AI & Additional Assessment Components in the Senior Sciences

Over the last few weeks I have been carefully and studiously analysing the new draft specification for Senior Cycle Biology. The new specification was published in December and the NCCA have initiated a consultation process, hearing from all stakeholders. Biology is set to be taught in schools from September 2025, along with both Chemistry and Physics. 

Last week I attended an in-person consultation event in Athlone, hosted by the NCCA. It was an excellent day, where teachers were afforded the opportunity to discuss in detail, with a NCCA Education Officer, the structure and nature of the draft specifications. There was a very positive atmosphere in the room, where teachers felt their concerns could be heard. There was lots of praise for the draft specifications but some concerns too. One of the most significant concerns centred around the Additional Assessment Component (AAC) proposed within the draft specification.

What is the Additional Assessment Component?

Currently, Leaving Certificate Biology is assessed solely using a terminal exam. It is proposed, within the new draft, that 40% of the marks for Biology, and the other new Senior Cycle subjects, be award for an Additional Assessment Component, other than the terminal exam. The AAC in Biology is labelled as a ‘Biology in Practice Investigation’. Little has been revealed about the nature of the project yet, except that an initial brief will be provided for teachers and students at the beginning of 5th year with more detail to follow at the start of 6th year. It is assumed that the AAC will comprise a research component and an experimental component, with the students submitting a report on their investigation. 20 of the 180 hours allocated for Biology will be allocated for the completion of the investigation in class, which amounts to just over 11% of the time. There was concern that this will limit class time for knowledge elements within the course, but there is a general feeling that the Biology in Practice Investigation will positively affect scientific literacy and skill development. 

Most significantly though, and perhaps most controversially, is that the AAC will be allocated 40% of the total Leaving Certificate marks for Biology (and Chemistry and Physics), despite only 11% of the hours allocated to it. The NCCA were careful to point out at the event last week that this was a ministerial decision, not a NCCA or SEC one, so there was limited opportunity to discuss this in the consultation event. 

Teacher Concerns

Teachers have many concerns about the AAC and the allocation of 40% in particular. Many schools have very limited laboratory space and many of the Biology teachers I’ve spoken to in recent years are never timetabled in a laboratory, instead swapping when required (if possible). The materials in those laboratories may be old, faulty and outdated, and there is a lack of funding for equipment, glassware, chemicals and models.

With this in mind, there are also concerns about managing student investigations and providing sufficient equipment for them. It isn’t clear if the Biology in Practice Investigation, or the AAC in the other science subjects, are to be carried out individually, which would put enormous strain on school resources. In Agricultural Science, where students do carry out an individual investigation akin to the proposal for Biology, there are significant issues being highlighted around resources. That Agricultural Science investigation is worth 25% of the marks but perhaps this will change with the introduction of the other senior sciences. It’s not difficult to imagine a scenario where the Biology, Chemistry, Physics and Agricultural Science teachers are all battling for lab space as they aim to provide space and resources for their students to complete their projects, all at the same time.

There are also concerns around access to digital devices, computer rooms or the internet while completing these projects. Not to mention the potential impact on student mental health, as they potentially aim to complete three, or perhaps more, projects for high stakes state exams, the results of which are the only factor determining their success in getting into their university course of choice in Ireland (I’ve previously written about how the CAO points race is the ‘elephant in the room’ in Leaving Cert reform).

Perhaps the most significant concern around the AAC though is the emergence of AI chatbots and the potential effect they might have on the validity of the work being carried out, considering the 40% allocation of marks. To be fair to the Minister, the decision to allocated 40% of the marks for these additional elements was made before their emergence. 

Benefits of AI to the Additional Assessment Components

There is no doubt that AI chatbots, like Copilot, ChatGPT or Gemini, have the potential to support both students and teachers as they complete their additional assessment component in the senior sciences.

  • AI chatbots can access vast information databases, allowing students query them to clarify concepts, gather diverse sources, and expand their research scope.
  • Chatbots could help brainstorm and suggest creative project directions. They might guide students to identify researchable questions or refine their hypotheses. 
  • AI can propose experimental procedures, to test an hypothesis. 
  • AI can process large datasets efficiently. Students could also leverage chatbots for statistical analysis, pattern-finding, and visualisation support. 
  • Chatbots could help organise reports, check for clarity and consistency in presentation, and even suggest improvements in language and grammar.
  • AI can be trained on student work, allowing comparisons to help teachers identify potential plagiarism or unoriginal work.

Concerns of AI use in the Additional Assessment Component 

There are also some very significant concerns around the emergence of AI, following the decision to allocated 40% for these assessment components.

  • Students might become overly dependent on AI chatbots for guidance and assistance, potentially hindering their ability to think critically and solve problems independently.
  • AI chatbots may not always provide accurate information or guidance, leading to misconceptions or errors in students’ projects. AI can also provide unintentional bias.
  • Chatbot can create complete fictional datasets for investigations, and analyse it for the students.
  • There may be concerns about the privacy and security of students’ data when interacting with AI chatbots, especially if personal information or sensitive data is involved.
  • Excessive use of AI chatbots could potentially detach students from the learning process, reducing engagement and motivation to deeply understand scientific concepts.
  • Students without access to digital devices and chatbots will be disadvantaged, while those with paid access to more sophisticated models, like ChatGPT4, will have a greater advantage.
  • It’s likely that the overuse of AI will lead to generic and overly similar research projects.
  • Chatbots facilitate ease of plagiarism; it will be very difficult for teachers to verify the work.

A Good Idea?

So, is the allocation of 40% of the total Leaving Certificate marks for an Additional Assessment Component a good idea in the senior sciences? Well, firstly I asked some experts:

“Honestly, considering the meteoric rise of accessible AI chatbots, awarding 40% of a national science exam based on project work becomes increasingly questionable. The ease with which AI can now mimic human-quality writing casts doubt on whether project work truly reflects independent student ability. Teachers could become more focused on policing AI use than guiding the authentic scientific learning the project should foster. Students with savvy and resources will constantly seek newer, better AI tools. This distracts from the core learning goals and puts schools in an endless cycle of trying to catch up. While AI tools have incredible potential in education, their rapid development has surpassed the ability of traditional assessment models to keep up. It may, sadly, be time to rethink the high-stakes project for national exams until methods of ensuring fairness and authenticity can be developed.”  

Google Gemini

“Encourage students to explore AI chatbots as research aids but emphasise the importance of traditional research skills. Provide guidance on using AI appropriately (e.g., verifying sources, understanding limitations).Consider interdisciplinary projects where students combine AI insights with hands-on experiments. Allocating marks for research projects remains valid and essential. The emergence of AI chatbots enhances learning opportunities but does not diminish the value of authentic research experiences. While AI’s prevalence is undeniable, fairness demands flexibility. Let’s empower students with both traditional research skills and AI literacy. Remember, education isn’t just about marks—it’s about fostering curiosity, creativity, and lifelong learning” 

Bing Copilot

“Awarding 40% of a student’s final second level grade for a project, considering AI’s potential negative impact, is a decision that requires careful consideration and balancing various factors. Given the potential drawbacks of over-reliance on AI chatbots, such as reduced depth of understanding, loss of creativity, and ethical concerns, awarding 40% of a student’s final grade for a project may not be advisable without appropriate safeguards and considerations in place. While project work can be valuable for fostering critical thinking and practical application of knowledge, it’s essential to ensure that students are not overly dependent on AI technology and that the assessment accurately reflects their independent learning, understanding, and skills development. Therefore, the allocation of such a significant percentage for project work should be approached cautiously, with careful attention to mitigating potential negative impacts and promoting authentic, meaningful learning experiences for students.” 


So, a divided room, even amongst chatbots! In my opinion, I think AI, on balance, creates an uneven playing field where teachers will likely spend more time on verifying work than on supporting students who need it. 40% is simply too many marks to allocate for such a project, with the emergence of AI in mind. As an aside, while I know the decision to allocated 40% of the marks was made to help support student mental health and relieve pressure, ultimately I think it will add to the pressure and stress on students. This view is supported by Áine Hyland in her recent letter to the Irish Times.


There is no doubt that students studying the senior sciences need the opportunity to formulate hypotheses, design investigations, gather and analyse data and draw conclusions. Scientific enquiry is an essential part of learning science and I think AI tools can and will play a role in building scientific enquiry skills. However, there are very significant barriers to the proposed AACs being introduced into our schools. There is a distinct lack of school laboratories, resources and equipment to implement this fairly in our schools.  AI though shifts the focus away from scientific enquiry, negating the need for scientific analysis skills and creates an uneven playing field for our students. Already our system is deeply divided, where disadvantaged schools are fighting an uphill battle for fairness; this will only broaden the divide.

Humphrey Jones is Head of Science at St. Columba’s College in Dublin and Vice Chair of the Irish Science Teachers’ Association.

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