1979 and 1980 - a difficult time, but I also learned a massive amount from the experience. I went on to pass my third and fourth years, and to graduate with an honours degree. Luckily for me that things were not the other way around, ie passing the first two years and failing third and fourth year. Had I to repeat in fourth year I would not have been awarded an honours degree.

The current situation based on QQI policy* is that "Honours classification, or any classification higher than ‘Pass’, shall be made based on first attempt grades", and that "the existing approach to repeat for honours (it is not to be offered) shall be maintained". So, if you repeat even one subject you cannot get an honours award. If you have a high overall average mark in the 2:1 or 2:2, either before or after the repeats, you still will not get an honours award. Passing your exams at the second attempt, no matter how well you do or how much you learn, means no honours. Imagine a student who has performed very well in seven out of eight modules, but fails the eight - no honours is allowed. This has long been how the system works, and though I regard this as grossly unfair, I and my academic colleagues have to go along with the QQI policy. 

I regularly warn students in an award year that this is the rule. If they fail a module in semester I, the honours degree is gone because they have to repeat the module. So even before semester II starts, there is no chance of getting an honours degree (there are rules about extenuating circumstances). This can be a huge demotivating factor. Why put in a huge effort when a bare pass will get the same award as an average grade of 60%.

This rule is particularly cruel in one year programmes, such as a Higher Diploma. Quite often students who study on these programmes are back to education after several years, and are working full time. I know from first hand experience with students that not having a second chance at honours can be very demotivating - one student asked me recently "who will give me a job with just a pass?". 

I understand that this rule is under review by QQI, and that the Institute of Technology in Blanchardstown was involved in a pilot programme where (under strict conditions) students could apply to retain their honours despite repeating one subject. NUI Maynooth also have something similar. I would urge that the ITB experiment be seriously considered nationally.

Imagine this...

...the 2014 All-Ireland Senior Hurling Final between Kilkenny and Tipperary ended in a draw (3-22 to 1-28). A replay ended in a win for Kilkenny (2-17 to 2-14). But wait... Kilkenny did not win the title at the first attempt, they needed to repeat to win. What if that when they climbed the steps at Croke Park to receive their award that they were told "Sorry lads, you didn't win it at the first attempt, no Liam McCarthy Cup or All-Ireland medals for you - here's a ribbon and a nice mug"?

2014 All-Ireland Senior Hurling Champions?
Image source:

The views expressed here are entirely my own and I make no attempt to represent the views of the National College of Ireland or its staff.

*QQI Assessment and Standards (Revised 2013), available at


  1. There is some merit in the idea, in that institutions consider that an honours student should be able to achieve the required grades in one sitting, and a student taking the exams over several sittings has an unfair advantage. However, it should be noted that part-time students are allowed gain honours over several sittings in many institutions. Higher Education is full of "anomalies".

    1. Good points Brian - some are favour of retaining the status quo. I am only in favour allowing one repeat at the next sitting. I recently had a student who repeated one exam in a 5 credit module and got 75% for an overall ":" (66% average) - but she has to settle for a Pass. Many part-time students seek to defer modules, and the rules for this are getting more lax - higher education is indeed full of "anomalies".

  2. In DCU your final grade, whether it be a H1 or a H3 is determined by your final precision mark even if you've had to repeat some modules. There is a penalty though in that no matter how well you do in the resit you will retain your original precision mark - I think! (Or maybe it's that you get a 40 in the repeat module - I need to check.)