Question Time

It’s Summer Exam Season and the Years 7&8 have emerged, slightly shell-shocked, from their 3 days of internal exams. As you know, if you’ve been a burble-follower, re-writing the KS3 SoW has been my major project of the past two years – and producing an exam that reflected the aims and objectives of the new course was obviously part of the job.

I’m always surprised by how few people write their own tests. Ask someone in my department to put together a test or exam, and they’ll spend hours looking for past paper questions (accompanied by that sacred script, with its ineffable text, The Mark Scheme). But they never put a question together of their own. I think this is a great shame. Asking questions is an essential skill of good teaching and the more you practice it, in whatever format, the better you become.

I also think it’s an enjoyably creative process – coming up with some original slant on a familiar topic – and, perhaps most importantly, it enables you to tailor the exam to your students. Bespoke tests that are suitably interesting, challenging, personal (I like to insert jokes to try and fight the assumption that exams are necessarily grim, unpleasant affairs)!

Exams put together with random questions from old GCSE papers lack cohesion as they have no theme. They are often overly simplistic for our very bright students, and also look horrible. With all the power of Microsoft Office at your finger tips, and all the visual resources that Google and Science Photo Library can provide, there’s no reason not to give it a go. Plus you have a permanent, electronic copy that you can tweak, edit, improve in response to your students’ answers, and which doesn’t fade from endless re-photocopying.

Example – the Year 8 Summer Exam, newly written this year. I wanted to include a question on Forces. The old paper had two random and entirely unconnected old GCSE questions – one on a gannet, the other on a bungee jump. 4 marks.

But I prefer A-level style questions which start with a context and use it to develop a theme, starting with easy questions and gradually becoming more challenging and differentiating.

Hmmmm. What would provide topical and interesting and possible question material for something on Forces? I forget what prompted it, but I suddenly remembered the record breaking altitude jump. Felix Bumgardener, or something. At which point I started doing some research. Lots of great pictures, lots of fascinating information, and perfect material for the learning outcomes I wanted to assess. Here it is:

Felix question

The Year 7 exam was equally fun to write. This year I was able to include a question on Periodic Table interpretation based on their Mendeleyev role play exercise (see The Lesson From the Black Lagoon ). They just had to predict 2 properties for each of the mystery elements shown.

simplified periodic table for Year 7 exam

Next year I need to make it more challenging – but their answers were a reassuring measure of how memorable and effective that lesson had been (especially as they hadn’t written anything down!).

The other thing I included in both Year 7 and Year 8 exam was a practical question. The Year 7s had to use a microscope to observe some plant tissue and draw a cell. The Year 8s had three mystery solutions that they had to identify with a number of chemical tests. More on this next week…

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