This post is a part response to this article detailing what one examiner thinks whilst ploughing through their marking. It is also time I put down why I subject myself to a summer of missed evenings to make endless ticks and crosses on someone’s hopes and dreams. Unlike the Guardian article I do not have anonymity, but that doesn’t stop me detailing why I do it (and it certainly is not for the money) and what we can learn from the process. Unlike the author I do not “try to guess…what kind of person” wrote the answers. And I have not been privy to hilarious responses, in fact I always think it a little sad that a student has veered so far away from fact as to blurt some form of nonsense.

I have written before about the uneasy marriage of subject understanding and examination technique – I am against exam teachnique, where students are taught how to just answer exam questions, like performing fleas in a flea-circus jumping through tiny hoops. At its worst teachnique is akin to looking through a monocular at the narrow confines of a specification point or sentence in a syllabus. However, understanding how an assessment works is vital and it is here that the lines blur. When does good teaching become unhealthy and blinkered teachnique-ing? (I’ve laboured this poor play on the two words enough so good to go out with a really pitiful attempt) Here ends this little tangent as this is meant to be about why I mark exam papers.

My top five reasons for being an examiner:

  1. Improve understanding of how an assessment works.
  2. See where common misconceptions occur for different topics.
  3. Plot “healthy” ways to address these misconceptions when teaching a topic.
  4. Improve/refresh/confirm subject knowledge.
  5. Meet with enthusiastic people who enjoy discussing the subject.

One of the best perks for this particular job is the moderation / standardisation day. It is great to meet up and indulge in some geekery. I genuinely find the time spent pawing over an examination paper and mark scheme in early June to be some of the most worthwhile CPD I take part in. As each year goes by I feel like I have another layer of understanding about not just how exams work, but also the subject too. Each year my knowledge of Biology increases as we discuss the finer minutiae of osmosis, transpiration or some other process. I have read calls for teachers to take an actual exam in their subject as part of the interview process or performance reviews and I actually quite like the idea. Surely we should be masters of our domains? I would add to this suggestion that we should also be examiners for our subjects too as a means of staying on top of and feeding back into the assessment system.

Beyond the obvious peeking inside the machinations of deciding a mark scheme, the actual process of marking is incredibly illuminating. The common mistakes that are seen from paper one to paper three-hundred and fifty also help me to understand where students go wrong in their understanding. This is where the Jaffa Cake conundrum really comes to the fore, it is plain to see when a student has a clear understanding of a topic and also when that clarity is lacking. Truly my advice to all students who sit a Biology exam is to

“write less, better”

There are definitely misconceptions common to Biology and, I would guess, some more uniform mistakes that I see that are also made in other subjects too. Below are three such errors founded on my school-based marking of end-of-topic tests as well as examination work. For me this advice is firmly in the good teaching camp and is more know thy assessment than the teachnique of knowing just a reduced and useless junket of knowledge to jump through a worthless hoop, but please let me know what you think. I live in fear that I will one day fall down on the wrong side of this particular tightrope.

List of three common errors and suggested quick fixes

Response that are totally barking up the wrong treeRead the full question! Actually read every word, read it again. Box the command word, underline the key words and glance at the mark allocation (BUG).

Candidate scribbles down everything they know about a topic mentioned in a question but has no specific focusAnswer the question! If the instructions above (RTFQ) have been followed the question will have been carefully read, twice, and the components highlighted in some way. Write down a response and when finished immediately read it through, checking it has actually answered the question.

Partial or no response – It is difficult to know why sections are left blank in an examination, there could well be reasons specific to the individual which an examiner would never know. In mocks and end-of-topic tests that is not the case, so I will base this “fix” on these internal assessments and be quite blunt with the solution. Learn the content. There is no substitute for knowledge and understanding, so put the hard yards in to revision and start learning! The real paper or final assessment is not the point that you want to find out you did not know enough.

My frustration is that there are students who have excellent subject knowledge and understanding who are being failed. This is not a complaint about challenging questions and I like the idea that “intelligence is knowing what to do when you don’t know what to do”, but this goes beyond that. At times I ponder this significance and there are points during the process when I have had my fill of marking with a deadline looming large. In fact in the past when I had finished my share I would tell myself “never again” only for the New Year to fall and my resolve to soften. Now I won’t even contemplate the question until January. I know there will be a time when I just don’t fancy doing it again, but for now the insights into understanding and learning that I gain from standing on the other side of the looking glass are too great and beneficial for me to ever consider it a waste of time. And there was also the occasion in a moderation meeting when we somehow managed to digress to discussing the definition of “producing wind”, but that story can wait for another time…


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