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4:33pm on Sunday, 30th August, 2009:

My Best Exam


The best exam I ever took was my A-Level mathematics. I finished early, so had plenty of time to look through and check the answers. I was certain that all the answers were correct, and couldn't see where it was possible I would lose any marks. I was confident I'd get an A — what else would I have had to have done to get anything more than an A?!

When the results came out, I got a C.

"What else I would have had to have done" was show my working out. I gave the correct answers, but didn't explain how I got them. I worked them out in my head.

We were the first group of children at our school to be expected to take A-levels (mine was the year when they dropped the 11+ exam, and Hornsea School turned from being a Secondary Modern to a Comprehensive). We were also the first to try a new kind of A-level where there were more questions than you needed to answer to get full marks — you could choose which ones to do. Our teachers told us to write down out working-out, so that if we got the answer wrong we might still get some marks.

This combination meant:

  1. We thought that if you did harder questions, you would get more marks.
  2. We thought that if you did more questions than you needed to, you would get more marks.
  3. We thought that if you didn't give your working-out, you would get more marks because it showed you were cleverer.
  4. We thought that you only needed to show your working-out if you might get the answer wrong.

All of these beliefs were false. Harder questions had just the same number of marks as easy ones; if you did more questions you'd only be marked for the ones you scored most in; there were no marks given for working it out in your head; marks were awarded for the working-out as well as for the answer.

It was the last point that cost me in my A-level maths. Under the misapprehension of point 3), I studiously gave no working out. Thus, I got all the marks allocated for correct answers, but none of the marks allocated for showing my working-out. This meant I got a C rather than an A, and that I wound up at Essex University instead of my first choice, Exeter (which wanted a B in maths).

Today's schoolchildren are properly coached in examination techniques. It's still amazing how many of them manage to get to university without following the most basic precept that even we got right three decades ago: read the question.

Damn, a C. It still rankles...

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Copyright © 2009 Richard Bartle (richard@mud.co.uk).