Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Myths of the tough examiner explored

"I failed my exam because the examiners were tough this year."

"This exam board is tougher than that one."

Surprisingly, it does not actually work the way that these comments suppose. Examiners do not start (or finish) the process with a policy to be harsh or strict, unless there is significant political interference with the process, which could undermine public confidence in the exam system.

Where you start, ideally, is with a benchmark, sometimes called a 'descriptor'. As the name indicates this categorisation attempts to describe the kind of work that is deemed appropriate in each category:  e.g. 'A' = excellent: independent thinking and critical skills, high level of subject knowledge of all the topics outlined in the syllabus/curriculum. The benchmarks in turn ought correspond to national subject standards. When these have been agreed, everyone in the process has to stick to them.

There are also international standards of comparison, so the subject field is, in fact, open to scrutiny. There is some evidence that exams are getting easier, rather than harsher. (See below) And there is some limited, early evidence that requirements are being toughened up, for political reasons (See below)  But the main point is that the examiners traditionally started from a position of wanting to find out how much you know, rather than what you don't know. These are quite different approaches.

Some boards, or some subjects, may appear to have better pass rates but that really just reflects the quality, training and preparation of the candidates, and the schools collectively, who enter the exam.

So, harsh as it seems, there is seldom a policy of harsh marking. Examiners, like the candidates, have to stick to clearly defined guidelines that operated before, during, and after, the coursework or exam scripts are presented. Political interference in that process would be unjust.

So there is not, in fact, a strict quota, for example, of how many will pass or fail. A rationing system does not exist. Theoretically, everyone would be awarded an A*, if everyone produced work of that quality in that year. This would never happen. But can you imagine the headlines in the media, and the claims of dumbing down? Typically, slight boundary shifts would compensate for evidence that the exam had been tougher, rather than less difficult. In that way no one would lose as a result of slight variations year by year.

Pass rates have actually been increasing in all subjects for thirty years and this arguably reflects improved teaching, more students working harder, and answers that are more narrowly and specifically tied to the syllabus. These features of current teaching may mean that you are missing out on the broader educational enrichment that I enjoyed as a child, but it does mean that you will have more certificates, with better grades on them, than I achieved!

There are many reasons why students fail to meet the grade; see my other blogs on this site for more information on these topics.

Dr Ian McCormick

See also:

English GCSEs marked down to curb grade inflation, say teachers

Have GCSEs got easier?

Michael Gove is preparing to replace GCSEs with more difficult exams similar to O-levels, according to leaked documents. But have GCSEs got easier? James Ball and James Randerson find out. Join the debate below the line

Monday, 13 August 2012

eBook or xBox? Designing a 15-point programme to promote reading

There is a great gap between those children who have discovered reading and take delight in it; and those who are resistant and have to be dragged to it. There are also many alternatives to reading; the modern world offers a vast range of audio-visual and  interactive distractions. How do we respond to these challenges and how to we begin to promote enjoyment in reading?

In recent years I have been asked to work with parents and children to improve reading skills. I have been asked to take part in this heroic struggle! Indeed, there is strong evidence that boys' reading skills are increasingly falling behind those of girls, and that boys come back to school after the summer holidays with poor reading skills.

Let's investigate two questions:

How do we guide and support the enjoyment in reading and help to improve skills?

How could we link reading to creativity, community, and interactivity?

The results.

Here are 15 motivational tips (with an emphasis on reading on boys as a target group):

1. Any reading is good reading. 

Boys often re-read books that they have enjoyed. But don't just stick to fiction; there are great factual illustrated books, top tips for boys, motor car books, jokebooks, sports annuals, magazines and graphic novels. Don't just stick to the classic fiction that adults say they enjoyed reading in their childhood.

2. Lead by example 

Children copy those around them. If a boy sees his brother, dad, or uncle reading, then he will be more likely to identify reading with positive male role models. Demonstrate that reading is a normal human activity. Try newspapers, car manuals, TV guides, celebrity books, survival guides ...

3. Install bookshelves.

Having a place to keep your books safe shows that they are a valued resource and part of the living furniture of the house.

4. Start to use the local library.

We hear a lot about cuts to library services but the truth is that many children's libraries are an excellent resource. Take time to explore and select books.

5. Listen to recommendations. 

Asks teachers, librarians and bookshop staff for recommendations. Explain what kind of books you like. Sometimes it is better to build on existing tastes rather than developing new ones.

6. Boys like gadgets!

So I'm not excluding online reading, e-readers and kindle. Let children research their reading styles and preferences.

7. Friendly, polite conversation, and open questions build confidence. 

Children like to talk about what they read and why they liked something. Often they will be delighted to tell you the full story in their own words. Ask them about their favourite moment in a book! This process is the beginning of critical reading and creative insight. Talking about reading builds the activity into the fabric of school and community life.

8. Build creatively on what you read. 

Make your own picture books and story continuations (prequels and sequels) based on favourite books. Or try alternative endings. Make a short film or radio broadcast about your favourite reading.

9. Set an agreed reading time.

This approach involves trial and error. Reading by discipline misses the point that reading ideally is self-motivated. However, reading may be a good wind-down evening or night-time activity - half an hour at the end of the day is often enough. It does not have to be every day.

10. A sense of progress. 

Some children work well with a target and a bar chart of their daily reading progress. Try setting a token reward for boys who get past page 100. (Research shows that many children give up before then.)

11. Collaborative reading. 

Children love reading and being read to. It helps if you both try out funny voices or read the characters with facial expressions. Children's reading groups and clubs are also an excellent way to share reading experiences. Why not set one up in your local area? Also look out for reading activities at your local school or library.

12. Multiple languages.

Some books are available in parallel translations which helps if English is not your first language.

13. Encourage your child to read with other children. 

There is not reason why an eleven year old cannot teach his seven year old brother how to read. When the child slips into teacher mode he or she will have a massive confidence boost.

14. The ideal present. 

When you have find out what your child likes, remember that a book is a great gift. Or give book tokens and allow the children to make their own choices. But books should not be the only present. 

15. Reading should not be like a term in prison!

Although I've read thousands of books there are still some days when I prefer a walk, or just listening to music. Motivated reading is more about freedom, and less about control. Parents who are too ambitious can do quite a lot of damage. Use your common sense and find a negotiated balance.


Shared time may, in fact, be the most rewarding human interactive element in reading.

Over to you! Do you have any tips, recommendations, or questions?

Dr Ian McCormick is the author of The Art of Connection: the Social Life of Sentences
(Quibble Academic, 2013)

© Dr Ian McCormick. But please do contact me if you want to use this article as a guest post on your blog. With attribution offered I seldom refuse!

Sunday, 12 August 2012

SMART Revision Planning for Exams - 16 Tips

You have probably come across the SMARTER model as a way of organising a project. 

It works like this

S          Specific
            Significant, Stretching, Simple
M         Measurable
            Meaningful, Motivational, Manageable
A         Attainable
Appropriate, Achievable, Agreed, Assignable, Actionable, Ambitious, Aligned, Aspirational, Acceptable, Action-focused
R          Relevant          
Result-Based, Results-oriented, Resourced, Resonant, Realistic
T          Timely
Time-oriented, -framed, -based, -bound, -Specific, -tabled, -limited,
Trackable, Tangible
E          Evaluate, Ethical, Excitable, Enjoyable, Engaging, Ecological

R          Reevaluate, Rewarded, Reassess, Revisit, Recordable, Rewarding

In order to apply these practical strategies to your revision work for exams, I would also recommend:
  1. Short blocks of time for work
  2. A balanced workload between all subjects means variety 
  3. Days off work for leisure
  4. Writing down a list of reasons to be motivated
  5. Rewarding yourself for doing the hours planned
  6. Not starting to revise too late
  7. Summarising your notes
  8. Creating Mindmaps or other visualizations
  9.  Devising your own mnemonics or memory games
  10. Reading past exam papers
  11. Ensuring that you know what the examiners are looking for
  12. Doing timed answers and exercises
  13. Trying out model opening and closing paragraphs for essays
  14. Learning about 50 impressive words to use in discussions, arguments, or concepts
  15. Working with your teachers to explain what's not clear
  16.  Working with friends collaboratively in teams
  17. Good luck!
Further Information

Dr Ian McCormick is the author of The Art of Connection: the Social Life of Sentences
(2013) Also available on Kindle, or to download.

Also worth a look: The PhD Roadmap: A Guide to Successful Submission of your Dissertation / Thesis.

Dr Ian McCormick's other recent publications include chapters on Romanticism and Gothic Literature inThe English Literature Companion, edited by Julian Wolfreys  (London and New York: Palgrave Student Companions 2011).

His chapter on 'Teaching and Learning Strategies' was published as an Appendix to The Eighteenth-Century Literature Handbook, edited by Gary Day and Bridget Keegan (London and New York: Continuum, 2009). It is is available for free online (download the pdf) but you will need to complete a very straightforward and short registration.

The School Shakespeare Newspaper / Activities

In recent years we have moved a long way from teacher-led Practical Criticism Q&A. As learners we are always searching for fun ways to explore texts. Experience demonstrates that allowing children to be creative is an excellent way to build critical engagement. Fun means deeper learning, and in my view, play cultivates questions.

So let's have the courage to allow our students to play with plots and create their own interpretations of them. This approach need not displace traditional literary/critical writing exercises. Rather, it serves as a way of incubating enjoyable and engaging point(s) of entry to the text.

How does this approach work? I'm not going to write up a detailed lesson plan, but you will find a short case study below. The newspaper model can be adapted to any text. (I recently worked with this approach using Charles Dickens's Great Expectations.)

The project briefly sketched below will also help the learners to be more aware of style, tone, and the target readership. These are key skills and competences for any professional writer. And for the GCSE Exam.

Project Summary

I was asked recently how one might develop a school newspaper based on Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream

Skills involved

The task outlined employs writing and literacy, ICT, visual analysis, and both individual research and collaborative team work.

Allow plenty of time to research the stories, to design the newspaper and to master all the technical skills. It's also an excellent way to examine professional roles and expectations, and to engage in practical group work.


Essentially, the key to any news story is answering these questions:

Who? What? Where? When? How? Why?


Creatively, maybe you could attempt one or more of these 'treatments' as a part of your newspaper

(1) write in the style of a celebrity gossip column and fill in the characters' background, hobbies and status

(2) provide a map of the happenings, or photo of the forest, and other key locations

(3) use images of the key characters to go alongside your text

(4) provide eyewitness reports of strange happenings and weird sightings of fairies etc

(5) parents' perspectives on their missing children with quotes from them

(6) have a legal expert explaining that those who disobey their parents will be put to death

(7) employ an astrologer to predict what will happen next

(8) record the views of trained psychologist

(9) print a statement from the police

Try to use different writing styles for each of these in order to gain a top class mark. You could also record short video clips, inlcudingh the latest news and interviews. Let me know how you get on!

Further Information on the author of this blog
Ian McCormick is the author of The Art of Connection: the Social Life of Sentences
(Quibble Academic, 2013) Also available on Kindle, or to download.
Ian's most recent publications include chapters on romanticism and gothic in The English Literature Companion, edited by Julian Wolfreys  (Palgrave Student Companions 2011). 'Teaching and Learning Strategies' which featured in
The Eighteenth-Century Literature Handbook,  edited by Gary Day and Bridget Keegan (Continuum, 2009) is available for free online (download the pdf) but you will need to complete a very starightforward and short registration.

Ian's book on Shakespearean Tragedy will be published in December 2014.A chapter on Sex and Death in the Eighteenth Century  was published by Routledge in May 2013. Ian is currently working on a book about the grotesque in the eighteenth century, based on his doctoral thesis. Another related project will consider the treatment of cancer in the eighteenth and nineteenth century.

Howard Gardner's Multiple Intelligence Theory Applied to Shakespeare

First World War - 1 Study Day: Applying Howard Gardner's Multiple Intelligences

Practical Software Guide
Newspaper Wiki

Dr Ian McCormick is the author of The Art of Connection: the Social Life of Sentences
(Quibble Academic, 2013)

Saturday, 11 August 2012

Examination Trauma and Stress Anxiety

Examination Trauma and Stress

The period leading up to the examination can be as stressful as the results day that follows. For many people taking exams the experience is worse than a trip to the hospital or the dentist. The trauma may last for years.

This is what the famous psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud said about exams

Everyone who has received his certificate of matriculation after passing his final examination at school complains of the persistence with which he is plagued by anxiety-dreams in which he has failed, or must go through his course again, etc. For the holder of a university degree this typical dream is replaced by another, which represents that he has not taken his doctor's degree, to which he vainly objects, while still asleep, that he has already been practising for years, or is already a university lecturer or the senior partner of a firm of lawyers, and so on. These are the ineradicable memories of the punishments we suffered as children for misdeeds which we had committed -- memories which were revived in us on the dies irae, dies illa of the gruelling examination at the two critical junctures in our careers as students. The 'examination-anxiety' of neurotics is likewise intensified by this childish fear. When our student days are over it is no longer our parents or teachers who see to our punishment; the inexorable chain of cause and effect of later life has taken over our further education. Now we dream of our matriculation, or the examination for the doctor's degree -- and who has not been faint-hearted on such occasions? -- whenever we fear that we may be punished by some unpleasant result because we have done something carelessly or wrongly, because we have not been as thorough as we might have been -- in short, whenever we feel the burden of responsibility.

In the next blog we will be examining what you can do about stress and anxiety.

Why English Exams are here to stay

Exams are increasingly popular because we are living in a competitive environment. We are also seeing a return to traditional values in education and training. Exams suit the mass market. In some ways they are quite efficient as a method of selection.

Because exams are easy to assess and are free from the issues of plagiarism and other forms of cheating that have proliferated in coursework, they are back in fashion across the education sector.

Cheating in exams in quite difficult and it is easy to detect when it happens.  In contrast, my research shows that with the right money ($100) it is now very easy to purchase online a plagiarism-proof, first class, or A* Essay for your coursework.

In that context I believe that we will be seeing greater reliance on exams in the future, and more of them will be marked by machines in a move toward improved technological efficiency of the educational production line. Their place in the system is secured.

Over a million young people in the UK will receive their examination results this month. For 300,000 British students their results in these exams will determine whether they can proceed to University.

In my view, examination procedures involve a special kind of discipline and they operate as a regime, such as that which we might encounter in a prison. Foucault was not wrong when he linked knowledge and power at an institutional level. Many people find these pressures very difficult to cope with.

And exams are also a theatre of persecution, where the performance is loaded with expectations, rituals, and associations, most of them negative. For many candidates, the personal experience of the examination is tantamount to sadistic dehumanisation.

As in all power scenarios, the entire event is staged according to simple rules and queer conventions. With a little effort we can step back from that and see examination for what it is: the play of institutionalisation and a game of power. 

But with the right tactics in place you could become a master of the game, and not its pathetic victim. Yet inevitably those who succeed will become the new advocates for more probing examinations as the only way forward.

If you learn to play by the rules the whole process can be exhilarating and very rewarding. 

It will also be your most unforgettable performance and may affect much of your future life prospects.

In the previous blog I listed 15 specific reasons why students fail to meet their exam expectations. If you address these issues methodically, you will significantly improve your exam performance!

What has been your experience of exams? Are you a student, parent, teacher, or an examiner?

If you have any exam tips, advice, or recommendations, please feel free to comment below.

For many people, the examination is worse than a trip to the dentists for a tooth extraction, or an episode of surgical examination that results in your guts being ripped out. It's the worst form of dehumanisation.

How did you get over the trauma of examination?

We are all in this together! If you would like to receive my weekly exam success tips, please drop me a line.

Dr Ian McCormick 

More information will be posted in the next blog.