Things that students do in exams

Disclaimer – I do not affiliate myself with any exam board in this post. During my teaching career, I have marked for several boards over the years and marked for multiple specifications and boards this year. This post is not about any one board or paper and I make no reference to the contents of any specific paper/series/spec in here. This is a reflection on my time as an English examiner.

These are some of the things which students do in English exams, with some of my comments about how these are received by me – one examiner, in a sea of thousands:

Write out punctuation marks and tick them off as they use them

I see this in about 60% of the papers I mark for English language. It’s often not an effective strategy, because to gain the marks, they need to use the punctuation correctly. Candidates will tick off the comma and then use comma splices through their writing. They’ll tick off a semi-colon and use it in place of a comma. Rather than equipping themselves with lists to check off, they should revise two of three correct pieces of punctuation.

Use acronym prompts

Many blogs exist about the use and problems of acronyms. I’ve blogged on the general issue (here) and Becky Wood described why PEE is no longer effective for her here.

The issue which I am seeing more in live marking is that students have an acronym for each question and then spend time noting down what they could say for each part of the acronym, and therefore lose time on considering the actual effect of the language or structural technique, and end up with one flimsy paragraph. Far better that they practise consideration of the impact of words and phrases than learning PRETZEL or PARSNIP.

I also see scripts in which the student has forgotten parts of the acronym – sometimes they even write down ‘can’t remember!’ by one of their letter prompts. Another common issue is that planning time is spent on the prompts, and then the actual response bears little resemblance to this.

Use sesquipedalian technical terminology

In English Language exams, this year and previously, in various specifications (although not, as far as I remember, the legacy specifications), some students use words which they haven’t quite grasped and which do nothing to further their responses. These words often serve to obscure a student’s actual point and, especially with those scoring at the lower end of the mark-scheme, I mourn for the time they’ve spent learning these, rather than learning to comment on effect.

This year, I have seen polyptoton, diacope, epizeuxis and anadiplosis. I rarely see these used accurately and it’s frustrating to know that full marks could be awarded with use of repetition in their stead.

Students need to remember the subject requirements: ‘use linguistic and literary terminology accurately’ (Pearson Edexcel), ‘accurate use of subject terminology’ (AQA) and ‘relevant subject terminology’ (Eduqas). Even when they are using ‘noun’ or ‘verb,’ if the word class brings nothing to their point then ‘word’ or ‘phrase’ will suffice – and I point this out because often, they misapply the term and thus miss an opportunity to offer a clear and well-articulated response.

Write a story entirely composed of dialogue

It’s very hard to find credit in something like this, when it’s been executed by a 16 year old in a high-pressure context, within one hour.

Write in very tiny handwriting

The papers are scanned by the boards, and read on screen. Depending on the software, there is also a mark-scheme on the screen, and sometimes pre-populated drag-and-drop comments. Whether we are marking on a laptop or a bigger PC screen, it’s never easy to read tiny little letters.

One of my students asked me recently whether the exam boards have ‘handwriting experts’ to read the less legible scripts. The answer to this is sadly no – all escalations or reports just go up to more experienced examiners, who have to work through the same tiny or crabbed writing.

Revert to the generic

This is not an attack on students who write ‘this makes the reader want to read on.’ There is more nuance needed for this discussion – after all, the writer does want the reader to read on, and often this is one real effect of a language device. The issue, of course, is that the need to explore how or why the writer has made the reader want to read on. Often, examiners see this phrase (along with ‘this creates tension’ and ‘this intrigues the reader’) without any kind of qualification. If they could just add ‘…because…’ then they’d be opening up potential for something a little more specific.

Repeat words for analysis

Another pattern I see is the repetition of a word from the quotation in lieu of analysis:

‘The writer says ‘my father’s absence was as heavy as a child sitting on my chest.’ The word ‘heavy’ suggests to the reader that this felt heavy.’

We see this often, and I think that part of it is the panic and the adrenaline of the exam. Discussions in class would, no doubt, yield better analytical approaches. Although synonyms do not make for complete analysis, they can be a good start. They can open up pathways for further comment – for example: ‘…this simile suggests to the reader that her father’s absence was a weight he felt on his chest, perhaps almost crushing him with grief.’ A simple shift from ‘heavy’ to ‘weight’ could open up ideas. The practice of exploring synonyms and connecting ideas is a useful strategy.