From exam marking to classroom success

In late January 2014, I decided I was going to take up exam marking. When I mentioned this to colleagues, they would groan in horror, check if I was mad and wander off, shaking their heads. I think all of us would like to say something really noble like we’re doing it for the students or our own professional development. But my reasons were a little base; I wanted to go to Australia that summer.

The Australia motivator was brilliant. I had a post card stuck on the top of my computer, which I stared at longingly every time I couldn’t read a student’s handwriting. But I also realised that I learnt a lot from the experience: I planned better lessons on exam techniques: I trained others in my team on the methods in context essays; the following year my results improved and I reached my first ALPS 3. I also had a great holiday in Australia to thank for it!

When the specification changed for A-Level, Sociology exam marking really helped me understand what the new assessment objectives for AQA meant and what the examiners were now looking for.

 Here are my ‘top tips / learning experiences’:

Short answer questions

Students are writing too much. They should just use the available space and should be encouraged to answer in bullet form. I now give my students less time than, in theory, they should have per mark in the exam when we practise. This gets them to write succinctly and they have more time for the extended essays.

30 mark essays

For the new extended 30 mark essays, new phrases showed up like ‘chain of reasoning’ and ‘juxtaposition’. While these weren’t new ideas, they suddenly became a key DO and the latter a DON’T from an examiner’s perspective. Students were repeatedly failing to get past the 50% mark in my exam allocation because their evaluation was a juxtaposition of competing arguments. So I changed how we taught evaluation in Sociology, and helped students develop their analysis through a chain of reasoning structure that meant they now looked at their essays as whole pieces, and not simply a string of points that loosely connected.

10 mark essays

As part of my examiner training prior to the exam, I learnt that the new 10 mark “Applying material from Item A, analyse two…” questions which appear in the unit 1 and unit 3 A-Level papers were key, and were going to be one of the most challenging questions on the paper. Fortunately, I was able to ‘re-skill’ my students in time for their exams that year. Students now HAVE to use the item twice effectively, just once means a maximum of 7, not at all just 3. The main skills for this question are application and analysis. However, what the subject training and the text books hadn’t told me was that these 10m questions will always link together two different aspects of the specification, or get students to link two subsections of a topic. For example, the summer 2017 question: “Applying material from Item A, analyse two effects of increased parental choice on pupils’ experience of education” was asking students to respond in a way that linked the topic of educational policy (parental choice) to processes in schools (pupils’ experiences of education). Most of the papers I marked in the summer, failed to do this so were awarded a maximum of 3. This is by far the most common mark I gave.

How are my students doing as a result?

When I looked at my students’ achievement in September, I was really pleased to see us outperform similar and average centres for the above question types across all units, not just the Education one I marked for. Sociology’s results for the past 3 years have been ALPS 2, and I am super proud of my students for going over and above their best. And although exam marking is hard, really hard, I think it does make a difference. But I still have a lot to learn. So I’ve set myself the new challenge of marking for the Crime and Deviance Unit, summer 2018, which traditionally has always been the unit students perform less well in.

So if you are thinking of exam marking, I would say do it! Heathfield Community College was very supportive; they gave me a day off lessons to mark. Whilst this might not seem much, it makes a real difference to feel like your school is supporting you marking. Find a personal goal to mark for: you need it as it is tough. The money comes in at the end of July, so perfect timing for summer holiday spending money. And you really learn from the experience.

Some barriers and solutions:

  • Time – microwave meals, late nights. Set yourself a deadline each night. Speak to your school about a day off timetable. Inform family of commitments. DON’T make big weekend plans in the month you mark. Work out the number of scripts, divide by the number of days – this gives you a benchmark. Give yourself days/evenings off.
  • IT issues – most software is Windows based. I needed to beg/borrow/steal a laptop! You need access to 2 or 3 different bits of software, and the instructions can be confusing. The AQA team is a great support if you send them a list of queries.
  • Postal issues – delivery / collection. Get delivered to the school (but warn exams/reception) and you can send via the school post system and claim back the expenses. You can also arrange Parcelforce collections from the school.

Alex Sugden, Sociology.

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