Exam Rant

I’m about to sit my last ever batch of secondary school exams (A2 modules), so it’s past paper season and a rant is called for.

In fact, I’m generally happy with the exams that we’re sitting. The Maths syllabus and exams are interesting and cover extremely useful and interesting topics, particularly differential equations and a massive amount of Newtonian mechanics, with some quasi-Lagrangian stuff thrown in at M4; my only major qualms are that the course is weak on linear algebra (a personal interest) and contains nothing on vector calculus, an enormous topic which would have been enormously useful for getting a handle on understanding the extra-curricular physics and fluid dynamics we were shown in lessons (rather than just commenting on the shapes of the symbols). Most importantly the exams do the subject justice; for the further maths modules, it is necessary to be proficient at the subject to do well, which, from my experience so far, for UK exams based on the national curriculum, is almost unique. And of course there’s always STEP which I fail at due to lack of ability rather than lack of exam technique which suggests it’s a good exam.

Physics and computing are similar; the exams are mathematical, quantitative and logical in nature, requiring few wordy answers, of which almost all are worth few marks and have entirely reasonable mark schemes. Though CAPS has been giving us questions from past A level and Oxbridge physics papers throughout the year, and not only are the questions from those demanding – both mathematically and conceptually – but they are also genuinely interesting and by doing them, candidates develop a deep understanding of aspects of some of the topics involved; the rainbow made beautiful in the style of Lilley’s ‘Discovering Relativity for Yourself’ – through working out the answers to a series of exquisitely well-thought-out questions. The current physics exams are almost entirely uninteresting slogs in comparison, though still good.

And now we come to chemistry, and the body of my rant. Perhaps I’m simply biased because I’m not a good chemist in the first place (or at least I’m even worse at chemistry than I am at all my other subjects). Or maybe I just want to blame the fact that I scored a low B on both chemistry mocks on something (which is by today’s standards terrible; according to CAPS last time a C was a perfectly respectable grade owing to the difficulty of the exams). Either way, I maintain that it isn’t entirely my fault that my marks are atrocious (though I concede that it is to a large extent).

It’s an old and possibly overused complaint that mark schemes / exams are badly written, and is consequently often taken lightly. Unfortunately I really do think think it’s gotten to such a stage that the Monster Raving Loony Party’s idea about education wouldn’t be that much worse than how it is currently: “It is proposed that, before the beginning of exams, the exam board will select a certain obscure phrase which will be kept secret. If any pupil inadvertently writes this phrase in any exam, he/she will automatically receive straight A* grades, and a free teddy.”

I’ll cite what I think are some of the worst examples of chemistry exam madness:
1. The mark scheme insisted that one E0 value was ‘more positive than’ another, but specifically rejected ‘greater than’.
2. To obtain the mark for one question, it was necessary to specify movement of *electron* lone pairs, not just lone pairs. Though personally I’ve never heard of lone pairs of anything other than electrons in any context.
3. The ‘Quality of Written Communication’ (QWC) mark is normally awarded for writing ‘two complete sentences’. But if you write a single long complicated sentence containing many subclauses with impeccable grammar that conveys meaning effectively and efficiently, you wouldn’t get that mark. Also, why on earth is grammar being tested in a chemistry exam? And more importantly, why does the government (or whoever it is whose fault this is) deem it necessary to test the ability of 18 year olds to construct cogent sentences!? (I admit my proficiency at written and spoken English is evidently imperfect but even the stuff I write makes sense. Doesn’t it? DOESN’T IT?)
4. Displayed formulae. Nobody uses them. Ever. Everything is skeletal. Also, the OH group is a single atom and should always be depicted as one…
5. Questions like “Discuss isomerism in complex ions” for 12 marks. They invariably have a really tight accompanying mark scheme with exactly 12 scoring points. One could conceivably (and entirely legitimately given the vagueness of the question) write an engaging paper on group theory or electronic orbitals in response and only receive the single QWC mark…

Allow me at this stage to cite Bill Watterson.

This image was taken from a fantastic blog post which more or less summarises why I love Calvin & Hobbes. Anyways, suffice it say Calvin’s words, “You’ve taught me nothing except how to cynically manipulate the system”, form an accurate representation of the national curriculum: learn answers to questions, rather than be educated.

But maybe all this is good preparation for the real world after all. Today I sat the ‘Life in the UK test’, one of the critical stages on the way to becoming a British citizen (apparently wearing tweed, drinking G&T and occasional Scottish dancing isn’t enough; trust me, I asked), for which I had to study (read: flick through Schott’s half an hour before leaving). And it can mostly be frankly and truthfully summarised as b/s: memorising dates (e.g. the precise year women were first allowed to divorce their husbands [1857 or something]), statistics and numbers (some of which as obscure and inconsequential as the percentage of Christians in the UK who are Roman Catholic [10%], some of which are required to be known to an unreasonable degree of accuracy such as the percentage of the UK’s population that is Muslim to 2sf [2.7% as of a few years ago, probably now different], and some of which don’t even make sense such as the coastline of Britain [infinite by my {and Mandelbrot’s} reckoning but that wasn’t an option]), and mundane facts (e.g. that 1941 was the only year the UK didn’t have a census). They might as well have asked ‘who put Gordon with the bigoted woman?’ [definitely Sue]. There was also what might be described as ‘jack all’ about geography, particularly mountains and weather, information which I personally consider much more central to Britain than the ethnicity of the bus drivers employed in the 1950’s [West Indies and Carribbean] (or even important things like the number of seats in the Commons).

So it seems that even after the horrors of OCR (“Recognising Achievement”) are over, life continues to be dominated by ‘cynically manipulating the system’; learning useless facts or effecting pointless tasks to satisfy some criterion for something really important. I guess that’s just what life is about and I’ll have to learn to live with it, willingly or not; if you can’t fight it, join it. Sucks to be human…

Anyways, rant over, and it’ll probably be the last before the end of June when my exams end…


5 Responses to Exam Rant

  1. From the papers I’ve looked at, I haven’t found chemistry much more objectionable than Physics. It’s certainly a lot better than Biology, for example.

    A few related points:
    – My (AQA) spec tells me that “aldehydes can be reduced to primary alcohols and ketones to secondary alcohols using reducing agents such as NaBH4. * Mechanisms showing H– are required *”.
    Clayden, Greeves, Warren and Wothers point out that “Nucleophilic attack by the hydride ion, H–, is not a known reaction.” They even draw the A2 mechanisms with the caption “nucleophilic attack by H– *never happens* H– *always* reacts as a base”

    – The AQA specimen Unit 5 paper included the question “A manager in charge of ammonia production wished to increase the daily production of ammonia and reduce the production costs. How would a chemist explain the factors that would influence the commercial efficiency of this production process?”
    To get full marks, you had to meet the QWC criteria “claims supported by an appropriate range of evidence; good use of information or ideas about chemistry, going beyond those given in the question; argument well structured with minimal repetition or irrelevant points; accurate and clear expression of ideas with only minor errors of grammar, punctuation and spelling”

    Why is QWC being marked at all? If the answer is sufficiently clear that the marker can tell whether or not it is correct, it should get marks; if it isn’t, it shouldn’t.

  2. Bryant Tan says:

    James – good spot. We have that in OCR as well – I always struggled to understand how H- could react as the A2 spec suggests. p139 in my edition of Wothers, for those wondering where this is.

    About Physics, we’re using the WJEC board which has really quite decent exams – check out the spec papers:


    p65 is where the harder of our two A2 papers starts. It’s almost all calculation and brief concise explanation. Have a go – I think you’ll see what I mean.

  3. S. Warren says:

    This was a really good account of several of the flaws in the exam system; I take the exam board for physics that you take for chemistry and they do insist on bizarrely prescriptive phrases to get decent marks in the papers. AQA insists on O-H and displayed formulae as well though.

  4. Jamie says:

    Sorry, but you’ve just got to learn to jump through the hoops. Its the same in all your life.

    Love it or hate it, there will always be someone above you who insists that you do things THEIR way, however dumb/frustrating/time-consuming it is. Its just the way it works.

    Even if this is too late, when it comes to exams, learn the mark scheme, not the syllabus. In life, do what is expected of you, not what you think is the best way.

    I know it sounds depressing, but hey thats life. Good Luck!

  5. FH says:

    What the heck is this Jamie person saying? In life, we should do what we are expected to do? Conformity is sometimes convenient but its not always the best answer and people who stand out can achieve great things.

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