Wrong Answer

The story about the biology exam that ‘didn’t ask what the students had learned’ doesn’t really seem to have been taken up much, but it is perhaps a worthwhile story. At first, it seemed another cock-up story: kids get taught one thing, exam asks different thing. We could all be forgiven for thinking that considering all the other establishment cock-ups of recent times.

Once I’d seen the two bods from the exam board on Breakfast yesterday morning however, it seemed that something altogether different was the case. Apparently, they said, the paper tested on the principles the students were supposed to have learned but required them to apply those principles to cases they hadn’t seen before (shrews). Casts an altogether different light on it, doesn’t it?

[The AQA] said the new exam focussed more on the application of science following criticism that previous papers had failed to stretch pupils’ scientific knowledge enough.

These were A-Level exam papers. When I left school back in the far-off days of 1996, that was what my GCSE papers did. I didn’t stay on for A-Level but I can only assume that was what those papers did too. I certainly wouldn’t have been phased if I’d learned about the principles of population in, say, rats, and my exam had given me a few facts about moles and then expected me to apply those principles to mole populations. We had to do something that’s probably seen as quite old-fashioned nowadays: thinking.

So it would seem that this is quite an indictment on modern teaching methods, or more specifically ‘Teach To The Test’ as thousands of students, once confronted with something unfamiliar (and yet using the same principles as the examples used in their lessons) couldn’t answer the questions. The exam board was responding to criticism, remember, so you’d now expect lessons to be learned, right? These unfortunate students haven’t been taught properly, and for once an exam has highlighted this so we are in for a review of teaching methods to ensure future students can apply their knowledge properly, right?


The exams watchdog has stepped into the row over an A-level biology paper which led to thousands of students launching a Facebook protest against the exam board AQA for setting questions they felt were unfair.

Ofqual, the newly created independent exams regulator, has ordered the exam board to submit a report on the controversy.

Hmmm… Maybe the new QUANGO will demand that teaching methods return to imparting knowledge and reasoning to students in future so that they can pass these kinds of exams again. Or maybe they will demand that these kinds of exams don’t see the light of day again, to keep the tractor stats looking good. We’ll just have to wait and see…


3 responses to “Wrong Answer

  1. If your reading of the situation is correct, then I agree with you. However, some of the comments on the Indy article seem to be saying, “yes, we are expected to apply our knowledge, but we were not taught anything we could apply.”

    Then I looked at the exam paper, which I found here (via the Facebook group): http://hotfile.com/dl/25760353/b52e505/BIOL4.doc.html

    Seems like a lot of those questions don’t require *any* domain knowledge. I could answer a much of it and I haven’t studied biology since GCSE many years ago.

    On the other hand, a lot of the commenters on the Indy article seemed a bit thick. There are a few complaints about “dead apples respiring” when the question concerned is about measuring apple slices. Do they think the apple cells die instantly when then apply is sliced?! And the question supposedly about “irrelevant” “obscure” shrew experiments is clearly an attempt to get students to think about experiment design. Are we to believe they never studied this?

    I’m beginning to think that the teachers, the students *and* the examiners are all crap.

  2. I took a 3 month post lecturing in an FE college a few years ago – It was an experience akin to teaching a parrot to speak. I was ‘expected to get’ the trade apprentices and students through their exams – teaching to the expected exam contents – no knowledge was imparted, no understanding gained.

    Never ever again – it was the opposite of what education should be, learning has become a commodity for all concerned, measured by pieces of meaningless paper.

  3. The situation was the same when I was at college. They had to keep to a % ‘pass rate’ but They also had something called a ‘retention’ rate so failing students was not an option either. Also, the course was mostly coursework assessed so you can imagine the results. Luckily most of the lecturers were old school so it wasn’t as bad as it could have been but there was still pressure to ‘help’ the incapable rather than fail them.

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