Exam Reaction 2011 - Agricultural Science

At last, an agricultural science exam that somewhat fairly reflects the outdated syllabus yet at the same time challenges the stronger candidate and rewards critical thinking. Yesterday's paper was a thoughtfully constructed and well planned exam - the best in many years. There were no nasty surprises - no question veering beyond the syllabus. The questions were phrased better and most topics within the syllabus were assessed. There was no over focus on dairy (dairy and beef could have done with some more questions to be honest), as has been the case over the past number of years. All this said, the exam was not easy and it would have taken a very strong candidate to excel. It may well have suited the candidate studying both biology and agricultural science.

Candidates must answer six questions from the possible ten on offer (oddly still labelled 1 - 9 with question 3 having two options). Question 1 consists of ten short questions, where the pupils get marked on their best six answers. It's not compulsory yet is, in fact, worth more marks than the other questions. This year question 1 was very well conceived and contained questions from right across the spectrum of the syllabus - from ecology to plant physiology to animals science to dairy. I'm sure most candidates would easily hope to attempt at least six of the ten parts yet many should have answered more. Question 2 traditionally assesses candidates' understanding of soil science and this year was no exception. The question was decent with part (b) (a question on gleisation) offering a stern test to the top student. Question 3 has two options (still not sure exactly why) and both questions were fair and would have encouraged the top students to write freely and in detail. Option 1 had a series of questions on beef and dairy and would have required the students to link difference elements from their course work. Option 2 contained three nice questions: one on silage; one on the importance of colostrum and one on grassland management. In fact, I'd imagine that students would have loved the opportunity to answer both these questions in the exam.

Question 4, the practical investigations, were very fair and candidates should have had experience in at least three. Question 5 would have suited candidates studying both biology and agricultural science and assessed the students' understanding of the heart - as well as a nice question on red water fever (a disease caused by the single celled babesia). Question 6 was a challenging question on cereals and would have required an understanding of the physiology of the cereal as well as its cultivation. Question 7, genetics, was on the easier side. There were two genetics crosses - a difficult di-hydrid cross and a straightforward cross on incomplete dominance - as well as three relatively simple definitions. The genetics question was certainly welcomed by those candidates that had studied genetics in detail. Question 8 contained three parts (to do two) on a range of topics from pigs to ecology. The final questions asked pupils to use their knowledge of agricultural and biology to explain a series of statements. This is a popular question year on year and this year should be no exception.

Overall, a very fair paper. It wasn't perfect but it was certainly a huge improvement on last year. There was a notable absence of any question on sheep or potatoes and very few on beef or dairy. There was a considerable amount of questions on the biology topics this year which I personally feel is no harm. These areas are an important aspect of the syllabus and have often been under assessed in recent years. Saying all that, I still feel the structure of the exam could be updated - preferable to fall in line with the style of the ordinary level paper (which this year was long yet straightforward) - and of course a new syllabus needs to be introduced sooner rather than later. It was very surprising that the NCCA failed to introduce a new syllabus for this subject when it published the draft syllabi for biology, chemistry and physics earlier this year.

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