Episode 27: Diary of an External Examiner - Part 1
LISTEN AND FOLLOW ON:
Join me inside my world of external exam marking as I share my most memorable exam marker experiences that I think will be helpful to you, and that you can pass on to your teen.
These will give you the story behind how I’ve become a self-confessed exam geek, seeking out every opportunity to get involved with all things exams.
In PART 1 I explain:
how and why I got into external exam marking
my first big take-away on the stark differences between levels of descriptors and why it's so important for students to know them for their subjects.
the 'magic-teacher-moment' of GOLD that made me realise how valuable this information and training was to boosting the confidence and performance of hardworking students.
Because if your teen can master exams, they can nail every other part of their study as well.
You’re listening to the Parents of Hardworking Teens Podcast, episode 27 - and today I’m going to share with you the deep, dark world of exam marking. Actually it’s not deep or dark - but there is quite a bit to it and as you probably know by now - I love it and so I want to share some of my highlights and most memorable take aways with you. So stay tuned.
Hey VIPs! And welcome inside of my world of exam marking!
Oh my goodness. Right now I am 2 days of exam marker training
and 390 papers into marking as I record this and I’ve already got lots of thoughts and observations jotted down that I really want to share with you.
And I will do that in as much detail as I’m allowed to next week, once I’ve finished all the marking and have distilled all of my notes for you.
Right now, they would just be a mass of ‘do this - don’t do this’, and so I’ll definitely want to order them and distill them nicely for you.
But as I was thinking ahead to doing that, and as happens every year I do exam marking, it brings up all the memories of my past years of exam marking, and all the things I’ve picked up and been able to pass on to students from those.
So, today, I’m going to share a few of my most memorable exam marker experiences that I think will be helpful to you - and that you can pass on to your teen - and give you a bit of the story behind how I’ve become a self-confessed exam geek, getting in on every opportunity to get behind the scenes and into the inner workings of exams.
And in a nutshell, it’s because external exam marking has been the one thing over and above all my other teacher training and professional development that I feel has really enabled me to help so many students in the ways that I do: to reduce their stress in their study, to boost their confidence in exams and in their exam prep and in the way they handle their assignments and everyday study, to have them catapult their results for themselves.
Because, the way I see it, if your teen can master exams, they can nail every other part of their study as well.
And actively seeking out these opportunities is how I’ve been able to mark for all different types of exams and questions from graphs constructed from data, to analysis of maps, and from Naplan writing tests, through to Y12 1500 word writing test exams. I’ve marked across different exam boards, for different types of exams at a variety of levels and for a variety of national and state exams.
And it’s by doing that, that I’ve been able to see so many different types of questions. See so many ways the skills overlap AND develop a systematic approach to all of it, that any student can do for themselves too.
And as you can imagine, the actual practicalities of marking has changed quite a bit over the years, from having postbags of papers to mark by hand, through to the online scanning and marking systems today. But, I’ll tell you what hasn’t changed.
The ways questions are written and worded and the ways mark schemes are structured and applied.
That’s why I love this stuff. I love that the techniques and elements within and behind it all are truly universal, across subjects, year groups, and exam boards.
And I love seeing how the levels of demand change through year groups and the topics and content change across subjects, but the actual concepts and systems don’t change.
So, let’s go way back to a land and a time far, far away with my first ever external exam marker role which was in the UK, when I first started working with the AQA exam board for their GCSE Geography exam in 2010. That would be the equivalent of Y10 in Australia, or Y11 in New Zealand.
I was in my fourth year of teaching Geography by this point.
In the UK, you only have one subject that you specialise in as a high school teacher and for me that was Geography.
Fun fact, I didn’t become a teacher straight away.
I actually got into teaching from working in environmental science.
After finishing my degree which was joint honours in Biology and Geography, I worked for about a year, no not even a year - probably more like 6 months- as a site analyst for an environmental consultancy, and then, having quickly felt very over the massive amount of commuting around London, even though it sounded so glamorous at first, and also with a lot of that work being on building sites, not exactly feeling like I was doing much saving of the planet, I then went and worked for a conservation charity.
And we used to get lots of enquiries from students looking for data or for resources for school projects and I used to really like replying to those and at the same time, I also found myself getting a bit frustrated about how much of their marketing was all to the older members of the population.
Now I got it, older people were the ones more likely thinking about leaving spaces in their wills to charities, and charities need donations. Harsh, but true.
But I know it sounds like a bit of a cliche, but I really did feel like we should’ve been doing more for the younger people who’d actually be growing up making choices and having longer term impacts on the environment.
So, fast forward a couple of years to me becoming a Geography teacher.
And, it’s been SUCH a great subject, not just because I love all the content, but because it tests so many different skills, so from an exam technique and experience perspective, there’s a huge variety of types of questions.
Anyway, I was well into my groove, I LOVED teaching, and felt like I just about had the capacity - I can tell you, teaching in the UK is FULL ON - to take on an extra challenge and I applied to become an external exam board marker for the GCSE exams in 2010.
Because over the years, I’d become curious about what really went on behind the scenes of those big exam boards and the final exams.
Actually, I was Head of Department by this point, so some of that came from things like making decisions on exam boards and what tier papers to put students in for.
So I was curious as to how they were written - who does it, how do they decide what to test and how to word the questions, how do they decide what gets a mark and what doesn’t. So, I got accepted and back then, we went to a big in-person meeting - to do exam marker training.
Then we were posted the exam papers, we marked a few, posted them off to have our marking checked, then did the other couple of hundred once approved, and posted them back in these special big, grey secure satchel things.
It feels so old-fashioned now,
And, well, it was over 12 years ago, but saying 2010, does not feel like it should be that long ago.
But the beauty of that system meant that you marked the whole paper. Which was great in terms of the variety of questions you saw and all the different responses - and getting the in-depth training for all those questions. I definitely had an experience of feeling like I’d gone behind the curtain. Being amongst the senior examiners and having them dissect not just every question, but every mark on the marking guide was everything I’d hoped it would be. Which I know sounds more like going to Disneyland. It’s not a phrase I think any student has ever said in relation to exams - ‘It was everything I hoped it would be’. But honestly. It really was.
The money was for sure very welcome too, but that experience truly did set me off on the path I’m on now. And my most memorable moment from that year of marking is something that I still share with parents and students today. I even share it in professional development workshops that I lead for teachers here in Australia.
It was the mark scheme for an extended response question where it had a source which was a sketch of a factory development causing environmental problems.
And I can’t remember the exact wording of the question,
but the students had to write about the impacts of that development on that area.
And the one thing that totally hooked me was the cut off as to whether a particular description in their answer would be counted as detailed or not.
Here’s what it was:
The mark scheme stated that where a student has talked about pollution being an impact, to have their response classed as detailed - as opposed to clear - one of the determining factors was that they had to state what TYPE of pollution it was.
They had to explicitly say water pollution, or visual pollution, or sound pollution or whatever.
So, if they wrote something like ‘the factory is creating pollution which is killing the fish in the nearby lake’, that wouldn’t be credited as detailed.
They needed to say that ‘the factory is creating WATER pollution which is killing the fish in the nearby lake.’
Now, I’m just summarising there. Of course, for an extended response they need more impacts and they needed more detail than that overall and there were more marking descriptors covering all aspects of the content, but for that particular descriptor,
as part of what makes a DETAILED response, they had to explicitly state what TYPE of pollution was happening.
And of course once we got into the marking, there were some responses where you could tell exactly what type of pollution they were talking about.
It wasn’t going to be visual pollution killing the fish. But here’s one more subtle tip I want to share with you - one of the things we cannot do as markers is ‘read information into an answer’ or sometimes this is called ‘applying our own understanding to an answer’.
That means we can literally only mark what is on the page.
We cannot ‘fill in the gaps’ even though our brains naturally want to, or add in what we believe the student meant to say. And this is not a criticism of the exam boards or that mark scheme. I don’t think these things are always perfect but I also know that lines have to be drawn somewhere. What matters is that your teen knows the degree of detail and specificity they’re expected to have in their answers.
I can tell you, that every year there are some heated debates about what should get a mark and what shouldn’t during exam marker training. And every year, we are told the same. The mark scheme is final and our job is to apply it accurately. And so there were students who’d written otherwise excellent answers, who were dropped down in one criteria because they hadn’t specifically stated the type of pollution even though it may well have been clear what it was from the rest of their writing.
And so did I get into a heated debate? Definitely not.
I was the new kid on the block and it was my first ever year of exam marking.
But did I tell all of my students in our very next lessons back in the classroom ‘Okay - every time you write the word pollution from now on, you HAVE to write the type of pollution’? You bet.
Now, I only got to do one round of external marking in the UK before I then moved out to Australia. And again, it took me a little while to find my way into it here too.
But once I did, you probably know what I’m going to say. It turns out, what creates success came down to the same things:
Being able to dissect the question, and knowing how that translates to marks on the mark scheme - and then knowing HOW - having the skills to - meet those descriptors.
Now, the first major exam-related moment I had in Aus was when I was teaching in Sydney.
I wasn’t actually officially exam marking - I was doing some exam technique teaching with one of my Y11 classes. I had an awesome Society and Culture class and they’d done a practice essay exam and we were doing what most students hate doing and that’s reviewing it, with a fine-toothed comb, after.
I’d marked them and I’d gone and photocopied and anonymised some responses or sections of their responses so that we could dive deeper on where they got marks, where they lost marks and what made one sentence reach a higher criteria than another.
So, as you can imagine, it wasn’t exactly the most active and exciting lesson for them, but I knew it was super-valuable. And right in the middle of one of our own mini-heated debates of ‘but they wrote this and I wrote that’
one of the students just slapped her hands on her desk and instead of saying what I thought she was going to say which was something like, “oh my god, this is so dull” or “this is ridiculous” (honestly, my stomach sunk a little bit in that second)
she actually looked at me and said ‘Oh my god miss, this is gold'.
And a few of the others also then chipped in with, 'yeah, this is actually really helpful'. And they even had smiles on their faces. And with a bit of a chat, they said they’d never done any thing quite so detailed or really understood how to do this stuff.
So, what I want to share with you here is that if your teen is not reviewing their completed tasks - like really dissecting and scrutinising them to within an inch of their life - maybe not quite, but kinda - either their formal assessments or practise ones, then they are missing out on a huge amount of- as that student put it - GOLD.
Now I did a whole podcast episode on doing exactly that in episode 13 - Assessment post-mortems, so I’ll link that up in the show notes and you can go check that out if you could use some input on that.
Now, I always wish that I could say that magic teacher moment was the moment that I decided to start Rock Solid Study, but it wasn’t as romantic as that and I clearly wasn’t as quick off the mark as that.
But I will say that it definitely was one of the seeds that got planted in my brain to make me want to share this sort of training more widely and really made me realise how little students are really taught with this.
Which, given that I never really did it, didn’t really know how to do it myself before I started exam board marking, is no surprise actually. So again, no criticism here - just my observations and experiences.
And so next, in terms of exam board work, I became a Naplan Writing Test marker.
But, seeing as this episode is already about the length of an episode, I’ll leave you with that major cliff-hanger - NAPLAN marking -oooh! What on earth will happen?!
But I have loads more to share, like the exact 10 marking criteria your teen should be using to help them in any of their English writing, and how one command word messed up a significant number of students in a Maths question when I was marking Y12 exams a few years later.
And yes, I’ll explain how I’ve gotten to mark Maths exam questions as well as English writing test papers when I started out as geography teacher.
All that to come next week - have a brilliant week and I’ll see you then! Bye!