Episode 28: Diary of an External Examiner - Part 2
LISTEN AND FOLLOW ON:
More from inside the world of exams!
In PART 2 I explain:
- why your teen doesn't need to be a natural writer to succeed in English written assessments.
- the 10 criteria the marker is looking for in writing tasks.
- how one command word can make a Maths question smooth and simple, or tricky and lengthy.
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 28 - and we’re getting into Part 2 of my exam marker diaries. So, if you want to know the 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 Y12 Maths question I marked, then keep listening.
Hey VIPs! And welcome to part 2 of my Exam Marker Diaries.
I hope this has been helpful so far. I always feel a bit silly just telling my own stories, but I always get emails when I send out those sorts of emails to my subscribers or episodes on the podcast from parents saying they enjoy them. I think it’s because we often learn best through stories and being able to really imagine the real life events happening. So, if you haven’t yet listened to Part 1, you can go find that on Episode 27.
And Taking up where I left off there, after marking GCSE exams in England and then teaching exam technique to one of my classes in Sydney, we can fast forward to a bit of a detour, which I did not love at the time, but was definitely another key moment and turn of events that has brought me to where I am today. And that was being given an Essential English class on my timetable - and as a non-English specialist feeling pretty out of my depth. Especially as, by now I had adopted my second subject - as a teacher in Australia who has two subjects, not one like in the UK - and it was Maths - the complete opposite of English- and so you know me by now - I went and found ways to make me better at teaching and helping those students. And the bonus was that it also gave me more of that love I was developing for getting behind the scenes of, and into the inner workings of exams.
Because, it turns out, you don’t actually have to be an English teacher to mark for the Naplan writing tests, but you do have to have experience in exam marking and applying criteria effectively.
So, I jumped on it, keen to try to improve my knowledge of some of the English foundations and also in helping students be successful in their assessments.
And this experience was perfect for that. It was definitely a dropped- in- the- deep- end thing, but it totally worked.
Because you get to mark papers from across the whole cohort, right from Y3 to Y9 and so you see how the 10 marking criteria get applied to a really wide range of responses. So, challenging, but super-helpful. Challenging in more ways than one.
For this, you had to go to a special secure marking centre to do the training and marking which was every evening after school and at weekends for a week and a half. I don’t know how teachers with kids do it, because even I found that a struggle, literally leaving the house at 7.15am and then going straight from school to the marking centre and not getting home til gone 9pm. The piles of marking definitely built up and so did the piles of laundry I can tell you.
But the thing that I really got out of that marking was not just being a better teacher of the nuts and bolts of English, as a non-English specialist, but even more usefully - for me in the long term - was realising how students could adapt their writing in easy ways to create more impact and get more marks, AND MOST OF ALL - it showed me how no-one needs to be a natural talent at writing in order to score well in writing or English assessments.
Once I knew exactly what was being looked for in students writing, I realised that being creative or original was not an important factor. It can BE A factor, but it is never the most important and often isn’t that important at all. A student who’d written about the same topic as another 87 papers I’d marked could score better by nailing lots of the criteria, than a student who’d come up with a really creative story or a really original persuasive argument, but didn’t hit the criteria.
AND I can tell you, that these criteria that we mark against for Naplan, are basically the same as students are marked against even in the senior assessments in English.
I know this because I also then marked for the Y12 QCS exams which include a Y12 extended writing exam. QCS is the QLD core Skills tests - because by this time I’d upped my sun-chasing game from going from the UK to Sydney, to then moving to QLD, and after a couple of years in Brisbane I then did the extra hour north and have the pleasure of living on the Sunshine Coast of the Sunshine State. I don’t like to do things by halves, haha.
But, here is what I really want to share. The Naplan marking guide is super clear and easy to use, and so I recommend to all students, if they don’t have a copy, to go and download it - it’s free and public for anyone to download online - and use it to help them tick more boxes in their writing no matter their year group or standard of writing. Now, of course the standards are higher in the Y12 exams, but what I saw was that the actual criteria that they’re being judged on are the same.
So, as a non-English specialist, and as someone who as a student, never had a natural flair for writing or creativity, and didn’t even enjoy reading at all from about the age of 13 to into my 20’s, I was really starting to see the power of knowing marking criteria with the bigger writing assessments.
And, all of this was also around the time that Rock Solid Study started to come to life - probably no coincidence really, hey. Getting more and more into the exam side of things, and realising how many students really needed this training and support. So, I was still full time teaching, and doing the marking and starting up Rock Solid Study, writing the 10 Week Grade Transformation Program.
And, like I said, I also got started with marking for the Y12 QCS exams.
That was fantastic. These were core skills exams that were ended three years ago as QLD moved to the full ATAR system. But they were very much like the GAT exams - the General Achievement Tests that are still sat in Victoria for the VCE today.
And I loved marking these because they weren’t subject specific and so they were a perfect example of exam technique in action. Yes, there were more literacy-based questions or numeracy-based questions, but they would revolve around sources provided or they’d purely be on comprehension or application skills.
So, marking for this particular exam gave me loads of experience in marking all different types of questions - from short 3 word answers, to drawing graphs, up to full page extended responses and even the Y12 Writing Test where students had to write a 1500 word response to an unseen stimulus.
But, one of my most memorable moments was marking a numeracy question on the short response paper. Remember - my second subject by this time was Maths,so, as you can imagine by now, yes, I also wanted to up my game in the exams side of maths too. And for QCS marking, the paper was divided up and different groups of us were allocated one or two questions. We could nominate our preferences for what we wanted to mark, so for my first year of that I opted for the Maths questions.
And, in case you’re wondering… or concerned by this variety of markers on a variety of papers thing. A) I’ll say my story is pretty unusual. I don’t know of anyone else who has sought out this amount of different types of exam marking. It was really the combination of being thrown an English class one year and also adding Maths to my teaching when I moved to Australia that has taken me down this path.
And B) they don’t just train us and then let us loose to mark. We have to do practise scripts during training which we go through with fine-toothed comb with the lead marker, and then even as you’re marking, there are all sorts of checkers in place, like having a random sample of your marking each day re-marked by a lead marker to check it, like having a control script every day, where everyone marks that and your marks are checked against what the lead markers give, and even, in some exams, where every paper is marked by two different markers and then, if there is a discrepancy, it is marked a third time by yet another marker.
So these systems are very rigorous when it comes to external exam systems.
Now, in this QCS exam paper, in one of the questions the command said to estimate. And I’d say in almost half the scripts I marked the students had calculated, rather than estimated. Which required some pretty advanced mathematical skills, which either meant they messed it up and got the answer wrong - or they got the answer correct, but had taken two or three times longer than they needed to to get it and therefore probably ran out of time to answer some of the other questions on the paper.
That was a big eye opener as to the power of a command word on a maths or numeracy question and has stuck with me ever since. I even still have a copy of that past paper in my filing cabinet.
And really, this then brings us to today. Because once QLD moved to the ATAR exam system, I went full circle and got back in marking for Geography which I’ve done every year for the past three years. But I ALSO took the opportunity to really get involved in the exam writing side of things. Because, with a new exam system comes new positions, and so over these three years I’ve also been on the Writing Panel and Scrutiny Panel for the QCAA ATAR exams.
Now, I’m afraid these are things that I’m really not able to share anything about, for obvious reasons. But it has definitely given me an even deeper experience of what goes into creating exam questions, the mark schemes and I’ve actually been in the debates amongst us before things get to the ‘this is final’ stage.
So, with all of that said, that is the story of how I became an exam geek and how I hope to continue using all of that experience and my future roles and experiences to enlighten you and serve your teen if they ever come and join my in the 10 Week Grade Transformation or go on to coaching with me in Next Level Coaching.
And I hope that you can take away and action even just one of these things. Like getting that Naplan writing test mark scheme with the 10 criteria, or making sure your teen knows the real difference between ‘clear’ and ‘detailed’ on an extended response.
Be sure to join me next week for my tips based on this year’s ATAR Y12 marking and if you’re finding this podcast helpful, then please leave a rating and review - I know it feels like a pain, but it really only takes less than a minute while you’ve got the podcast app open. I’ll really appreciate it and it will just help get this out to more parents who could use it. Have a brilliant week and I’ll see you back here next week!