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.