Magazine article Times Educational Supplement

'Tim Has X Crates. How Many Cans Are Inside?'

Magazine article Times Educational Supplement

'Tim Has X Crates. How Many Cans Are Inside?'

Article excerpt

Putting exam questions in a real-life context may seem easy, but there's more to writing a well-rounded paper than you'd think

You have a crate of cola that costs £10. The crate contains 12 cans. What is the cost of seven crates? The question may prompt several responses. First: that's quite expensive for unbranded cola. Second: since when is cola packaged in crates? And third: why do we care how many cans there are in a crate? Time for a Diet Coke (or Pepsi Max/own brand equivalent).

Exam questions are often set in real-world contexts but the way they're is framed is of vital importance. Exams should measure a particular understanding or skill, and there is a risk that the thought processes provoked by the wording of a question can interfere with a candidate's ability to answer it.

Experts call this "question fidelity": questions should be written in a way that prompts certain processes in students' minds. When examiners write questions based "in reality", they do so to make abstract ideas more concrete.

There are several reasons for writing papers in this way: as well as making questions more relevant, context adds variety, which is important because many students will have used the same books and case studies.

Contrary to popular belief, context is never used to make questions more interesting - although sometimes this happens inadvertently. When a GCSE maths question recently stumped some candidates, they parodied the featured characters and settings on social media ("I was going to get another pencil during the exam but too bad that John gave them all away").

Writing questions set in real-life contexts is harder than you might think. The word count, tone and setting must all be carefully considered. Questions that are too long may affect candidates' understanding of the task, while a too-familiar context or case study will test their ability to recall facts rather than apply knowledge. Extraneous information should be kept to a minimum, unless relevant facts have to be identified.

Questions should also be logical: the aforementioned cola conundrum, which is adapted from a sample question that was used to measure candidates' responses to context, does not meet this criterion: most readers would expect in real life to work out how much one can costs, not seven crates.

Drunk on information

Contexts should also be sensible. Consider the following question from a 1984 maths textbook: Alan drank five-eighths of his pint of beer - what fraction was left?

Beer is not measured in eighths of pints. …

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