Category Archives: GCSE new structure

Playing the examiner’s game

This morning on Radio 4 I heard the story of author Ian McEwan helping his son to write an English essay on one of his own books, only for a low grade to be awarded. The reason – the essay did not answer the question in the way the examiners wanted. As exam season approaches this a crucial topic – I firmly believe that knowing how to interpret questions and structure answers can add many percentage points to a score. Here are some things to look out for:

Command words. Especially on longer mark questions, certain words or phrases in the question require certain responses. For example, in Business Studies and many Humanities subjects the words “evaluate” or “assess” trigger the need to present balanced arguments with evidence and coherent analysis, followed by a conclusion with a definitive yes/no answer with justification.  So, if “evaluate Brexit” (perish the thought!) came up, you would need two Leave points, two Remain points followed by your own preference with the most important point, and reason why, for instance, the economy was more important that immigration control (or vice versa).  Some students miss out the conclusion, and miss almost half the available marks.

In Science, command words include “design”, or “describe an experiment”. Normally this involves a practical experiment, perhaps a core practical, and students should describe not just apparatus and substances, but also the control variables (what you keep the same), the independent variable (what you deliberately change) and dependent variable (what you measure); safety precautions; how you would present results; and how you would ensure reliability, precision and accuracy. A glossary of terms makes dull reading but is vital to understand. Practical write-ups in exercise books are well worth revisiting.

In Maths, the phrase “show that” may involve a proof or rearranging a formula to make it “look like” the required expression, while “must show your working” or “give reasons” means just that – for instance in a geometry question, you could get the right numerical answer but omit English reasons like “alternate angles rule” and fail to get full marks.

Attitude: it is tempting to answer the question you want to answer, rather than the one you have really been asked. So pupils must read questions very carefully, and as well as Command phrases pick up key words and clues in the stem of the question like “more than” or “only” or “double” – examiners have included them for a reason, not for show.

Examiners do now have the annoying habit of asking “real world” wordy questions rather than simple numerical ones. They assume pupils would prefer to answer a question like “Johnny runs part of the London marathon at 5 miles per hour, setting off from Westminster with both hands on Big Ben vertical, and traveling for 15 miles. At what time does he arrive”. Rather than simply “Speed = 5 mph. Distance = 15 miles. Set-off = 12 o’clock. When does he arrive?”  Well, I know which option real-world pupils would prefer, but we just have to get used to the fact that Maths questions are increasingly “applied” rather than “pure”, obtuse not transparent, and so practice makes perfect when it comes to approaching long winded questions.

In general, the examiners and their questions are the only ones you have got, so you simply must play their game and recognise what they are after. If they insist on asking Biology questions about drunken rats (they did!) you should just go with the flow and not flounce out. What is more useful, taking to Twitter afterwards and complaining about a stupid question, or showing resilience and attempting a tough problem?

Assessment Objectives. The curious underworld (which for a time I inhabited) of examiners and their mark schemes is dominated by these “assessment objectives”. So, in Business Studies you gain marks for knowledge, analysis, application and evaluation. In Biology you can accrue marks as you mention one by one in the long questions the relevant systems and organs, processes, and substances and compounds. In Maths “method marks” may be awarded, but only under quite strict guidelines, for instance if you have correctly written a defined key step in your working.   One way to find out about these is to read the publicly available mark schemes and examiners comments on the past paper web sites. In Maths, for instance reviews published by exam boards include lots of pearls of wisdom and often start with, “many pupils were let down by inability to perform basic maths” (In non-jargon, they couldn’t add up).

Examiners have hundreds of papers to mark in a short space of time, so the key is to make it easy for them to award good marks – by mentioning key words or phrases or numbers in the answer which matches their mark scheme, and by displaying well-ordered neat working. A relatively short sharp answer can out-mark a much longer one if you hit the examiners trigger points.

Know the specification. These have got more complicated, partly because of changes like “9-1”. So, for Science GCSE, there is Higher and Foundation in each of Double and Triple. It sounds obvious but revise what you have to revise, and especially if you are going to drop a topic, ignore what’s not required.

Second guessing the content.   It’s a mug’s game to spend time predicting the questions, but a sure-fire topic in all three Sciences is environment and associated climate change, global warming and renewable energy. Also, after let’s say two of three Maths exams, if you have had a Box Plot and Cumulative Frequency but no Histogram, well you can guess what’s coming next. Mr Barton’s Maths website issues an annual prediction, as does Tutor2U for Business.

Structure as well as knowledge. In summary, of course revision of pure facts is important, but it only gets you so far; practicing real questions and comparing your answers to examiner’s mark schemes can get you much further. If you can’t beat examiners, then join them, play their game and give them the answers in the form they require.

Footnote: an old school-friend who read this article reminded me that our Geology teacher Dusty Rhodes (so named because he threw the blackboard duster at us for minor indiscretions – times change!) used to write “ATQ” all over our scripts before awarding marks of zero or 1/4. ATQ of course means “answer the question” – so some things don’t change. For a pupil who has revised well, not ATQ is one of the biggest remaining risks.

England’s rugby demise – a GCSE lesson.

England’s rugby team failed the test as the Wales match approached its climax. This has lessons for how to approach exams. 

England exited the Rugby World Cup after losing to Australia, but for me the damage was done against Wales. I would argue that first loss was associated with “game management” and the parallels with “exam management” techniques are striking as we shall see.

A few weeks before the tournament, most critics would agree that the two teams were well matched. Then a few weeks before the match, Wales lost half their back line to injury, and during the match lost another half. Any small England selection errors were more than neutralised by Welsh misfortune. So duly, with 20 minutes to go, England were cruising, 10 points to the good, chances to extend.  And yet they lost. Why?

In my view, the following: some bad luck with events, but mostly game management.

Harold MacMillan, former U.K. Prime Minister, once famously answered a journalist who had asked what could blow Governments off course: “events, dear boy, events”. England could not cope with events that should have been surmountable.

When Lloyd Williams hopefully kicked cross field, the oval ball could have bounced anywhere but in fact bounced perfectly into the hands of Gareth Davies to score. Bad luck, but it is how you react to events, and England’s game fell apart from there.

Another penalty conceded – more inability to understand what the referee wanted. (Are England penalised more than others despite, or because of, complaining a lot?)  Then the fateful decision to go for the win instead of kicking for goal, not in itself illogical – the kick was missable, and risks sometimes are needed  –  but the decision to throw short at the line out, and risk being pushed into touch, was poor.  Then one final chance, possession lost.

Stuart Lancaster, England coach, is reportedly a fan of the book and philosophy “The Score Takes Care of Itself” , in which Bill Walsh describes his experience as an American NFL Coach, arguing that the preparation, the little things, make the difference in leadership.  Admirable, but no amount of preparation can overcome a coach or player’s inability to react to, or influence, events as they unfold.

Stuart is clearly a fantastic coach who oozes integrity, but before the tournament he said one thing which surprised me along the lines of, “my input to a match ceases just before it starts”. This refers of course to preparation, but did it betray an element of believing that events would follow the natural course, and so for instance substitutions would always follow at the preordained time?

You feel that New Zealand would also have taken the line out instead of the kick, but would have found a way to control it and win, borne of the confidence of winning late many times. They would have found a way to win.

The great sports people and teams keep their game management together as the pressure builds. Think, in contrast, of poor Jean van der Velde, the inexperienced French golfer who found himself only needing to avoid a triple bogey at the last to win the 1999 Open Championship at Carnoustie. In golf, we have “Course Management”, choosing the right clubs for distance, terrain, conditions. Unfortunately, Jean seemed to forget these guidelines, going via railings and rough to water. After removing socks and shoes he holed out for a 7 but lost the playoff,

England had one more chance, against Australia, but their confidence had gone. England lost the 1991 World Cup final against Australia because, by common consent, they listened to the critics and tried to play with flair instead of playing to their pack strength. Has the same thing happened recently?  England have focussed on addressing their perceived weakness – the attacking flair –  but judging by the way the Australian pack won scrum penalties, and had the edge at breakdown, it seems that England have let their forward advantage go.

And so England lost heavily to Australia. it probably would not have mattered had they beaten Wales. And that I would argue was due to Game Management.

Exam management

Think of the Maths exam as that rugby match. You are cruising through a twenty question paper, then just after half way you see a difficult question.  You get stuck, you take too long. You begin to panic, you answer a question on “direct proportion” but forget the principle of feeding back the answer to double check. It turns out to be a wrong answer.

Then you see an algebraic question which requires a quadratic equation to be solved. However much you try, you cannot get the factors. But you haven’t noticed the question says “answer to 3 decimal points” (if so you would realise there are no factors as such, you have to use the quadratic formula).

Then a question involving Pi asks you to leave the answer “exact”, but instead you insert many of its ongoing figures rather than leaving Pi itself in. More marks lost.  You fail to understand what the examiner wants, and what he will penalise you for.

You think you have an easy compound interest question. But you misread that it requires the final amount, not the interest paid. And you waste time doing the manual calculation as well, because you cannot find the “x to the n” button on the calculator.

A question on graphs  is on the next page. You think, “this used to be my strength, but now It is all about Real Life Graphs, with wordy problems about bike rides and punctures. It’s a weakness now, I will have to pass!”

The next one looks easier. But no, it’s on Transformations. I can remember Reflections, but not the one that also begins with “Tr”? It all seemed so easy on my “maths-to-go” and “maths R us” websites. For a moment you remember an old black and white video you saw, what was his name, Brain Clough? “We had a good team on paper. Unfortunately football is played on grass”. You muse that this exam is the reverse, I can do the questions on the computer, unfortunately exams are on paper”.

Then finally you come to the last question. The bell will sound in a few minutes. It looks difficult but features probability, your strength. Decision time. Should I go back and pick up some easy marks by finishing an earlier one, or go for the five marker? You go for the latter.

But what’s this, it starts with probability and bags of sweets, and ends with an algebraic proof of n² – n – 90 = 0.  “I have no clue how these things are connected! I give up”!

In conclusion

Could this happen, or is it just that nightmare where you dream you haven’t done your revision? Well consider this. It has happened and very recently. Thousands of students were approaching their Maths paper’s end – almost injury time so to speak – when they came across exactly that probability question above.  The complaints caused a Twitter storm. Read the story, it went viral,

In fact a reasonable student could have solved this, had they stayed calm at the vital moment andlinked two seperate methods.  Exam management, just like game and course management, can be the difference between achieving your goals and just missing out.  You still made you’re A* to C, but not the A*.  You have the abiility, but the sheer mechanics let you down

The week between the Australia match and the final, irrelevant match against Uruguay will be the longest week of the team’s lives. Plenty of time to reflect on what might have been, just like the Summer Holidays for a student who might think “if only…”.

GCSE – new 9-1 Grade structure

GCSE grade structure is changing – is it getting more difficult?. Well yes, and one of the first signs of this was even before 9-1 came in: the first GCSE Maths question that went viral on Twitter was in 2015 even before the grades had changed. On this BBC video you can see that a probability question was deemed to be impossible because it mixed in algebra unexpectedly. But this type of challenge will become typical. Let’s examine grade structure and difficulty in more detail.

Media coverage of GCSE results of course shows mainly groups of girls jumping for joy (why girls? – partly because girls’ results tend to be better than boys’ and because boys think acknowledging success is uncool). Results are broadly stable year on year – typically 69% achieved A* to C  while 6% achieve A*

But one of the main points often missed in the coverage is that from September 2015 the new GCSE syllabus and grading scheme started for Maths and English (first results in 2017) while the remaining subjects start a year later.

What will this mean for pupils and parents? First of all the grading system is changing from A* down to G, to 9 down to 1, with 9 being the best. You will see from the chart below that A*/A now cover 9,8 and 7, while the definition of the minimum level for a “good pass” – namely C grade, changes to grade 4.GCSE structure

Reasonably straight forward. But parents will have to get used to conversations around “your child is on National Curriculum Level 7c but is expected to get a grade 8”.

But that is not the main change in the Mathemateer’s opinion, certainly not in Maths which we will look at in more detail.

There is now a foundation and higher paper in Maths, and Foundation will cover grades 1 up to 5, and Higher grades 4 up to 9 (so a slight overlap). But really it is content we should be looking at. It’s not a case of “meet the new boss, same as the old boss”.

Having benchmarked international results (a good thing, from the Mathemateer’s business experience) the Government now wishes to raise standards by making exams, well, more “challenging” – that’s harder to you and me. So the following changes will take place:

More difficult topics.  The diagram below summarises a Pearson guide, showing the cascading of some more difficult topics to the levels below. So “quadratic sequences” is among eight topics formerly just A-Level now in GCSE higher, and long division is among fourteen new topics in KS2 (and hooray it’s not needed manually in GCSE!)lev222

More formulae must be learned. Back in the day you had to learn all formulae, then it was relaxed, now only a few will be given. Even the dreaded Quadratic Formula has to be learned.

More questions of a “problem solving” nature. So a basic question like “divide 100 in the ratio 3 parts to 2 parts” will become something like “Brad and Angelina went to a film and shared a 100 gm box of popcorn in the ratio 3 to 2. How many grams did they each get? And what film did they watch? (OK the last bit is a joke but you get the picture, there is just more to read and understand, more to misinterpret).
And that is not all. Remember the “amazing Twitter rant”, as Al Murray would say, last June straight after the GCSE Maths exam. The unfair Maths problem that went viral, (see BBC or Guardian links) involving choosing coloured sweets and ending with a request to prove n² – n – 90 = 0.  At first you think, what on earth is the connection? But the point of the question is to reward those who realise there is a connection.  The individual steps are not unreasonable (probability diagram, create a formula, multiply brackets, rearrange) but putting these together proved too much for most.

viNote there was a rumour that the timing of the Twitter storm actually was clocked as starting before the end of the exam. If this is correct then some students either had mobile phones in the exam, or walked out early and the first thing they did was take to Twitter. If so, it confirms my despair!

This tricky question was before the syllabus change. This type of question – where techniques across the piece have to be linked – will only become more common.

Foundation or Higher?

A great presentation comparing grades is attached. It predicts that to get a C 4 in Higher you need around 40% but if you take Foundation you need 70% to get C 4. Is Foundation that much easier? I’m not convinced it is. You could argue that unless you are worried about failing altogether (by getting less than 17% in Higher) you should stick to Higher. The actual boundaries when issued should prove interesting.

Finally, more exams: 3 times 1.5 hours exams instead of 2 exams covering 3.5 hours.

Some slight pieces of good news for students. A small element of multiple choice will be introduced (always easier in the Mathemateer’s opinion) and the syllabus still does not include Calculus (wish it would, it’s not that hard and would bring GCSEs and IGCSE’s pretty much together).

But on the whole the majority of factors above will mean that standards will be raised – that’s good – but more preparation will be needed for a more challenging set of Maths exams.