Recently I was engaged in the drudgery of exam marking, I should confess right now that I actually quite enjoyed it. Initially, I applied to mark for financial reasons; it diPicture1dn’t take long for me to realise I was going to learn an awful lot from this process.

Some of the ways I’ve seen students approach questions and some of the mistakes I’ve seen repeated go far beyond exam prep. It is clear to me now that some students misunderstand basics that I’d never even considered important. On these shaky foundations they then build exquisite structures. Needless to say these structures do not stand up. Fortunately the exam boards currently allow a little wriggle room, and so the students are not hugely disadvantaged by their subsidence and high water levels –more on poorly extended metaphors later!

So, what are the key takeaway points from the experience…

Some students are severely disadvantaged by teacher tactics.

I should pre-empt this by stating that I have made just as many mistakes in the classroom as the next competent human…. However marking a paper that has been around for a significant period of time, I  must admit to feeling quite shocked by scripts where students had (clearly) been prepared to answer in a way I simply couldn’t give marks for. Commenting on syntax is specifically banned for one question in the exam, yet at least five centres responded with prepared paragraphs on the topic.

This led me to wonder why the teacher had made such mistakes, and why the students had clung to them so desperately. My instinct is that exam pressure is the answer to both, students fear they won’t make the magic C grade and teachers fear that the student doesn’t have the ability to rise to these lofty heights. It struck me that the time spent memorising these techniques could have been better spent improving the skills/knowledge to answer the question aptly. It’s fair to say that by the end of some papers I was pretty angry, and found myself screaming at the exam papers…. Until, I found out that…..

Some tactics are incredibly effective at structuring students work for marks.

Marking some papers, the tactics that teachers had taught their students led to papers which just had to be given marks. Marking these papers was brilliant; they hit the mark scheme almost in order. The best examples of this gave the students a structure which allowed them freedom. I was reminded of the building regulations of Stockholm whereby builders are given strict criteria for regions of the city buy then allowed to play with how their design meets these rigid criteria. The most able students were enabled to hit the criteria and show their flair and at the lower end students gathered much needed ‘safe’ marks.

Marking against abstract criteria would help students to the power of f# all.

Previously, I have marked at least one piece of student work a term- maybe more- with some pretty drab generalised comments. Occasionally pre-planned against criteria. The exam board insist on this and it made for some pretty rapid marking, but eventually my mind drifted towards who might actually read this drivel. The only useful people would be the teacher and/or student. But what use would my comments be to either party they are just statements, they offer no diagnosis or movement forward.

Effective standardised comments or questions could be incredibly powerful.

However, what they do offer is a consistency and speed that individualised questioning and prompting simply cannot. The question is about their use rather how best to use them- the egalitarian approach to marking would use a style not dissimilar to this. It would mark promptly, consistently for all….The egalitarian teacher would not stay up until 2am marking 9X12 fully, only to realise that 7R2 were still waiting for last Thursday’s feedback. Of course, this involves forward planning and it involves a neat focus on the needs of all students but if the systems we use readily allow us to feedback quickly then we are less likely to neglect all.

I would even argue that even if our feedback is less effective overall, its consistency would catch up this small failing. Marking with standardised comments reduced the feedback given on each exam to 2 minutes per question. During exam season my average time was about 9 minutes per question.

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