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Exam technique - John C. Kirk

Jun. 6th, 2011

08:47 pm - Exam technique

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The BBC have reported a couple of problems with impossible questions in A level exams:
AS-level maths error: students set impossible question (02 Jun 2011)
Exam question error in AS-level paper (06 Jun 2011)

I sympathise with the people who took those exams, and I don't want to kick anyone while they're down. However, I think there are some general exam techniques that will act as "damage control" in a situation like this. They aren't new, but apparently not everyone knows them.

1. Work out a schedule for the exam, i.e. know how much time you can spend on each question. Once the time's up, move on, even if you haven't finished. You can come back to it at the end if you have time.

Taking the OCR maths exam as an example, there were 72 marks, and people had 90 minutes. (There's a past paper here.) So, keep it simple: 1 minute per mark. (You can round down, but don't round up!) That leaves 18 minutes spare at the end of the exam to check your answers and work on any unfinished questions. Realistically, you can dip into your reserve a bit early if you need to. For instance, if you run out of time for a question but you know that it will only take you another 30 seconds to finish then it's better to keep going while you've got it all in your head.

In this particular exam, the impossible question was worth 8 marks. According to one of the comments, someone spent 40 minutes trying to answer it, and then left other questions unanswered. He should have abandoned it much earlier.

This is a skill that's useful in general life as well. For instance, suppose that my boss gives me a list of 8 bugs to fix in a computer program, and I estimate that it will take me 1 hour for each, i.e. a full day's work. If one of them turns out to be much more complicated than I realised, but they are all equally important, my best approach is to do the other 7 and then tell my boss that I need more time for the 8th. If I go back at the end of the day and tell her that I haven't fixed any of them because I spent all my time on the first, she won't be happy!

2. Don't cross an answer out until you have something better to replace it.

Another comment on the BBC article says: "Having spent a long time on this question I resorted to crossing out all of my working out." This reminds me of one of my maths exams in Durham, at the end of my first year.

I knew that I was going to struggle with this paper, and I actually wound up failing it. (I did resits during the summer.) When I looked through the list of questions, I saw one in particular that looked extremely difficult, so I decided not to even attempt it. About 30 minutes into the exam, one of the lecturers came into the room and made an announcement: "There's a mistake in question 2, and it should say 60 instead of 40." (Or words to that effect.) This didn't make any difference to me, but the guy next to me gave a muffled shriek and crossed out everything he'd just written, holding his pen as if he was stabbing someone. We then all continued in silence. 10 minutes later the lecturer came back and said: "Ok, we've agreed that if you answered the question as it was typed then we'll accept your working." My neighbour then gave a less muffled shriek, and stared at his paper, obviously trying to work out whether he could restore the writing that he'd crossed out. After the exam, I decided that it would be best to give him some space, rather than asking "How did you get on?"

Again, this is a general purpose skill, which is easier to accomplish when you work electronically. For instance, when I was planning my LEJOG trip, I needed to make a few changes to my original route. So, I made a copy of my route, then amended the copy to delete several points and take a different path. I could then compare the two routes, and decide which one to use.

Comments:

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From:alexmc
Date:June 6th, 2011 10:07 pm (UTC)
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I'm with you on this one.
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From:susannahf
Date:June 7th, 2011 06:19 am (UTC)
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This is typically taught in schools - and it's good general advice, but there is an additional issue when there's an impossible question. It demoralises you, and you waste time that could be spent checking your other questions
I had one in my Maths A-level Mechanics papers. We had to prove that the given force was shown by a certain equation. It wasn't. It was a similar equation, with a slightly different term. It was worth about 1/5 of the mark, and I spent about 2/5-1/2 of the time on it. Not because I didn't use your technique, but because I used all of my "checking answers" time on it. Since it was clearly wrong, it "made sense" to spend time getting it right rather than checking the other answers that I was broadly happy with. It was very worrying, because I just couldn't see what was wrong.

What was awful was that our lecturers had spotted the problem, and called the exam board, but weren't allowed to tell us because the exam board couldn't do the same for everyone else in the country. So they had to stand there and watch us all struggle. And yes, some people missed questions because of it, even though they'd been taught this technique. Heat of the moment and all that. It's easy to be superior if you're not in that room.
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From:sammoore
Date:June 7th, 2011 08:50 am (UTC)
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It might not surprise you to know that OCR and EdExcel (the two main boards) are profit making entities which are both owned by publishing houses. Their main interest is in selling books/notes.

They are supposed to be managed and accredited by a qango, (it was the QCA but I think it changed recently), but the reality is that with only two main boards, they don't wield a lot of power, what the boards want the boards get.

I see no excuse in there being a mistake in questions in a national exam. Giving it to 5 people in that academic field (or ten of last years students) should make sure that it doesn't happen.

I have little time for the exam boards, they are driven mostly by profit, education is of secondary interest.
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From:susannahf
Date:June 7th, 2011 09:00 am (UTC)
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Yes. The fact that our lecturers spotted the problem during the exam shows that it hadn't been that carefully checked. I had similar problems with Design Tech GCSE, which, although it wasn't impossible, bore no resemblance to either the syllabus or the practise papers, and printed the higher tier design paper on bright blue. This was a paper where we were expected to produce a rendered design (i.e. a coloured picture). Yellow pencil came out green, white (those who had white pencils) came out pale blue etc. I resorted to colouring as if it was white paper, and then adding arrows saying things like "this is yellow", "this is white". It was awful.

We all got As and A*s though. I can only assume this was down to effort and good coursework (or there were other people who just got completely flummoxed by the exam).
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