Starter for 10 that could finish off your chances

August 13, 2004

Mandy Garner took a crack team of students and asked them to rise to the challenge of an admissions exam being roadtested at Cambridge University.

Your starter for ten. A solid cube has 12 edges. If all eight corners are sliced away, while leaving part of each original edge intact, how many edges has the new solid: 12, 24, 32, 36 or 44*? What - can't answer? You've lost that all-important prize - a place at university. In the ultimate University Challenge , The Times Higher asked this year's winners of the infamous BBC quiz show to sit one of the new crop of tests designed to help admissions tutors distinguish between the sea of 5 A* students that schools churn out.

Not content with leading Magdalen College, Oxford, to a record third win on University Challenge , Joshua Spero, David Cox and George Howe agreed to submit themselves to the Thinking Skills Assessment, which is, ironically, being road-tested at Cambridge University.

The test was developed in 2001 at the request of the university. In December of that year, a pilot pencil-and-paper test was used by 13 colleges for admissions to computer science. Some 289 students sat the test. Next year they graduate, and the University of Cambridge Local Examinations Syndicate is tracking their progress to see whether the TSA was useful in predicting which students would last the course and do well.

Robert Harding, the UCLES representative who invigilated the test, said that preliminary results showed a "reasonable correlation" between scoring well and getting a good degree result. In 2002, the test was used by 14 colleges for admissions to computer science, physical and natural sciences and economics, and was taken by 472 candidates. Last year, 1,551 people submitted themselves to the ordeal - available at http:/// - in the competition for places at 23 colleges. Harding says every college uses the tests in a slightly different way and admits that it has been hard work persuading those teaching arts subjects to use them.

The test measures problem solving and critical thinking. UCLES says such skills have been found to be "highly relevant to successful study" over a wide range of subjects, for example, for understanding the arguments in historical documents. Employers have also highlighted these skills as important. But UCLES admits that these are skills that can be taught. This opens a market for coaching materials for which UCLES is looking to cater.

According to Harding, other companies are trying to get into this market, but he says that their material will not help candidates to prepare. The fact that the skills can be taught also means, as UCLES admits, that the TSA is not a totally level playing field, but it is less open to coaching than other exams and the tests are being monitored for bias according to candidates' backgrounds.

It would be fair to say that, in true Jeremy Paxman style, Joshua, David and George were fairly sceptical about the benefits of admissions tests, but for a small fee and an afternoon in an icy room in Fortress Wapping, they were prepared to endure the 90-minute ordeal.

All three seemed familiar with the psychometric tests used in job recruitment and Joshua, 20, who has just finished his second year in classics, did a practice test before sitting the real thing.

Both he and George, 21, who has just finished his third of five years in classics and Russian, were dubious about whether the test would be relevant to potential arts students, but they were at least a little won over after sitting it (and getting very good marks). David, 21, a maths student and keen rower, seemed the most negative once the test was over.

Joshua, who scored 69.2 per cent overall (the average for the first pilot year was 63 per cent), said: "I was not sure how well the test would respond to creative thinkers. I did not think it would be that much use to start with. It can tell if you have a logical mind, but that is not the be all and end all for classics and the arts. This might be OK for computer science and logic in philosophy, but it will not identify those who can think creatively. I thought I would do badly at it, but maybe creative thinking is more logical than I thought."

George, the University Challenge reserve, but top scorer in the TSA, with a way-above-average 75 per cent overall mark and a massive 85.3 per cent for critical thinking skills, added: "I did not at first think it should be used as part of the admissions process. It might be useful for jobs such as management consultancy. But, having done the test, I have changed my mind slightly. It is slightly different from those I have done before. The questions are better constructed. It takes a while to figure out what the question is aiming at so you have to think about the problem and answer.

Other tests can be mechanical. There were six or seven questions I thought were impossible, but when I spent time on them I could do them."

He thought arts candidates might be put off by the maths questions, and he admitted to guessing some of them, although they were mostly "GCSE level".

David, however, was not so positive. He got 70.9 per cent on the test (68.8 per cent for critical thinking and 73.0 per cent for problem-solving), but dismissed the test as "complete rubbish". "Banks use these type of tests a lot. I've sat half a dozen. I don't know what they are looking for. They don't seem to measure any particular ability. Working out is important in maths, more than the answers. I think it is a phase universities are going through."

All three, who attended public schools, were adamant that interviews were the best way of selecting candidates who had similar A-level scores.

Joshua, who is against positive discrimination for state-school pupils, said: "I don't think the test could replace interviews. Interviews are subjective but the person who interviews you is going to be your teacher for the next few years and, after ten to 15 years in the job, they should know what they are doing. If they are prejudiced, you have to work with them anyway."

David added: "At the end of the day, it is about the relationship between you and the tutor you are going to have for the next three or four years."

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