Exam paper: Friend or Foe?

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The Secret Examiner discusses how teachers should test their students on the structure of the exam paper and why it’s a good thing to do.

What do your students think about the exam paper?

It’s natural for them to approach exams with some apprehension, no matter how thorough their revision. But do they consider the paper to be a friend or foe?

Some of their worries might be relieved if they knew more about the structure and nature of the exam.

I’m sure we all go through exam papers, look at individual questions or consider a mock paper.

But do our students really know the shape of the paper as well as we think?

Obviously, we know the papers! We remember the structure, mark allocations, formulations of questions, and timings in great detail. But we only have one subject to think about.

When our students leave the History classroom they are exposed to many other GCSE subjects.

We sometimes forget that students are expected to be familiar with the layout and detail of other subjects’ exam papers.

Beyond that, other subjects, especially those allocated more curriculum time, can create a much stronger impression in the student’s mind about not only the structure of the paper but also how the mark scheme rewards them.

For example, in some English Language mark schemes, marks are given for the number of points that a student makes.

If this model of reward is transferred to GCSE History, it can frustrate our attempts to encourage different patterns of thinking.

I’d like to think we could encourage our students to consider the exam paper to be a friend.

One way to do this is to treat the structure of the exam as a part of the subject for study.

I think we all recognise that performance in the examination room is a result of what you know and how you deal with the paper in front of you – in other words, examination technique.

Do we do enough to check out what the students know about the structure of the exam papers – exposed as they are to so many other exam formulations and mark schemes?

A simple way to find out is to give your students a short, 10-point written test about the exam paper.

You will get some strange looks when you tell them what you going to do – “so you’re going to test us about the exam papers?”.

The results of your little test may be revealing. There’s no need to make it complicated to start with. Ask about:

  • how many exam papers they will take in History
  • how much time is allocated for each paper
  • how many questions and marks there are in total
  • which exam paper comes first

As for that last question, you may have had occasion to explain gently to a student, on the morning of the exam, that all of their most recent revision will be so useful … but for next week’s exam.

History Resource Cupboard KS3

Other good questions for a specific unit can be about which question carries the highest mark.

Then you can be as specialised as you wish:

  • How do they formulate the answer to this question
  • What is the quickest time they could feasibly answer the question and when do they need to move on
  • Do they answer the exam paper in question order or jump to this high marker earlier in the paper

Can you get a bit metacognitive and ask them for key guidance for how to answer particular questions?

The possibilities are immense and it should take no more than 10 minutes to complete, with a quick light-hearted check through the answers. It is important not to alarm the students too much!

However, for the teacher the exercise can be quite an eye-opener.

It is worth doing for each unit of the course and it’s the sort of short exercise which you may be keen to repeat.

For the student, knowing a little better what to expect may mean a less anxiety on the day, and in the exam they may even realise that they are amongst friends.

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