You’re listening to the Parents of Hardworking Teens podcast episode 21 and this is Part 2 of my 6 Secrets of a Senior Examiner. Let's dive in as I share my top tips, secrets and insider info on having marked tens of thousands of student exams from across multiple national exam boards and find out how you and your teen can use these to your advantage. With over 15 years in education as an award-winning high school teacher, international external examiner and as a study coach, I've helped thousands of students sky-rocket their results and confidence and this podcast is where I share all my insights tactics and tips with you the parent so you can help your hard working teen get happy, smart and successful in their study and have you both enjoy the journey along the way.
Secret number 4. This is also one of my favourites. It is the two-step essay system. Because when it comes to exams, the types of questions, I know from experience, that students fear the most and really have the most challenge and difficulty on doing a fantastic job of, in terms of responding to these questions is those big essay questions.
Now these often occur at the end of a paper in many subjects but also they often make up pretty much all of the paper in those more literary subjects like English, Sociology even history, arts subjects. And the biggest issue with them is really the size, the overwhelm and the number of marks attached.
Very often these questions will be 15, 18, 25 marks so there really is a lot of pressure on them because if they don’t do a good job of this, this is a massive chunk of marks that they are going to lose out on.
What I see is that many students really struggle to break down an essay title strategically. They struggle then to really understand what is being asked of them and once again this often results in a fair bit of waffle in their response or in some ways even worse, going down the wrong path in their answer so they may not be waffling, they may be doing a really great direct response but it isn't answering what the essay question was really requiring of them.
For example, where I really see this happening is in something like English where they've studied a literary text and they really just end up writing a response that covers all of the analytical work they've done on that text. It doesn't directly answer the question. So that's where they'll be able to achieve a C or maybe even a B grade but they will not be entering into that A grade level because they are not actually answering the question.
They are kind of writing about the text of the novel that they have studied, same goes for analysing maybe choreography in a dance, a dramatic play or a piece of artwork or even a historical event.
So what's the solution to this problem? Well, to respond at the highest level they are capable of and get a high quality essay written in the fastest, smoothest way (that means not having to go back and scribble things out and start again or spending longer than they need to trying to make a point that will get them certain marks) they need to go beyond just identifying the topic of the essay (what they're writing about) and make everything (down to what quote they choose, what topics, what points they make in each body paragraph, what order they put those body paragraphs in) everything needs to be about the focus.
So this is my 2 Step Topic and Focus System. Because yes, they do of course need to know the topic but how do they go further to figure out the focus? They need to determine, the command of the essay. They need to know, are they analysing? Are they evaluating? And specifically, what is the focus within that? What is the actual issue that they may need to be discussing?
So hopefully you can see how this relates back to secret #3 and how all of these things, all of these skills, strategies, these techniques, build together. I think I'm actually going to do a future podcast episode about all the interlinkages between these skills and strategies. Because it's such an important aspect of this training. So look out for that.
But in the mean time I want to share with you a real life example of this. So I'm going to take a very simple essay title now (simple, I just mean in terms of the wording so that I don't have to read out something really long on the podcast and you then have to try and hold it in your head. But simply worded does not necessarily mean an easy essay. In fact, sometimes it is the shortest essay titles or essay questions that give students the most headaches because it's not as detailed in terms of what is required so therefore it's trickier sometimes to figure that out.
So this example essay question is: To what extent is Gatsby great? So this is an essay on the Great Gatsby. And it is to what extent is Gatsby great? So the topic is the character of Gatsby and we could go even further to say it's all the ways that he is great. But here's what I would see happen if I was marking this essay. I would see so many students doing exactly that. Giving evidence of all the ways and all the places in the text where Gatsby is shown to be great. And that is partly answering the question. I also picked out this one because it doesn't have a very specific clear verb. It doesn't say analyse. It doesn't say describe. It doesn't say explain. And I will say, in any essay they're not going to be asking you to describe or explain. Those are low level commands. You're always going to be operating at higher levels.
The key words here to identify the focus of this essay is the ‘to what extent?’ part. To what extent is Gatsby great? To what extent? Is an evaluate level command and that means students need to make a judgement. It isn't just: ‘tell me all the ways that Gatsby is great in the novel or is shown to be great’. It's make a judgement: to what extent is he great is he completely great, all the way through, there is no dispute… in which case just tell me all the ways that that is true. But they still have to make that judgement. They have to say ‘he is completely great all of the time, in every way’.
Or, is it actually did he isn't great at all? Is the point of the story actually telling us that he isn't great all? Or, is it somewhere in the middle? That he's great in some ways, but not in others? And that is what the focus of the essay all needs to be on. So can you see how that is also then going to determine what evidence, what quotes, what points your teen is going to make in their response.
I hope that example is helpful. Let's move onto Secret number 5. This is all about how exams are actually marked. Because examiners have to, HAVE TO, rigidly stick to the mark schemes. Now, often in higher levels within school they will have cross-checking of marking, but when we're doing external exam marking there are lots of different structures and procedures in place to check that every single answer is being marked in a very rigid and accurate way. We have very clear marking guides. We usually have two days, two whole days, of training JUST about applying the mark scheme. And I say two days of training… that is even just for a certain section of an exam paper. As external exam markers we may not be marking the whole paper, we may mark a section of the paper to really add to the rigour and the accuracy of our marking. So we are just marking the same questions over and over and over so we get that consistency and fairness. And we are judged on our marking.
In some cases, all papers get marked twice, and if there's a discrepancy they then get marked a third time. In other cases we have samples of our marking checked and cross-checked and then picked up if there's any discrepancies. We also have special, almost like test responses, that test us on our marking that every marker has to complete at the start of every day to make sure that they are marking to the right level. That is like an indicator that flags if anyone is off track before we even start marking each and every day. There are so many things in place, so if your teen isn't really savvy with mark schemes and how they're written and how they work, then they are likely missing out on a huge goldmine of tips and tricks and strategies, not to mention missing out on marks they are likely leaving behind on that exam table.
Now, I do so much work with students on how to understand mark schemes and what to do with them, not just reading through them and trying to mark their work, but truly getting to grips with what gets marks, what doesn't, why it does, why it doesn't, what is the difference between these two very similar sentences and why does one get the credit and why does the other not?
We go into all that detail when I train and coach students because small things can make a very big difference. And those are small things that they likely already know, have in their brain, or are able to do. So I'll share with you a very quick example of this. Way back in 2010, when I first decided to do some external exam marking, A) for a bit of extra pocket money and B) because I was genuinely curious to really know what goes on behind the scenes with these things and figure out how these exams are marked, like getting in on the action because as a teacher I still didn't really know that. Even after four years of teaching.
And there was one question and part of a mark scheme that I still remember today. And that was where students had to respond about the impacts and it was related to the impact of development. And one of the things they could write (and many students did write) about in their response was POLLUTION. And that was perfectly valid but just writing the word POLLUTION was not deemed as a detailed answer, even if within their response they had written something about the smoke or the fumes and therefore we knew they were talking about air pollution.
Or even if they had mentioned about the fish being killed and therefore we knew they were talking about water pollution. If it hadn't specifically said AIR pollution or WATER pollution in their sentence that was not deemed as a detailed response! And all I could think was 'Oh my goodness, how many students are going to be losing marks because of that simple difference in the way that they wrote their response?' And the second thing I was thinking was 'Oh my goodness, I have to get back to class and tell my students about this so that they just know anytime you write the word pollution in an answer I need you to write what type of pollution it is'. Even if it feels obvious.
And I did do exactly that as soon as I was back in class a couple of days later. I absolutely was doing that with all of my classes. Because like I said at the start, these are things that students are allowed to know. They just don't know them and most teachers don't either. I had been teaching for four years up to that point and won a national teaching award in the UK and I did not know that small detail! And there are of course so many other details that go into this as well. And so here is an action step: Almost all exam boards publish, along with their past papers, the mark schemes and the chief examiner reports, sometimes called 'retrospectives'.
They publish them online for everyone to see. So first of all, make sure your teen is going on and downloading the mark schemes, not just the past papers. So they don't even have to write and do like a practise answer so that they can truly see how the wording of the question relates to what is in that mark scheme. What is required in their answers and how that needs to be put across. And secondly, this is the thing that most students don't do, most teachers don't do, is to go and find those chief examiner reports because they literally go through each question and say where did the students who sat that paper, that year do well or go wrong on different questions. So your teen literally gets to learn from the mistakes and the successes of other students that have gone before them.
Now I know that of course, they're not going to get those exact same questions ever again but when we look at it from a strategy, technique and skill point of view - which is why I always do that, they can apply the points that are made to their own work going forwards.
OK, finally - Secret #6. This is revision that actually works. Because what I see is, most students are using the least efficient revision techniques out there. The ones that we probably used to use when we were students as well and didn't know any better. And this is just because students today don't know any better either. And I will add this as well. It's also because sometimes, even if they are told or advised to do things differently, because I have seen this first hand, where I will suggest to students like 'hey, you really need to be doing it like this' or 'you need to do this' and they don't wanna give up their old ways. Especially if your teen has gotten pretty decent or even good results in exams before, but they really want them to be great results, but they feel like it's a risk to change things. Because they don't wanna lose out on the decent or good results that they did have.
So I'll give you a few examples. Things like copying out notes or just, even reading back through notes or this is one that Gemma and I had a bit of a chuckle about recently. (Gemma, our English focus coach). Things like, sticking them up on your wall where you will see them. I remember she said she used to set them up on her mirror, I used to stick them up next to my bed. And somehow believe that kind of idea that if you just see them enough times it's going to just sink into your brain through osmosis! And that, I'm afraid does not happen. What your teen must do in their revision is revise ACTIVELY not passively. So just rewriting notes, just reading through notes, highlighting notes, watching video tutorials is passive. A brain isn't having to do anything with that information. It's supposed to just be absorbing it, but that is not an effective way to either learn or memorise information.
To make it ACTIVE, the best and simplest way to do this is to transform that information from one format into another. So, for example, let's say they're revising a diagram of the heart. What they need to do is not just copy out that diagram and redraw it and re label it (probably multiple times). What they need to do is take that information and put it into a different format. So, for example, could they turn it into a table? (where they've got two columns maybe of the structural elements and then the functions that they do). Or might they just turn it into an actual written paragraph explaining what happens as the blood flows through different parts of the heart?
Now you might be thinking if you've heard much of my advice before about writing notes, like Katie, I've always heard you say 'don't just write out notes'. Notice the difference - It was in diagram form and we are changing it into written form. If there is information originally in written form I would be saying turn it into a diagram or something visual or a table or flow chart or whatever else. But if it's originally in a diagram form, could they turn it into a worded paragraph more challenging than just redrawing the diagram? And that is the exact point.
Now, I know that there is a lot that I have just covered in those 6 Secrets. And I would never advise anyone to be trying to do all of those things, all at the same time. I would advise your student and I'd advise you to have a think about like what are the top one or two things you think is holding your teen back? Either holding them back from being confident because it's making them feel uncertain or overwhelmed, stressed or anxious for exams. Or it's holding them back from achieving the marks they could be because of the way they are reading and responding to those questions in the actual exam. And then focus on mastering the skills and strategies associated with that so they can quickly make a big difference to their exam prep and their exam performance.
If you'd like all of those clearly written out with the problem the solution and examples and clearly laid out one-page per secret, then go download my 6 Secrets of a Senior Examiner resource. It's at www.gradetransformation.com/secrets
Or you can go find it in the show notes of this podcast episode. It is only available for a limited time. And then I would love it if you let me know which one of these secrets was the biggest for your teen or has been the most insightful for you to know as a parent. And finally, make sure you are listening in next week because I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that we have a very special guest coming up and unfortunately they had to delay the interview so we are getting together later this week. And I will be bringing that special interview episode to you that really will be focused on you as the parent and how you can help your teen through their study. Particularly those stressful exam times.
I can't wait to do the interview and share it with you. Have a wonderful week and in the mean time, I'll see you again soon.