The Perse School

How to maximise chances of examination success – small changes that can make a big difference

In sport the margin between winning and losing can be very small. Tiny adjustments to any or all of fitness, technique, attitude and tactics can make the difference between success and failure. It is no different in public exams.

The English exam system issues results in grade rather than mark form. This creates artificial cliffs in the assessment system where 1 mark out of 600 (0.16%) can result in a different grade outcome. A and B grades sound very different, and indeed the difference between the two could be making or not making a university offer. Yet in reality the actual difference in attainment can be miniscule, and could be down to acceptable differences in examiner marking rather than actual differences in candidate performance. Put bluntly at or around the grade boundaries grade outcomes can be determined by whether candidates are allocated acceptably harsh or acceptably lenient examiners all acting within exam board marking tolerances.

There are currently no plans to remove letter or now at GCSE number grades from English public exams. This is unfortunate as grades are blunt instruments for recording attainment. In many ways it would be preferable to record achievement in actual marks scored with tolerance bars attached to them to show the range of marks that would fall within the acceptable marking range. Thus a candidate may be awarded 80% with a range of 76-84 to show what the same paper could have been scored given an “acceptably” harsh or “acceptably” generous marker.

Whilst the current system of grades persists, candidates need to work themselves into the centre of grade boundaries and away from grade “cliffs”. Much of this will be down to thorough and effective revision, but three exam techniques can combine to make a significant mark and grade difference.

Technique one is to answer the question set. It sounds obvious but in the pressured exam environment and with heads full of recently revised facts many candidates regurgitate information without answering the precise terms of the question set. Something as simple as highlighting key words in the question, and then repeating them in answers can ensure relevance.

Technique two is timing. It is essential that candidates divide up their time according to the marks available rather than what they know. Too often excellent students underachieve in papers because they have ‘over-answered’ 2-3 mark questions writing at excessive length, only to find they are left with insufficient time for 10 mark questions later in the paper.

The final technique addresses an increasing problem in the digital age, and that is the ability to write legibly and at speed. Children are spending more time on keyboards and less time hand writing such that their hand motor skills suffer. Both rate (words per minute) and clarity of hand writing can decline, and either or both can lead to lost marks and dropped grades. Examiners can’t credit what is not on the page or what they can’t decipher. The latter is helped by new technology with much marking now taking place on line giving examiners the opportunity to expand text on the screen. Whilst this may help make the illegible legible, it does slow the rate of marking down. Subconsciously this may frustrate examiners (who are paid per script marked) such that marginal decisions go against the candidate. Handwriting quality shouldn’t affect exam results, but anecdotal evidence suggests it does in longer answer subjects. Students taking such papers may well benefit from some speed and legibility hand writing practice in the run up to exams to improve skills and build hand and finger strength. Simple techniques such as large hand writing and lines left between paragraphs can make a positive difference.

So the key message is to avoid grade boundaries and aim for the centre of the next grade up. This reduces the risk, some of which is a lottery, of falling on the wrong side of the grade cliff. Moving up a grade requires effective and thorough revision, but good exam technique can also make a significant difference. Candidates must answer the question set, write according to the number of marks available, and ensure their handwriting is fast and legible.


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