Why becoming an examiner helped my students and colleagues

Marking exam papers

Source: NicoElNino / Shutterstock.com

‘I’ve been an examiner for the past few years, so I’ve seen the common errors, misinterpretations of questions and styles of questioning that cause confusion.’

I have just marked 300 A-level scripts and can honestly say it is the best professional development experience I’ve had. From past experience, I have no doubt this year’s pile of marking will be invaluable when teaching next year. Additionally, I’ve a better understanding of the new A-level qualification.

Students need to practice exam technique alongside the chemistry knowledge. Moreover, weird and wonderful answers can emerge under stress in the exam hall.

Most teachers would like to think we could conquer any exam question. In reality, we know that even teachers can fall foul of exam phrasing or misinterpret what an exam board is looking for.

The full picture

I’ve been an examiner for the past few years, so I’ve seen the common errors, misinterpretations of questions and styles of questioning that cause confusion. Once I’ve seen several hundred scripts I’m so familiar with common incorrect answers I can see patterns and appreciate the misconceptions students have about a topic. I have often been amazed by the problems certain questions cause. I have marked mechanisms that may have looked correct at first glance by students but silly errors result in zero out of four marks.

I get a picture of the highest and lowest standard, which puts my students’ progress into perspective. My students think I’m a harsh marker. Colleagues often ask students, ‘how many marks would Dr Evans give this?’. Of course, I am the same standard as the other examiners, but I use my experience to tell students where and how they lose marks.

Informing teaching

With a fuller knowledge of common hurdles, I emphasise these in the classroom. For example, this year I noticed many students struggled with the phrasing of ‘Deduce the relative polarities …’ in a question about two different substances separated using thin layer chromatography. It was clear from the range of responses the word ‘deduce’ followed by some challenging chemistry made the question seem less accessible for some students. Based on this I will spend next year talking to my students about interpreting exam language. I will select some challenging examples supported by the exam board’s list of command words as part of our revision process.

As an examiner, I see the common errors, misinterpretations of questions and styles of questioning that cause great confusion

I’ve also learnt that attention to detail can make all the difference. For example, at GCSE level, describing something as the higher value where highest value was meant can affect marks. After GCSE, students need to appreciate the extra level of knowledge they need to demonstrate in exams. At A-level teachers know it is not acceptable to define a weak acid as ‘a substance that does not fully dissociate’. Usually, partially/slightly dissociates is found on the mark scheme. One year, the first draft of the mark scheme did not include one of these wordings. Fortunately, this was modified by the second draft. Just having this knowledge and being part of the discussion it provoked was useful.

It’s not only the students who benefit. Teachers within my department get a feel for the bigger picture from my feedback about trends in strengths and weaknesses in exams. After allocating zero marks repeatedly for the same question it’s clear teachers need to spend more time tackling that topic with their students.

How to become an examiner

Exam boards regularly advertise for examiners on their websites. Select an exam board relevant to you and examine an area where you could do with more experience. Consider practical factors such as when they require you to mark. Some exams sat in May could require marking over the half term break while exams sat towards the end of June won’t be marked until July.

Qualifications required vary. When I was an independent school teacher without a PGCE I could mark for AQA but not for Edexcel. Some exam boards rely on experience whereas others require qualified teacher status.

Each exam board prepares examiners differently but all have training papers and a standardisation process to ensure their examiners understand what is acceptable. After my training I began marking live papers. For most qualifications this is electronic and you tend to mark by question. Within a marking quota there are seed questions, which are pre-marked to check markers remain up to standard. If marking doesn’t meet the standard the system stops the marker until they’ve discussed the question with a team leader or advisor.

Make the most of it

I have found that when marking scripts it is useful to keep a notepad handy for short notes about common errors. It is valuable to note areas you previously thought would have achieved the mark but your new experience tells you could cause problems. This is particularly useful for a department INSET day. I also recommend talking to other staff and examiners as much as possible. If you share your new knowledge about how you feel students found an exam it’s more likely to stick.

Caroline Evans is head of chemistry at Wellington College in Berkshire, UK