What students want from exams…?

Exam season is a distant memory, the desks packed away, female teachers can go back to wearing heels and there is plenty of stock of black Bic biros in stationary shops. So what will be the abiding memory, or lingering bad taste of the 2015 exam season? I think it has to be the high profile controversies regarding examination questions that have sprung up through social media, mainly Twitter.

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The 2015 exam season seems to have been unique for this, I don’t recall it happening on this scale before. It seems the BBC can increasingly rely on scanning Twitter to source its articles on education for the months of May and June. First there was the “Hannah and her sweets” controversy with the Edexcel GCSE maths non calculator paper. Widely accepted to have been a challenging but not impossible question, it sparked outcry amongst teenage tweeters who began to call for lower grade boundaries to reflect the difficulty of the paper. Chemistry was not immune. There was little commentary about AQA’s amusing gaff which meant that the answer to a question was given in the text of the following question a few lines below, perhaps because it would produce a favourable result for the tweeters. Instead it was NMR and DNP on OCR A’s Rings, Chains and Polymers paper that set the Twitterverse alight.

Now I do enjoy a good tweet as my followers know. In fact when I did a hashtag search for the various possibilities (#ocrchemistry #f324 etc) I chuckled (lol’d?) at many hilarious memes, some posted within minutes of the exam finishing (now that must have taken some planning!). It seems there is a growing expectation amongst students (or those publicly vocal on Twitter anyway) that they should be able to do all the questions on their exam papers. The especially cynical may say that there seems to be a culture of entitlement, feeling that good grades should be handed out like toffees, just for showing up.

I can see another common theme here though, the objection seems to be that the questions on these papers were dramatically different to those in previous papers. This says a lot about our examinations and indeed the current education system. In our rush towards “improving standards” and “accelerating progress” have we actually created a beast we cannot control? When speaking to students and parents about how they can improve their exam grades we often talk about improving the use of scientific language and this leads into that all encompassing phrase “improving exam technique”. Too often what students hear in their brains (if not actually with their ears) is “learn the mark scheme answer”. This is all well and good but exam boards have been getting wise to this and questions have become more diverse. This is where the problems begin as far as the students are concerned. Too many use past papers as the bulk of their revision, neglecting a deep understanding of the chemistry for “exam technique”. This is to a reasonable degree still rewarded, high grades can be achieved with this approach but it is clear that things are changing. In short we are all part of the problem, students, parents, teachers, school management, Ofsted, local authorities and the government.

The mark of a well educated person should not be a string of grades achieved at GCSE or A level through the rote memorisation of stock answers. Memory and intelligence are not the same thing although perhaps we should not hold too much to a belief that school exams somehow measure intelligence anyway. How we begin to be part of the solution isn’t entirely clear to me either. There is immense pressure on all those stakeholders for those high grades. Learning those stock answers can be a short cut to an acceptable grade, even if it doesn’t support further learning or even reliably show which candidates are stronger than others. The exam boards will continue to dream up more imaginative ways to examine and Twitter will come alive each exam season with students who feel hard done by because their examinations weren’t predictable, at least until students stop using Twitter anyway!

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5 thoughts on “What students want from exams…?

  1. Break the vicious and toxic cycle of ever-‘harder’ examinations requiring more and more focus on examination practice and allowing time only to rote memorise. Inject some realism into the syllabus, by shedding 2/3 of the content. Ask questions that reveal understanding not memory and have subject specialists who can recognise understanding not keywords mark the papers.

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    1. I agree. Unfortunately there are large swathes of the educational community that seem to believe that the more chemistry you stuff into students’ heads then the higher the quality of the student/graduate when they leave you. I am a subject specialist marker but hampered by the limitations of the mark scheme. I would love to see open ended questions ‘tell us about an experiment you have done in class, include details of what you did, why you did it, what apparatus you used and why, what observations you made, the risks involved and the potential errors…’

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  2. I can see how this attitude could arise. One of my students was struggling to articulate what she found difficult about a set of questions I assigned. When she noted that it wasn’t possible to apply a stock calculation technique, I realised that what she didn’t like was that the questions demanded she understood the concepts.

    These recent discussions have made me think I need to introduce a more structured approach when helping students to develop their ability to demonstrate application skills in answering unfamiliar questions.

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    1. I think it’s all part of the issue you highlighted on your blog on ppq. The overuse of ppq has lead students to believe in set formulas for success and undermined efforts to engage them in deeper thought. They need to develop strategies for dealing with questions that deviate from the norm and I suspect as the new exams begin to develop, the norm will be less easy to spot. There will be greater variation in questions, even in the standard calculations etc.

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  3. Mark schemes only have the answers to old questions. You can’t memorise the formula for original questions. But yes, I suppose it’s just as important that students see the need to develop these off-piste skills as it is that we provide the opportunities to do so

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