You’re listening to the Parents of Hardworking Teens Podcast, episode 51 - where we’re going to talk about the question no exam has EVER asked. WHY talk about a question your teen will never be asked? Because so many students still try to answer it. Agh!
Hello VIPs! Welcome to episode 51! I am so happy to be recording this for you today because I am just off the back of the Next Level Live training event -and more specifically off the back of what turned out to be a bit of a recovery week! Because I had an interesting little moment in the evening and day after the event, where I had the feeling that is so similar to how I remember feeling as a student. I had that mixture of relief, mixed with exhaustion and elation that I haven’t really had for a while, and it honestly reminded me of that same feeling as a student getting to the end of a block of finals. That last GCSE exam or the last exam of my degree.
Because even though I knew that I was putting a lot into that event, in terms of research and time and energy, and that there was a ton of brand new and high level content and concepts and detail, I didn’t realise just how full on and important it had become until afterwards. It felt like my brain actually needed to decompress a bit! I really hadn’t realised just how much of my mental energy it was taking up in the weeks leading up to it.
I think some of the weight of importance has come from knowing that it isn’t just students who struggle with hitting the top criteria in extended responses. I know so many teachers who also struggle with the vagueness of not so much the questions, but the vagueness of the mark schemes. And I know how much students want to be able to figure this out and I know that even the teachers aren’t always able to help them do it. That’s not a dig at any teachers. As I’ve said many times before, I didn’t know this stuff before I became and examiner. And I know first hand and from speaking to so many teachers that they aren’t always 100% clear on what the descriptors actually truly mean or require, in terms of things like - what makes something appropriate, vs what makes it well-chosen. Or they kinda know it when they see it, that’s one thing, but trying to train or teach students on HOW to do it is another and it’s just not happening. Which is why, months ago I decided to try my best to make it happen.
A few hours before the event, as I was reviewing the slides and going over the content, I really was feeling pretty nervous. And although I always get the usual nerves or a bit of stress in the lead up to any sort of live event, like running a webinar or being on an interview, it had been a while since I felt that nervous. And so afterwards, I really felt that big release of pressure along with a nice little bit of elation, when you know you’ve done something big and it’s gone well. Like an interview or a performance, because I was really pleased with what was in there and how I delivered it and I’d already gotten some fantastic interaction and feedback during the workshop.
So, for this podcast I want to share the underlying point that everything in there was based upon. The one sentence that I believe is proof that more facts, and more knowledge are not what’s required to hit top criteria. Because the event was entitled: Hit the Top Criteria in Extended Responses. But even when the question sounds big or vague or general, or is one of those ones where teachers say ‘there’s no right or wrong answer - as long as you explain your answer’ - I used to hate that as a student. I still do a little bit, but I get there’s more to that now. Even when that’s the sort of question your teen is faced with, I want them to know that there is a specific focus to that question no matter how it is worded and therefore there is a systematic way to tackle it and there will be specific things the marker is looking for in their response.
Now, quick announcement here. I’m going to be deep-diving into all things exams - revision, dissecting questions on the spot in an exam, understanding how they’re marked - in my special exams parent webinar next Tuesday evening, the 30th May.
You can register for free right now at www.gradetransformation.com/exams to discover how exams really work and how your teen can boost their results with less stress and more confidence. And this episode is a perfect kinda intro for that webinar actually, because I’ve already decided to title this episode … Asked no Exam Question, Ever.
Sometimes I record the episode and then come up with the title, and sometimes, just from my planning and ideas, I know what I want to call it. This one was definitely the latter, knowing from the moment I started to think about it. Because you’ve heard me say time and time again, that more marks does not mean just writing more info. But how do we KNOW that’s the situation? How do we know that exams are not just testing your teen’s subject knowledge or that learning more and more subject content won’t mean better performance in exams? Because no exam question - or essay, or assignment for that matter - ever said: Write down everything you know about X.
In fact, not even an oral assessment just says - talk to me about X.
This is how we know that just putting in more facts and information, does not necessarily mean more marks. Sometimes they might need more content, they might need more factual information, but for extended responses, that is never ALL they need. But this is the trap so many students fall into.
In fact, in the Topic and Focus system that I train students in for dissecting essay questions, I actually have them identify what I specifically call ‘topic traps’. Where students can be tempted to start rambling on about a topic, giving lots of information but not actually answering the question. Identifying those potential traps is an important step in that system. Because if you’re not aware of them, if you haven’t shone a spotlight on those potential traps, then you’re more likely to fall into them.
To be clear, I am talking about formal assessment here. In particular exams. Yes, a teacher might set up something like a starter activity for a lesson, I definitely have - where they ask students to write down everything they know about a topic before they start just to see where they’re at. Or maybe for a revision activity, to see how much they remember and where the gaps are. Classroom activities might do that. But exams, I can assure you, won’t.
The lower mark questions might be knowledge or understanding level questions, but there will be so few marks that they won’t want to to know EVERYTHING. And the higher mark questions won’t want more info, they’ll want some info but it’ll need to be critiqued or processed in some way in order to be responded to at a higher level.
Here’s why no exam, or assignment, or essay, or report ever asks your teen to ‘write everything they know about X.
It’s not because it would perhaps require a 25 page booklet for some students and 17 hours of exam time to get it all down. It’s because the answer to that question - write everything you know - is purely operating at the describe and explain levels of response.
Those are at the two lowest levels of Bloom’s taxonomy. Remember and Understand. You can state lots of facts - state is a remember level command. And you can explain how something works or why it is the way it is or how it came to be. Explain is an understand level of command. But, exams, and in particular the highest mark questions, the big extended response questions in exams are NOT wanting your teen to operate at the describe and understand levels.
They do not just want stats, facts and info. That will likely be part of it, it’s not that they aren’t required, they will need to show they know definitions or what certain things are or how they work, but it’s not enough for the top criteria and it’s not where the top marks lie.
In fact, in the Next Level event, in the ‘warm up’ as I called it, students dissected a 6 mark extended response mark scheme - not the question, the mark scheme - and the criteria were all describe and explain up to 3 marks. It was an analysis level question, and to get one mark the student had to provide some relevant information, for two marks describe the interactions between the two sources, and for three marks they had to explain the interactions. That meant that any student who just responded by describing or explaining, was stuck at three marks no matter what. No matter how much info they put in their answer, no matter how much they wrote. Stuck at half marks if they didn’t actually analyse.
Now if your teen isn’t 100%, or let’s be realistic and say 90% confident, in how to go from explain to analyse - especially as we know that it isn’t just about giving more info or writing more, this will make a huge difference to them. They really need to be skilled in identifying, understanding and responding to ALL command words - so if they’re not, and they’re in Yrs 9 to 12 or 10 to 13, and especially in the senior years, get them into the 10WGT asap. Seriously.
The higher mark questions will always be pitched at the apply, analyse and evaluate level commands, and doing more and more describing, stating or explaining does not equal applying, analysing or evaluating. They are different skills. And they produce different answers. Sometimes completely different answers.
And I know that sometimes it can be tricky to imagine that. That just changing the command or the key focus of the question can mean totally different answers are required even though the same topic is being asked about so I thought I’d share one with you here. Because you know I can’t resist this sort of stuff and an excuse to go find real life examples. So, I figured it would be best to do this for a content-heavy subject. So, I went and downloaded the Biology HSC 2022 exam paper and I went through it to find the question with the highest marks allocated.
Actually, for the Bio paper, for an individual question the highest mark was 7 marks. Not that much. It did have questions that were worth like 15 marks, but then they were subdivided into smaller 3 and 4 mark Qs. So the 7 marker was on the topic of genetics. OMG, could you imagine if an exam question did say: ‘Write everything you know about genetics’. Anyway, as you’ve guessed, it didn’t say that. It gave a table of percentages of a population with a particular allele. Remember, you don’t need to know anything about the topic here to be able to dissect the question, so stick with me. But remember - from last week’s episode - the 6 elements of exam technique - the element of USING any resource provided, they WILL need to specifically reference data from that table in their answer. So that’s really our first clue that they won’t just be writing what they know. They’ll be having to use and refer to that table explicitly. I will put the link to this past paper in the show notes for this episode if you do want to go check it out at all.
So the question actually said - Explain how mutation, natural selection, genetic drift and gene flow could have led to these differences in the gene pools of populations with differing ancestry. Phew - there is a lot in that question.
I honestly thought about just going and finding a different paper when I read that and was like, oh wow - that is heavy to read out on the podcast, but I wanted to keep things real and not just pick and choose, because students don’t get to do that in exams do they?
So, that question will require the student to know what each of those 4 genetic processes are, and yes, be able to explain them, but most importantly here, APPLY them to the stats in the data table. To use their knowledge to explain how each of those processes could have resulted in the percentages in the data table. They need to describe and explain AND then apply them to the stats - to that particular scenario. And given that this is only 7 marks, then they also need to be discerning about just how much explanation they give in the answer. They need to cover 4 processes and there are only 7 marks. So getting focused and succinct is definitely also going to be important here. In fact, possibly the most important skill here is going to be figuring out not how to wow the marker with all your genetics knowledge, but instead figuring out what will be the most important descriptive or explanatory information that applies to the given scenario.
This is good news in terms of education being prep for life on a wider scale. Just like I spoke about in the Artificial Intelligence episode a few weeks ago, we don’t want to be prepping your teen to be able to just memorise facts and information. We have the internet and computers for that. We WANT the higher level skills of application and analysis, evaluation and creation to be the skills they develop so they can go after higher level and more interesting careers and pathways and be adept in life. Not just becoming skilled at regurgitating facts and info but knowing what to DO with that information so that it becomes useful and applicable. And yes, that is harder to do, and that’s the point. It is harder to do, which is why these skills get more marks. And those are both good reasons - success in exams and success in life - to learn them. Because the skills of analysis or skills of application - are exactly that. They are skills and skills can be learned.
So come join me at the exams parent webinar Tuesday 30th May at 7.30pm AEST, to suss out how exams are really written and marked and how to help your teen leverage this insider knowledge and info to their advantage. And I should say that this is information that I’m absolutely allowed to share by the way - it's all out there on exam board websites and education publications, but most people don’t know to look for it and certainly don’t have the time, or, I guess the education training to really be able to distill it and truly be able to USE it. But I’ve worked in it, used and literally live by it day in, day out, so I’m distilling it and sharing with you the most important points, the critical skills, the most effective strategies that can literally make a difference to your teen and their results immediately. In fact, last time I shared this information - I had an email from a parent who said her teenage daughter literally made a huge transformation the very next day. In fact, I’ll literally read you that email:
This mum said:
Last week she had Covid and missed her Y11 exams. Yesterday she sat Chemistry. She was sitting on an A grade average but struggles in exams. The teacher marked it straight away and she failed her exam with 48%. Last night we did your webinar and enrolled her in the 10 Week Grade Transformation course. After the webinar she looked into a few command words and we talked about how to unpack the questions. Today she sat the biology exam, for which she was averaging a B. The teacher marked it straight away and she got 77%: an A! How's that for an instant transformation!
So, if you’d like to know more about those skills and strategies, then register for the webinar (it’s totally free) at www.gradetransformation.com/exams.
Have a brilliant week and I’ll see you back here next week for another episode of the parents of hardworking teens podcast!