Tom Husband ditches the assessment obsession

Past papers shutterstock 121847875 300tb[1]

Source: © Shutterstock

When I did my PGCE it was drilled into me that I should use past paper questions as much as possible with exam classes. It was billed as the ideal assessment for learning strategy in GCSE and A-level classes, enabling the teacher to gauge progress, while showing students what to expect in exams. This greatly influenced my teaching, but I have started to have misgivings.

Enlightened, progressive teachers, should be sensitive to their students’ own views about how they learn best. Teachers shouldn’t tyrannically insist that they are wrong when they make claims like, ‘Concept maps don’t work for me.’ But as I hear that phrase adapted to each and every new task, I begin to see a pattern. In the eyes of the students, absolutely nothing works for them – except past paper questions.

Concept maps? What’s the point? No one can complete one unless they already understand the concepts. Gap fill exercises? Pointless! You can pick the words based on how they fit grammatically, rather than whether the meaning matches the context. (I have some pretty forthright students.)

The one thing I never get complaints about is past paper questions. Quite the opposite. My students assure me they should be doing such questions, because that’s what they’ll have to do in the exam.

Not all learning strategies suit all learners, but I’m not advocating the reprisal of the VAK paradigm. The literature suggests, for example, that reflective writing is not for everyone. This bothers me, because by contrast, metacognitive strategies are deemed unbelievably awesome, and the two are not that dissimilar. The point is we need to inspire students to adopt new strategies, not punish them for spurning them. Unfortunately, the past paper obsession is making that harder. 

Assessment obsession

One of many problems with studying past papers is the arbitrary divisions their mark schemes make. The fact that the number of electron shells increases is distinct from the fact that electron shielding increases. That’s a causal relationship, for the appreciation of which students should be credited. But in most mark schemes, saying either one gets a point, so why sweat it? 

Meanwhile, one of my students frequently bemoans the fact that he wrote down half of what was required for a particular marking point, but omission of the other part robbed him of any credit. On the flipside, students often tell themselves they lost marks not because of the quality of their answer, but because it did not sufficiently resemble the wording in the mark scheme.

I must admit, my university grades were rubbish until I started looking at past papers. But that was the first time I was consciously aware that looking at past papers was a thing. I don’t remember doing it at A-level or GCSE. So while I appreciate the value of past paper questions, I’m worried about my students’ increasing obsession with them. 

I think my students are savvy enough to find their own past paper questions, so I’m going to experiment with homework assignments that don’t involve any. I’ll be giving a choice of activities, along with the choice to ignore them all in favour of some other strategy – as long as it isn’t poring over past papers.

Tom Husband is a chemistry teacher and author