This year Trinity College Dublin has trialled for the first time a new admissions model on three of its most popular courses in a feasibility study which will be shared with the entire third level sector. It is being run by Trinity in partnership with the CAO, for three of its most popular courses, History, Law and Ancient and Medieval History and Culture. The objective was to see whether it might be possible to develop a better and fairer mechanism to identify and admit applicants to college. There were 270 applications for the 25 places in the three subjects on offer (History, 10 places), (Law, 10 places), and (Ancient and Medieval History and Culture, 5 places).
The students offered places in the degree courses received points scores below the required CAO total, but demonstrated their academic ability, potential, and suitability for the course through the three modalities which were being used in the study to evaluate applicants: (i) Leaving Certificate results; (ii) the Relative Performance Rank (RPR) of the applicant – the performance of the applicant in the Leaving Certificate relative to other applicants from their school who applied through the CAO; (iii) Personal and Contextual Data – provided via an anonymous personal statement. The process was chaired by an internationally respected retired judge, and included external experts from the world of education to observe the process and see that it was entirely anonymous and transparent.
Speaking of the success of the first phase of the study, the project sponsor, Dr Patrick Geoghegan, noted that “the feasibility study shows that it is possible to use additional factors when assessing applicants, and still maintain anonymity and transparency. The best students are not necessarily the ones with the highest points – they are the ones with the academic ability and potential needed to thrive at third-level, self-reflective and independent thinkers, who are the right fit for the right course. Instead of just looking at the performance of a student in a single set of examinations, we have used a wider range of indicators, in the attempt to ensure that talented students who don’t necessarily achieve the required points total are still able to achieve their dreams. These are the kinds of students we want in our classrooms – students who are passionate about learning, independent and critical thinkers, and with the ability and potential to succeed academically.” An interim report on the feasibility study will be published before Christmas and shared with the entire third-level sector, as part of Trinity’s contribution to informing national policy in this critical area.
The admissions route being tested was completely anonymous. The review committee did not know any applicant’s name, school they attended, or their CAO number. There were no interviews or teacher references. Applicants were invited to opt-in or opt-out of the study. If they opted-in they were eligible for all of the places filled in the usual way, plus the places set aside for the study. If they opted-out they were eligible just for the places filled in the usual way. The feasibility study was designed in 2012-13, based on international best practice in admissions and involving specialist advice from a number of international experts, in an attempt to develop a holistic admissions system that was transparent, robust, consistent, and anonymous, and which would be tested for a small number of places.
How the Process Worked
Applicants applied in the normal way through the CAO. If applying for any of the three scores in the study they were invited to either opt-in or opt-out of the feasibility study. Those who opted-in submitted a short personal statement online (less than 1,000 words) which had to be submitted before 1 March 2014. Before being sent to trained independent readers, specialists in the chosen subject area, the personal statements were redacted to remove any information that might identify an applicant. Two readers read and scored each of the essays independently, using a scale of 1-6. Where there was a difference of a number of points in the score an entire panel of six readers read the articles, along with the project sponsor, and a final score was agreed following detailed discussion chaired by an independent judge.
The RPR was calculated by the CAO and sent to Trinity. The use of RPR was probably the most innovative part of the whole process, adapting an indicator that is used by many of the leading universities in the world to see how it might work in an Irish context. Relative Performance Rank is important because the context in which the results were achieved matters. Someone who receives 450 points in one school, and is top of their class, might have greater academic potential than someone in the bottom of their class with 460 points. Trinity wanted to test how RPR might work in an Irish context, if it would be possible to secure the data, and if it provided a better indicator of student potential. Based on international best practice there was confidence that these students would be able to excel academically, and show that places in Trinity could be accessed by students with ability and potential whose talents may not have been best captured on the day in the Leaving Certificate.
There was a score for the student who came first in their school, regardless of how many points they secured in the Leaving Cert, a score for those who came in the top 5%, the top 20%, the top 35%, the top 50% and so on. Every student received an RPR score. Many leading international universities, such as Harvard, use some variation of RPR, recognising that the context in which the results were achieved is significant. Using these three different modes of evaluation, side-by-side, Trinity followed international best practice in using a comprehensive set of predictors in order to gain a better overall impression of the applicants and their abilities.
The Feasibility Study Review meeting took place on Wednesday 13 August, the day when the results were published, and a number of independent external observers were invited to this meeting, to see for themselves how the process worked. An internationally respected Irish judge was the independent chair, and there were representatives from the key student bodies (USI and Trinity’s own Students’ Union), the teaching unions, the representative bodies for the colleges (IUA and IOTI), respected groups like the NAPD (National Association of Principals and Deputy Principals) and the JMB (Joint Managerial Body) and business and employer bodies like IBEC.
The current Dean of Undergraduate Studies, Dr. Gillian Martin, noted that ‘the feasibility study will run for two years, and that the data collected will be invaluable as we work with the entire third-level sector to help the transition from second to third-level. Much good work is being done in this area, and the role of the Department of Education and Skills and successive Ministers for Education has been vital. This feasibility study is part of Trinity’s contribution to that important ongoing work’.
For further information about the study, and the published guide for applicants, please see: www.tcd.ie/undergraduate-studies