The exam season is over for another year – primary and secondary school pupils can finally put their pens away and stop sweating (at least until their results come out).
If this is you, then kick back and take a well-earned break over the summer holidays while we look at what can be learned from this year’s exam papers.
#1 “Simple” questions aren’t always that simple
Every year, exams hit the media due to some mind-bending questions that students can’t get their heads around. This time, it was a practice maths question aimed at 7 year old pupils:
There were some people on a train.
19 people get off the train at the first stop. 17 people get on the train. Now there are 63 people on the train.
How many people were on the train to begin with?
As soon as the question was posted on Twitter by primary school teacher Louise Bloxham, debate about the answer began in earnest.
The correct answer is apparently 46 (by treating the 19 people getting off as a red herring and subtracting 17 from 63), according to the mark scheme, but this is still contested by others who say the answer is actually 65, if you work the answer out algebraically.
Many complained the question was either too difficult or too ambiguous, and added more ammunition to parent’s protests over the setting of standardised tests for Year 2 pupils.
And if you think this one is difficult, check out other baffling exam questions that have appeared around the internet recently, including:
So try not to worry if you encounter questions like these during exams – they are there to test you, and even if you feel it should be easy to work out the answer, they can still trip up a lot of examinees.
#2 Academics also find school exams difficult
She described questions in a grammar test for 11 year olds “daunting”, while referring to pupils’ primary school years as a “grammar-filled career”. Dr Bousted then selected the following four questions from the grammar test and put them to adults in a bid to prove her point:
1. How many determiners are in this sentence: 'Two apple trees screened the open windows on one side.'
2. Complete this sentence so that it uses the subjunctive form: 'If I (-----) to have one wish, it would be for good health.'
3. Identify the verb form that is in the present perfect in this passage: 'Rachel loves music and has wanted to learn how to play the piano for years. She was hoping for piano lessons, and was delighted when her parents gave her a keyboard for her birthday.'
4. Is the phrase 'where my father works' in this sentence a preposition phrase, a relative clause, a main clause or a noun phrase? 'My baby brother was born in the hospital where my father works.
And this is why Dr Bousted believes the curriculum aims too high, at a level that isn’t even achievable for adults, let alone children.
So all we can say is that if academics with degrees and PhDs feel current exams are over-burdening, then primary and secondary school students can only strive to do the best they can with this level of testing.
#3 Beware of odd questions
It was reported that pupils were asked what a 15 year old boys’ favourite alcoholic beverage was, based on some data provided, and then asked further questions about a study on rats that had become dependent on alcohol.
After answering these, students then had to describe “What is an independent business?”.
You may be thinking this was something that was supposed to appear on a Business Studies paper, and just an unfortunate misprint, but AQA insisted there had been no mistake and the question was part of the material covered in the topic on alcohol abuse (obviously a detail that secondary school teachers were not made aware of!).
It should then come as no surprise that many pupils were outraged, since they had been expecting questions on the carbon cycle and plant hormones, only to be thrown ones on alcohol abuse, a topic that had not been taught to them in the classroom. It was also noted by one pupil that out of 36 topics covered in the official revision guide, only six of these actually came up in the exam.
So if you happen to find yourself completely in the dark during your exam over questions like these, then try not to panic – remember, everyone else is likely to be in the same boat, so just try to give answer if possible. You never know what will get you marks, so it’s always worth a stab.
#4 Even MPs don’t know all the answers
If you’re worrying how well you did in your exams, take heart from former Tory Education Minister Nick Gibb’s embarrassment on live radio, after he failed to answer an exam question set for 11 year olds.
In early May, BBC Radio 4 World at One host Martha Kearney put the following question to Mr Gibbs:
"Let me give you this sentence: 'I went to the cinema after I'd eaten my dinner'
"Is the word 'after' there being used as a subordinating conjunction or as a preposition ?"
To which the minister cheerily answered: “Well it’s a preposition”.
But in his defence, he apparently “wasn’t taught grammar in primary school”. However, this didn’t stop a wave of amusement and delight from users on Twitter and other social media channels, and it isn’t the first time MPs and politicians have been caught out when ambushed with questions from standard exam papers.
Former Prime Minister David Cameron also famously failed a grammar question for 11 year olds earlier this year.
Speaking in Parliament for Prime Minister’s Questions, Green MP Caroline Lucas asked David Cameron to define a “modal verb”, one of many similar literacy questions that appeared in this year’s national curriculum tests in primary schools.
Mr Cameron was then jeered as he failed to give an answer. So much for backing a better education for our children, hey Dave?
Back in 2012, 97 Labour MPs were asked a simple probability problem by the Royal Statistical Society, and only a quarter of them answered it correctly – a rather disappointing result for the supposedly well-educated.
So however you perform in your exams, you can bet your bottom dollar you’re more knowledgeable than some of our MPs out there, which is something worth feeling good about.
#5 If all else fails, try something witty
OK, so of course you’re not always going to know the answers to all the questions in the paper, but with a little bit of positive thinking, you could always try a different approach to try and gain credit.
During exam season, you can guarantee at least one or two stories will hit the media around pupils who give amusing (yet often logical) answers to exam questions.
For example, take a look at this pupil’s clever response to a SATs question, which went viral in late May. No doubt summing up the mood for most students, their answer also happened to be correct and scored marks.
Other classic cases of trying to outsmart the system include this kid who tried answering a question in the most literal sense possible, this amusing response to a critical thinking problem, and a pupil’s funny reply to a question on tornados.
Please note, this approach isn’t wholly recommended – exams should be taken seriously, and you could end up wasting time by trying to think of something appropriately amusing. One should only take this route if you happen to have a flash of inspiration, and have answered all the other questions on the paper.
It’s a cheerful ending to a demanding experience, so if you really don’t know the answer to a question, then why not have a moment of fun? After all, logical (yet incorrect) answers have been known to gain marks in the past.
#6 Exams will always be stressful
Yup, that’s a fact (unless you really just don’t care, or always manage to remain cool as a cucumber, whatever the situation). It’s normal to feel stressed during exam time, and the right dose of it can actually help you perform better.
This year, exam stress has again made news headlines for a number of reasons, including the cause of teen suicides, the use of puppies and bunnies to relieve symptoms, a rise in the number of calls to Childline, and children as young as six feeling pressurised by exams.
However, don’t let this bad press make your revision time any worse – exams are a fact of life, designed to check you are where you are supposed to be academically, and that these are just one set of tests you’ll have to face over your lifetime.
There will be your driving test, job interviews, and further exams if you choose to go on to university, or apply for an apprenticeship or other vocational course.
And remember, while there will always be some who argue that students are now “over-examined”, there’s nothing you can do to change the curriculum, and there are thousands of other students going through the same experience as you.
The only thing you can do to keep the stress at bay is to organise your revision sessions efficiently. This will ensure you’ve covered all the material required so that you’re as prepared as possible on the day, which in turn will give you the confidence to succeed, and make you feel you did as well as you could. Eating properly, i.e. fruit and vegetables with minimum junk food, and getting a good night’s sleep every day will also help.
If you really find yourself under a cloud, and feel you’re struggling with all the revision, speak to someone you trust - this might be a friend, parent or teacher. They can at least provide a sounding board so you don’t bottle it all up, and maybe even give you some pointers with revision techniques.
Overall, the important lesson learned from exams each year is not to worry. There will always be spanners thrown into the works along the way, and it’s certainly not the end of the world if you don’t end up doing as well as you’d hoped. So you can only really knuckle down with the revision and do the best you can on the day.
If you have any comments, suggestions or feedback on my post, please leave your reply below.