A New Exam Board?

We’ve seen a lot of problems with exams recently – just look at the problems last summer with mistakes in a wide range of exam papers. Today I’ve found that AQA have spent so little time checking that suitable research sources are online that the only good Google results are their own teacher notes, and a primary science investigative cartoon. On top of this, a new specification inevitably means a lack of practice material which means students and teachers don’t really know what to expect.  If you have to explain why this is unfair to non-teachers, perhaps this analogy might help; we wouldn’t expect to have a driving test on the road having only practised in car parks, would we?

I have an idea.

In fact, I have two ideas, neither of which is mine. If we take the ‘backward design’ principle (originated by Wiggins and McTighe, introduced to me by Robin Millar’s work) and combine it with a ‘curated crowdsourced’ model, maybe there’s a way to do a better job. 

Backward Design

My apologies to Robin and other experts if I miss the subtleties – I’m just a classroom teacher with delusions of writing grandeur. Instead of beginning a syllabus with the content that we want to teach, backward design asks what we want students to be able to do at the end – how will they be tested? How will we know if the course was successful or not (or more precisely, how successfully the student has completed it)? If we create assessment tasks that will allow us to differentiate between students – ideally including, but not limited to written exams – then we can develop a list of what students should learn, which gives us a list of possible learning/teaching activities. As Robin and others point out, ‘teaching to the test’ is only a problem if the test is not fit for purpose. If we produce a realistic, useful test then being prepared for it is a positive thing. 


So who better to contribute possible questions than teachers? Imagine a Google form set up by a new exam board; let’s call it CCEB. Exemplar material, based on accepted good practice, shows how to lay out mathematical working. Questions are entered, with a markscheme. Dropdown boxes allow those entering the question to define marks available, and from key words describing the area(s) of science being tested. Active teachers, retired staff, academics – even students – all can contribute. The contributions are freely given on the basis that the results will be freely available as far as practical, probably via Creative Commons licensing.


When a certain threshold is reached – which if every science teacher in the UK supplies a single question, won’t take long – the submissions are sorted by category and checked by CCEB staff. Because they are being proofread rather than written, it will be quicker and easier. If you have some of the original contributors – determined by random allocation – paid for a day’s work, they can be pre-moderated as well. Mathematical questions can be kept in the same form but with different numbers substituted. A large pool of questions is now complete, ready for the exam, which can be balanced between topics. There will be enough questions, all produced at the same time, for several specimen papers to be made available. With a large enough pool, you could even make all the questions open source, like those for the theory element of the UK driving test.

One Day 

It’s feasible that in the future, with enough questions available, every student could get a different but equivalent exam, as described in John Barnes’ book Orbital Resonance.

In the meantime, maybe we as science educators can get involved with setting better exams than the ones we complain about. The exam boards could ask for submissions in this way now. The cynic in me thinks that this would make it much harder for them to justify their existence. Maybe they would like to prove me wrong.


Not a past paper again…

“Not a past paper again…”

I bet we’ve all heard that refrain over the past couple of weeks, as the stack of past papers is placed ominously on the teacher’s desk. The exam is a few days away and we’re running low on time, papers and patience. So are the kids.

Or maybe it’s not so urgent for you? Both of my Year 11 classes have their final AQA Additional Science B2 paper on Thursday. (Assuming that they’re not doing Additional Science resits or Core Science module papers in the hope of crossing a grade boundary by iteration, if not dedication.) Perhaps you’ve got longer. But anyway, it seems worthwhile considering a few more imaginative ways of using exam papers.

Please let me be clear – doing practice papers in exam conditions is a very valuable way to prepare. But there are ways to improve their use, as well as to mix them up a bit so that kids don’t burn out too quickly. Some of these methods are also a good way to use individual questions, perhaps from previous specifications, without having to put together an actual full paper balanced between all topic areas.

Full Practice Papers

If students are doing past papers at home, we know that they won’t always be strict about exam conditions. So why not use this? Have them do it three times, but each time having a chance to focus on improvements:

  1. Timed exam conditions, then write a post-it note of weaker areas.
  2. Second attempt after active revision of areas flagged up in 1 above.
  3. Third attempt, with folder/revision guide open.

Of course some will combine 1 and 3 as their first attempt, perhaps with the markscheme, and stop. But others will learn at each stage.

Targeted Questions

Combining revision with exam questions in lessons can be very helpful. Start off by asking students to predict what words or key phrases will show up in revision material on a specific topic. They could do this individually, or in small groups – ideally they should try by themselves then compare ideas with another. (Think-Pair-Share) Then either show them an example (such as these pages from S-Cool), or play podcasts for them; I like using the podcasts produced by the Naked Scientists and available free from BBC Bitesize. They can improve their summary but only in the limited time available. Then attempt a relevant question. What was useful? What did they miss that would have been useful? What facts or methods will they add to their summaries for future reference?

Write The Markscheme

I suspect this is similar to what many colleagues already do. We all know – and point out to our students – that a lot more appears on the markscheme than students are expected to write. It will point out traps and make distinctions between correct answers and those that are in the right ballpark. So why not have them, in small groups and with their materials handy, write a markscheme to a question? Even better, give them each a different question and as a class they can finish the job. Perhaps a chocolate-based prize could be offered to the closest match to the official version? Their suggestions can also be tested against the next approach.

Mark The Teacher

This is often very popular. I produce sample answers to a full exam question, often parts of it based on student attempts from the past (suitably adapted) or illustrating common mistakes or misconceptions, e.g. osmosis vs diffusion, all genetic diseases are recessives and so on. I then challenge pupils to mark these answers as if they had been written in an exam, and improve them. (It’s particularly useful to give D-grade answers that can be brought up to a C, or A/B grade working that need fine-tuning to get the highest marks.) More able students can explain to others why particular answers are better than others.

Improve the Question

I like having students write their own exam questions but this can often be a little daunting. They can usually cope if you ask them to produce a simple factual question with one unambiguous answer, but anything more leaves them struggling. (Although giving them a range of structures can help, especially if they can see how it is based on ‘common’ exam questions.) So why not have them change one part of a question, or add on a more challenging section to the end? Alternatively, they could convert a Foundation question to one more suited to Higher tier, or the other way around.


I’m sure colleagues have many other approaches – I’d be particularly interested in quick and easy ways to use exam questions in a more active way. Please add your comments, ideas and suggestions in the comments below. Hope it’s not too stressful before they finish…