Magazine article Times Educational Supplement

Social Media Fears Lead to 'Predictable' Exam Papers

Magazine article Times Educational Supplement

Social Media Fears Lead to 'Predictable' Exam Papers

Article excerpt

Concerns about online 'backlash' are preventing exam boards from setting difficult questions for students

Fear of a social media backlash is preventing exam boards from setting harder questions and leading to papers that are too easy and predictable, a prominent assessment expert has claimed.

Robert Coe, from Durham University, believes that there is currently too much emphasis on "accessibility" in exams and not enough on "high expectations" and "challenge".

"Too much low-level thinking, what I am calling 'predictable regurgitation', is rewarded in exams, and that's such a dysfunctional and distorting thing to be contending with," the academic, who advises exams regulator Ofqual on standards, said.

Professor Coe argues that a key reason for today's "overly predictable exams" is "the sense of public backlash that we'll have if we ever write an interesting exam paper...you ain't half going to get slated on social media".

"Exam boards will be very sensitive to this and Ofqual are very sensitive," he added. "The students will be complaining [online] straight away - probably not before the exam's finished but not many minutes after."

'Unexpected questions'

Professor Coe gave the example of a maths Higher paper set in Scotland last year (see box, "Case study 1: crocodile tears", above right). "They did put some innovative and unexpected questions in, and everyone thought they had made a terrible mistake," he said.

"It was much, much too hard - people were complaining. There was a whole campaign, with petitions online. It ended up with the chief executive of SQA [Scottish Qualifications Authority] having to apologise to the education committee for having written an exam that was too hard. Included in that apology was a statement about how they'd failed to make it accessible for the majority."

Professor Coe said that today's exams often rewarded "recall with limited thinking required", "question spotting", and "playing safe". Speaking to the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference this month, he said: "We have had a period where accessibility has dominated.

"I think we ought to be devoting a bit of effort to thinking about how we can, yes, keep hold of accessibility but also make sure we are not losing high expectations and we are providing challenge as well."

The academic - who is director of Durham's Centre for Evaluation and Monitoring - also argued that it was "an awful lot easier" for exam boards to write "predictable" papers.

"Much, much, harder is to come up with innovative questions and, quite often, when you do come up with innovative questions they don't work very well," he said.

"Students get confused. They don't interpret it the way you thought it was meant to be and then you're in trouble. So examiners play safe."

But the Joint Council for Qualifications (JCQ), which represents the UK's seven largest exam boards, has insisted that there is no fear of innovation.

Michael Turner, JCQ director general, said: "Teachers can be confident that a huge amount of research and expertise go into creating examination papers so they can properly assess a student's skill and knowledge - at both ends of the grade spectrum.

"As media stories and Twitter show each year, exam boards are not afraid of being innovative in setting questions. And with the new set of reforms coming, we will see further stretch and challenge in the system."

Malcolm Trobe, interim general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, recognised that "some exams are much more formulaic in their style and approach". …

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