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We’ve teamed up with teacher and podcaster Craig Barton to create a podcast series which lifts the lid on how exams are developed.

Find out how exam questions are created, discover what happens behind the scenes at AQA, and get to the heart of the latest issues as teachers bring us their stories and experiences, direct from the classroom.

Listen to every episode right here, or on your favourite podcast app. Then be sure to come back and check out the extra resources complementing each of the main episodes.

© AQA 2019

Hungry examiners and GCSE memes

Episode 3
Published: 13 May 2019

In this episode of Inside Exams, discover how the difference between a potato and a carrot caused a Twitter storm which had students and examiners going bananas.

Craig speaks to AQA’s Social Media Manager, Raquel Gomez Frias, to learn how social media can both help and hinder the exam process. School teacher Jon Sellick explains how he helps students manage the post-exam impact of social media.

Featured in this podcast

Craig Barton – Maths teacher, podcaster and author
Raquel Gomez Frias – AQA Social Media Manager
Jon Sellick – English teacher at Range High School

Episode resources

Transcript

Craig Barton: Hello, and welcome to Inside Exams. I’m Craig Barton, I’m a maths teacher with 15 years of classroom experience. I have a solid understanding of how to navigate parents evening and explain square roots, but exams? They’re a completely different ballgame. I have so many questions about the intricate inner workings of exam boards and I’m sure you’ve got your own too. So, across this series I’m asking what inside knowledge would make your life, as a teacher, a little easier, before venturing out to find the people with the answers. Today, I’m tackling post-match hysteria. We’ve all seen it happen, from the moment our students are asked to put their pens down, the worried whispers begin. It quickly becomes clear that one question, in particular, confused or frustrated them.

They’re fretting in floods across the playground in a game of Chinese whispers, gathering momentum as it makes its way from the exam hall to the lockers to the canteen. And in the past few years, it hasn’t stopped there. A single exam question can go viral online within minutes as kids desperately try to figure out if others share their anxiety.  So, is the frenzy warranted? Do exam boards mean to cause such hysteria or is it our kids who are over-reacting? And can social media have the effect of making a real mountain out of a molehill?  As always, before I leave the comfort of my classroom, I need to know what else you need to know.

Rachel Carter: Hi, I’m Rachel Carter and I’m a geography teacher. After most exams, there tends to be a particular question that a lot of students have struggled with, and they’ll often give that one question a disproportionate amount of attention in the playground and actually, on social media afterwards. What should I be telling them about the importance of those more unexpected questions and are you looking out on social media for what students have struggled with?

Craig Barton: I think you’ve picked up on something important there, Rachel. These more unexpected questions do have merit, but it would be really useful to understand the reasons why exam boards feel they’re so important. And as for how much they monitor post-exam viral posts on social media? I have absolutely no idea. I’m going to meet Raquel Gómez Frías, because as AQA Social Media Manager, she’ll definitely be able to enlighten us.

Okay Raquel, so first off, thank you so much for inviting us into AQA HQ today. In every exam season, it’s always kicking off on Twitter these days. As social media manager, I imagine you’re the first person who has to deal with any kind of outbreak of controversy, so to kick things off, can you give us some examples of any questions that have proved particularly controversial?

Raquel G-F: Yes, I can give you quite a few of them, actually. So, for example, last year, we had one question in our GCSE Chemistry paper, in, I think it was paper one, so it was about James Chadwick. So, apparently, some of the students thought that that question never would come up in an exam because they thought it was never included in the spec. So, we were, like, ‘oh my God, how can this happen?’ We, obviously, trust our experts, but anyway, we went to the spec to see if they were right because, you know, we can be wrong sometimes. We realised, actually, it’s there in the spec, so what are they talking about, because they were also sharing some screenshots of the spec. And we were, like, ‘oh my God, they might have Photoshopped it’, who knows?  But the truth is that they were not including the whole part of the spec where it was explaining ‘you need to learn this’.

Craig Barton: So, panic set in, but we were alright with that one.

Raquel G-F:Yes, so we decided, ‘okay, we need to talk about this, we need to stop these rumours going all over the Internet’. So, what we did was, we basically took a screenshot of the actual part of it that was explaining ‘you need to learn this’ and we posted it on social media. And it was probably one of the most engaging posts we have had in ages, because it had more than 100 comments, 82 re-tweets, 400 likes, we never get that kind of engagement in one of our organic tweets. It’s very weird for us to go viral and, in this case, we really went viral. I guess it was quite helpful to do that, because it was a way of, if you like, stopping fake news from spreading and from creating more confusion among those students who were, like, ‘no, this question was okay, it was in the spec, what are you talking about?’

So, I want to think that, by doing these things, we stop these kinds of rumours spreading and causing more stress.  And also, it’s not only rumours and conversations online, also the media might pick up on all these conversations online, and we have seen tons of Twitter conversations from students who are not happy about one of the questions or whatever in our exams.  So, we have been doing a lot of work, trying to find these things that are not true and calling them out, just to stop these very unhelpful pieces of, maybe, media coverage.  

Craig Barton: Absolutely. Do you have any other examples of contentious questions?  I love these.

Raquel G-F: I have another that’s also about last year. I don’t know if you have heard about carrots and potatoes?

Craig Barton: I haven’t, but tell me more.

Raquel G-F: So, I really don’t know why this question was so controversial, because actually, one of the things of the reformed GCSEs is that we put a greater emphasis on applying and using knowledge.  It’s not like learn something and just vomit all the things that you know in the exam, write everything as you learn it, it’s like learn something and then apply your knowledge.

Craig Barton: And this is across all subjects, right?

Raquel G-F: Exactly, so, for example, in GCSE Science, 40% of the marks will be for applying that knowledge in unfamiliar contexts, so in this case, they had learned a question about osmosis, it was in GCSE Biology, and that question featured carrots in the exam, but they had learned that with potatoes during the course. So, oh my God, ‘carrotgate’, so we started seeing loads of memes about potatoes and carrots and we couldn’t understand what was going on. So, as an example on how that hits the assessment objectives, the point here was that the students should have realised that the carrot works in a similar way.  So, even though they haven’t been taught explicitly about osmosis in carrots, everything they have been taught holds true for this unfamiliar situation. So, many of our questions will also focus on how well the students can apply what they know to practical situations, often in unfamiliar contexts.

Craig Barton: And, of course, these are requirements that come from the Department for Education. You have to test, as you say, a certain proportion has to be on kind of using and applying, so are you kind of, as an awarding body, bound by certain restrictions or guidelines to the kind of questions you have to ask, if that makes sense?

Raquel G-F: Yes, of course. We, obviously, need to follow all the regulations. We are bound by that and, like I say, one of the things is very clear, you need to be able to apply your knowledge. So, this was the case with the potatoes and the carrots, so there were lots of different conversations, some people were saying ‘this was a brilliant question’, they have really followed the rules in a fantastic way. There was a teacher explaining in a blog post why this was a really good question, and then some other teachers were outraged, like ‘oh my God, we teach this with potatoes and now they’re asking about carrots, what is this about?’ Again, we reacted to this and I think it was the right thing to do, because the question definitely wasn’t a problem, it was just a way of testing their knowledge and the way they apply it in unfamiliar contexts.  

Craig Barton: 
Can we do the day of ‘carrotgate’ then? So, let’s just imagine, the exam has been sat in the morning, it was a biology exam, so what time do you first become aware and how do you become aware that it’s ‘carrot city’ going on outside?

Raquel G-F: I think this was one of the first controversial things of Summer 2018, so what actually happens is that the minute after they finish their exams, they switch on their phones and they just go online and go to, in that case, was #AQAbiology. And they are, like ‘oh, some funny things here, oh, I didn’t think about that, oh, wait…memes, oh potatoes, Bugs Bunny, fantastic. #AQAcarrots’.  

Craig Barton: This is like soon after the exam has finished.

Raquel G-F: Yes, literally minutes.

Craig Barton:
And you’re looking on Twitter, are you?

Raquel G-F: We are looking at every single tweet.

Craig Barton: Do you know what I’m picturing? I’m picturing like some kind of secret service where you’ve got loads of different screens and you’ve got Twitter up and Facebook up there, this is what I’m seeing.

Raquel G-F: We do actually, we do, and we search for like key words, like, for example, the day that we have AQA Biology, that’s the hashtag we are looking for.

Craig Barton: You’re on that, right, okay.

Raquel G-F: It’s quite funny when we get a lot of backlash on social media, we get lots of funny things, but also not so funny things, so sometimes they are like ‘oh my God, can you imagine if AQA are seeing what we are posting?’ and that’s my star moment that I go on and I say, ‘actually, we are looking at every single tweet, so feel free to share whatever you want, we are going to see it’. And they’re like ‘oh my God, this is amazing, we have broken the Internet, the exam board, they have replied to us’, and then they get all their friends re-tweeting and screen-grabbing that conversation. And it’s just like a moment of, like, ‘I’ve been replied by the really boring exam board, probably a very old person trying to do Twitter’. And it’s just a great moment when we can actually engage with students.  

Craig Barton: So, you’re in the room, you’ve got the multi-screens up and something starts happening on Twitter, people are chatting about a particular question. Can you talk me through, what does the internal process look like? What do you do first?

Raquel G-F: Yes, so we would look at all these incoming tweets, we try to understand what’s happening and because, obviously, we are not experts in every single thing of all the subjects, so we would call the relevant curriculum team and we will tell them, “This is what we are seeing on Twitter, what do you think? Is there something wrong with what we have asked them?” At the same time, we would have our customer service on hold and we will tell them, “There is something going on, hold on, you might get calls, wait a second.”

So, once we know what’s happening, we might put some lines together and start responding. Sometimes we deal with very difficult things on social, but sometimes it’s quite fun. For example, last year, we saw a pattern, the carrots question was quiet in the beginning of the exams, but then, throughout the whole season, whenever, in the morning, we were checking a paper and seeing some sort of food, we were, like ‘okay, this is going to be viral’. Because, for some reason, there were a lot of eggs, there was another question about radioactive bananas, like they had to measure the radiation. So that, obviously, became super, super viral.

Craig Barton: Can you give us some examples of some of the tweets?

Raquel G-F: Yes, so basically, there was this theme of, like, ‘my God, AQA people, they are super hungry, have they been locked in a room for such a long time that they didn’t eat and they wrote all these questions about food?’ So, we started to see tweets like, ‘first carrots, now bananas, I think the AQA examiners were hungry when making the exam paper’. ‘Eggs in biology, now bananas in physics, I am beginning to think AQA were really hungry when they wrote the exam papers’. And then a load of memes of, like ‘oh banana, oh, feed me’, so in these moments, I’m, like, ‘oh my God, this is funny’, but yes, it creates a lot of noise.

Craig Barton: Once you’ve confirmed with the curriculum team that it isn’t a problem and you’re kind of seeing the funny side, how do you formulate your response? What’s your technique? Do you go in with an official response, saying, ‘look, this was on the specification’, or do you take a more kind of humorous approach to it? What’s your approach for that kind of first line of communication back from AQA?

Raquel G-F: We evaluate, case-by-case. There is not like a magical formula for every single response on social media. It’s not only me or maybe someone in my team replying to tweets, there are a lot of people in the organisation replying to tweets and creating content for social media, so every single thing needs to be looked at. Sometimes, like in the Chadwick example, we had to go with a very strong reaction, you know, we have seen the conversations, this was, for sure, in the specification. But in other cases, we can even reply with some more funny things. Someone was saying something like ‘oh, I’ve heard that we are not allowed to GCSE memes this year’, so, I don’t know, maybe some schools were telling their kids, you know, ‘forget about tweeting, focus on your exams’.

So, I guess, you know, there were some questions about that. So, we replied with a meme of a cat saying no, so there are some like very specific moments where we can be funny, but we never forget that we are an exam board and we have a very, very important role to play. And we understand that we are not really their friends, but we are human as well and we try to understand them and make them feel a bit better.  Because, you know, we all have been through exams and it’s not the best time of our lives.  

Craig Barton: 
I’ll tell you what interests me, and I’ve noticed this as a teacher, and I don’t know if you’ve noticed this, Raquel, I think, particularly over the last two years, students are going into the exam perhaps not thinking as much about the biology content or the mathematics content, but thinking ‘what good tweet can I send once I come out of this exam?’ They’re looking for those funny tweets to make them a social media superstar.

Raquel G-F: Definitely. I’m glad, when I did my exams, social media didn’t exist, because I’m sure it’s incredibly difficult to deal with that pressure on top of all the pressure you have of memorising everything and trying to do your best in the exam. I actually went to speak with a bunch of kids in a school the other day, just to understand how they feel about how we communicate with them and how we can do things better. Yes, I asked them that question, like ‘when you go to an exam, are you thinking about what’s going to happen after the exam, on social media? Are you thinking about the funny tweet you are going to write?’ And they were a bit shy, but then they were, like, “Yes, yes.”

Craig Barton: It’s a really interesting point, isn’t it?  Because I guess a student’s only experience of AQA is the exams that they sit and they sit them when it’s a high-pressure, stressful environment. So, you associate AQA with scary, anxiety and so on, because that’s your only experience, but by you getting out there and speaking to students, and also interacting with them on social media, it breaks down that barrier which is also good for the students, because they realise, there are human beings behind this process.

Raquel G-F: Yes, exactly, and it’s just a bit sad that people outside the organisation think we are there to be really bad to them and catching them out.  Social media is allowing us that channel to communicate with them directly. We have been quite reactive in the past, but we are trying to be more proactive and explaining the whole process, demystifying the whole thing around exams. So, one of the things we did last year is a piece I wrote about exams and social media, so basically, the piece was calling out on people who might be posting things on social media that are completely wrong. I did that by using these same tweets, like real stories, so this is actually what happens. And I think we need to be doing more things like that to show that we really care and we are humans and we want to help everyone.

Craig Barton: It sounds to me like social media, for you, in your role, Raquel, is a bit of a double-edged sword. It can be quite negative in the sense that, again, these things can blow up and spiral out of control, but also, it can be quite positive, that you can get on top of things and get your message out far quicker than you would have been able to do in the past.

Raquel G-F: Definitely.

Craig Barton: So, if I think back to the exams I took, and I’m not going to tell the listeners how long ago that was, but if there was a bad question on that exam, I had to tell my teacher and the teacher would have to perhaps contact the awarding body. And, as a student, I might never hear anything back from it, but you can get that response out within, you know, 15 minutes, one hour, two hours, whatever it is.  Is that a big plus for you, the fact that you can communicate with a wide audience, instantly, and control that message?

Raquel G-F: Yes, it’s really important because, still, in 2019, there are some people questioning whether exam boards should be on social media. And I think they totally should be on social media, not only monitoring what’s happening, but also being there, as you say, to respond really quickly. Because sometimes, it’s almost like a chat, you would get an immediate response within minutes or in half an hour.  I want to also comment on the fact that it’s not only like negative comments we get, we sometimes get like really positive messages, like, ‘I really enjoyed that exam, thank you for asking the right questions in the right way’. So, it’s nice to be there and also say congratulations, or, for example, on results day, we get quite a lot of tweets, saying, ‘I got the grades I wanted, I got in the uni I wanted to go’. And it’s really nice to be able to say, ‘congratulations, we are really happy that we were part of that process and good luck in the future’.

Craig Barton:
And I guess, as well, the other positive in terms of social media, for you, must be that you get a sense of how students and parents and so on are finding both the process of taking the exam and studying the course and so on, you’re getting much more information and dialogue than you would have got in the past. Would that be right?

Raquel G-F: Yes, definitely, and we also get to talk to them in moments that probably the very scary AQA towers are closed. For example, last year, during one of the bank holidays, we spent most of the bank holiday replying to a very simple question.  For some reason, some of the students decided they were going to write in pencil, some of them were, like, ‘oh my God, did I write in pencil?’ and then the others were, like, ‘oh, me too, what are we doing? Oh my God, did we fail our exam?’ I don’t know why, it just created a huge conversation.

We even had parents saying, ‘my kid came home crying, she said she wrote that exam in pencil and oh my gosh, she thinks she’s failed’. And we were, like, ‘oh no, she didn’t fail, you know’, we are going to make our best to try and understand, when students write in pencil, it’s probably more difficult to scan that paper or things like that. But it’s not a robot, that, ‘oh my God, that’s a pencil, it goes to the garbage’, no, it’s a human again who says, “Okay, this is in pencil, let’s do it the other way so it scans better.” So, you know, it’s very good to be able to reply to them, even out of office hours and things like that.

Craig Barton: That’s a brilliant example because if that happened towards the start of a student’s exam series, that could mess them up for the whole exam. If they’ve got, hanging over their head, ‘I failed that exam’, their confidence is gone for all the other ones. But you’re able to get that message out there.

Raquel G-F: Yes.

Craig Barton: Fantastic. Well, Raquel, once again, I’ve been blown away and I’m desperate to come in on the day of an exam and watch you with your multi-screens going on and seeing you in action. But I have learnt so much from this conversation, so thank you very much for inviting me to AQA today.

I think we can all understand the merit in asking questions that encourage students to apply their knowledge to unfamiliar scenarios. But that doesn’t mean they’re not going to panic when they come across them.  So, what can we be doing in the run up to exams to prepare our kids for those difficult moments? And if they do feel particularly anxious or deflated after an exam, what can we do to support them in the immediate aftermath before they resort to venting online?  I’m off to meet John Sellick, an English teacher at Range High School, to swap tips.

So John, first off, thank you so much for welcoming us into your classroom today. To begin, can you just give us a bit of context? What kind of school is this? What kind of students do you teach?

Jon Sellick: Yes, so we’re 11 to 18, a mixed comprehensive in the north of England, North West.

Craig Barton:
Now, prior to this interview, I spoke to Raquel from AQA, who is AQA’s social media manager, and we got talking about questions that seemed to throw students in interesting ways. Now, of course, the problem is, and AQA have made this very clear when I’ve spoken to their experts, that they’re obliged to put in a certain number of these, so-called ‘unexpected questions’, these ‘application of knowledge’ questions. The exam is supposed to be, a portion of it, unpredictable, because they’re a requirement to test these certain assessment objectives.  So, I guess the problem is, how do we prepare kids for the unexpected?

Jon Sellick: Yes, it’s really tricky actually, because I suppose what we’re talking about here is your ability to be creative on-the-spot with an unexpected question.  And we want the students to do that, but it’s knowledge-based and, at the end of the day, I, personally, wouldn’t expect a student to be able to be creative without the knowledge in the first instance.  Something I’ve done more and more of recently is to look at specific questions that might perhaps be categorised as ‘niche’, questions that are a little out of the ordinary.  And to look at them on a board, using a visualiser, and giving a commentary really, going through something on the board in that way and giving a commentary of my thought process.

What I would say is that I deeply regret the years that I spent ignoring ever doing that, never considering doing that, because I always felt that it was a waste of time to do something that was particularly niche. I would drop that in favour of offering sort of blanket advice that would see them through the majority of their questions. But I think only in seeing a teacher or an expert in action, talking through their thought process, can they realise that it’s actually down to them to use their knowledge in the way that I’m doing.

Craig Barton: This is metacognition, isn’t it?  This is a bit of a buzzword these days, but I think that’s exactly what you’re doing there. You’re showing the kids, and it will be, as you say, a niche question, we have this in maths, it will be a question that, it’s not going to come up exactly like this in the exam. It may be absolutely nothing like this in the exam, but that doesn’t mean that students experiencing the process of seeing you think through how you would answer it, essentially, giving them a window inside your mind as you try to identify the key words in the question, find out which bit of knowledge they require to do this.  That is the important bit of this, isn’t it, it’s making that process that’s invisible to an expert, it’s making that visible to our novice students, if that makes sense.

Jon Sellick: Definitely, and the fact that it was niche and that it, as you said, probably won’t come up in the exam, for me, used to be justification of not doing it. And I’ve completely turned that on its head over the last couple of years or so and I now understand and I can see how much value there is in doing that for the students.

Craig Barton: I want to talk now about ‘crisis management’ for want of a better phrase. Just imagine that one of your students comes out of an exam and they’re in a blind panic. This is something I’ve particularly found, that whenever this happens early on in an exam series, if a kid gets thrown, it’s one of the first exams, the second exam, it can be quite hard to pick them up for the rest of the exams. Is this something you’ve found and how do you cope with that?

Jon Sellick: I find it really difficult when you see students going through the emotional processes that they do, and there’s no doubt that the pressure is there and it’s more obvious than it was, maybe, five, six, seven years ago. I suppose you’ve just got to make sure that you’re looking after them and showing that you care, as an institution, and that they’re part of a wider ‘family’, if you like.  It’s really hard because it’s such a contradiction, isn’t it, for us to always build up how important exams are?  And then, as soon as something goes wrong, start telling them it’s not the most important thing in the world.

Craig Barton: And do kids pick up on that?

Jon Sellick: I think, inevitably, they do.  Quite recently, actually, I had a lesson, a Year 12 lesson, so more than a year away, and I just got the sense that we’d done a couple of mocks and things were getting a little bit exam-intensive. And especially at A-level, you’d like to think that that’s an opportunity to point kids in the direction of how beautiful your subject is and how big it is.  We were looking at, I think I threw on a TED Talk of some psycholinguistics of some sort, I had students, some of them quite happy with that, you know, obviously, it’s a nice sort of ten minutes to watch a TED Talk, who wouldn’t want to do that?  But other students reacted really very negatively to it because they were asking me, two students who wanted to know, “Where is this on the exam? What assessment objective is this hitting?”

And, of course, you feel under fire and you feel under pressure and you have to go away and, as we always do, we’re teachers, so we’re always questioning ourselves and reflecting on our own practice. Afterwards, I thought ‘no, I am right, there are times when we should be able to do what I did in that lesson and open up a discussion and talk about things that aren’t necessarily on the paper’.  The students seemed so used to teaching that is assessment objective-based and past paper-based that they can’t move beyond what’s there.

Craig Barton:
And again, the thing that fascinates me from this is that our role, as teachers…and this sounds like two teachers moaning about how we’ve got the hardest job in the world, we need to be so much more than just teaching our subjects.  We need social media training, we need to be social media managers, and again, we need to be psychologists.  We need to be counsellors, we need to do all these things on top of trying to teach our subject.  It’s a tough old job and I think it’s getting harder because of the kind of age we live in, would you agree with that?

Jon Sellick: Yes, again, another slight contradiction, I suppose, is that as my teaching over the last couple of years has started to become more explicit and based on, not quite direct instruction, but that sort of idea, it’s trickier even to switch from that mode into the sort of psychologist, pastoral caring kind of mode that you’re talking about.  Because, you’re almost putting on a façade when you’re doing the sort of lessons that I’ve just described.  

Craig Barton: That’s interesting, it’s that switch from ‘here’s the knowledge I’m going to teach you’ and then, ‘now, let’s switch to, now let’s just take it easy’. Yes, that’s very interesting.

Jon Sellick: Yes, I find that tricky, to be honest, and that’s why I like some of the DI stuff on paper, I really like the sound of and feel like it makes perfect sense. But delivering it on a daily basis can be tough when you’re dealing with all of the other issues that come into your classroom.

Craig Barton: We’ve been teaching roughly the same amount of time now, 14, 15 years, something like that, and I’ve certainly noticed a change, I’ve certainly noticed the kind of pressure has increased, both on teachers, but predominantly on students. Firstly, have you noticed this and secondly, is social media to blame for this?  Does it play a role?

Jon Sellick: If you’re specifying exam scenarios, then yes, absolutely. I suppose you’ve got to balance that. I know, for a fact there are times when student have got some comfort from social media. I’ve been speaking to my Year 12’s recently about their experience when they were in Year 11, and asking them about Instagram and Twitter, etc. All of them actually said that there were a couple of Instagram accounts they found really helpful, to the extent that one or two of them said, “It got me through my exams, it got me through my GCSE’s, finishing the exam and going straight onto that account and trying to seek comfort in what was being said.” And seeing that they were part of a whole population of 16-year-olds taking an exam at any given moment.

Craig Barton: These accounts, these are run by kids, these aren’t like awarding body accounts, are they? And what’s the nature?

Jon Sellick: Presumably, they’re meme-based, so I think there’s literally an account called ‘GCSE Memes’ and ‘A-level Memes’.

Craig Barton:
And it’s just the comfort is from the fact that other people have found these questions and these exams tricky, so kids know that they’re not alone, is that it?

Jon Sellick: Yes, and then, obviously, because so many people have taken the same papers, little in-jokes emerge, which are perfect for treatment as a meme.  Just that, in itself, as we all know, you know, laughing about those situations and seeing some light-heartedness in them can be very helpful.  So yes, I suppose you’ve got to balance that against the amount of people who will be using social media to come on and vent or express the stress that they’re under at that given moment.

Craig Barton: It is, it’s a really tricky one, because you could imagine a child going on feeling anxious, that goes on Twitter, and they see loads of kids, if it’s a maths exam, saying, ‘I got 17 for question nine’, ‘oh, I got 17 for question nine’, and then the kid thinks ‘well, I didn’t get that’, so all of a sudden, ‘oh God, I’ve got that question wrong’.  So, there’s that side of it, isn’t there, whereas before, you could say to a child, “Well, other people will have made that same mistake,” but then they go on Twitter and all they’re seeing is right answers, left, right and centre.  That can be quite off-putting and that’s something that’s certainly new to me, we didn’t have to put up with that, say, five years ago.

Jon Sellick: No, and I suppose it’s the online equivalent of having a look at the people on the desks next to you and seeing them scribbling down and you can’t think of anything to write.  We’ve all been in that scenario and, of course, the poor kids, they still get that, but then they’ve got even more of it once the session has finished.

Craig Barton:  How soon do you go on Twitter after like an English exam?  And I’m thinking back to that child comes to you and says, “Question seven, sir, you never taught this, an absolute nightmare,” are you straight on Twitter?

Jon Sellick: I’m now in the habit, over the last couple of years, of doing a search, certainly that evening, after school or after meetings.  I’ll find a moment to do a quick search on Twitter and see if anything’s come up.  What do you do, Craig?  I’m interested, do you ask kids?  Do you prompt kids to come and see you after the exam?  Do you do that think of saying, “Come and see us, let me know how it went as soon as it’s over”?

Craig Barton:  It’s funny you should ask that, it’s an interesting one.  So, I’ve always done that, I’ve always wanted to see the kids after the exam, for good or bad reasons.  Because, if you’ve got a child who’s had an absolute nightmare, I want to have a chance to speak to him and reassure them in the way that we spoke about previously.  And likewise, if a child’s done well, I want to join in with that moment and say, “Well, let’s get the momentum, let’s keep this going.”  But, Twitter has brought a different dimension to this now, so I’m going to say two words to you here, Mr Sellick, that may not mean anything to you, but to any maths teacher listening, these will be firing up a lightbulb.  ‘Hannah’s sweets’, it was the first GCSE maths question and it was the first one that kind of blew up on Twitter and it kind of kick-started all the memes.  It was a basic probability question which, very quickly, escalated into quadratic equations and it was all kicking off, and the kids were like, ‘what the hell’s going on here?’ and then a few people started putting it on Twitter and it grew and grew and grew.

And that, for me, was the kind of kick-start of kids reacting on social media to questions.  And one of the things that I did differently as a result of ‘Hannah’s sweets’, because I had loads of kids who were put off by the question, but then put off even more when they went on Twitter that night and started feeling anxious about it.  So, we almost do kind of a little bit of crisis management now, so I say to the kids, “After you finish your maths exam …” particularly if it’s paper one and we’ve got three GCSE maths papers,” I say, “ … all of you, come to my classroom,” so say, 25, 26 Year 11’s, “ … come to my classroom straight after the exam and we’ll have a talk about it.”  And that way, I can kind of control it, so if kids are upset, I can control that, if kids are happy and getting carried away, I can control that.

And I can also say, “Look, I’m not going to say don’t go on Twitter, because I’ll be honest, I’ll be straight on Twitter, but let’s not get carried away with it.  If people are saying that they’ve also found it difficult, let’s take comfort in that, if people are saying they’ve absolutely nailed it and it was the easiest exam in the world, let’s not necessarily believe them.”  So, I think kind of getting on top of that and making sure that I’m one of the first people they see, certainly for some kids, I think that’s kind of giving them a little bit of comfort.

Jon Sellick: I suppose there are so many variables, aren’t there?  And one of the things that we never consider, in the build-up to the exam, is the knock-on effect that that one paper will have on their response to the next paper.  Or, in fairness to all of the other subjects, apart from English and maths, the timetabling of the exam itself and the fact that they’ll probably end up taking one in the morning and one in the afternoon.  And if they have a nightmare in the morning exam, whatever subject it might be, how the students then respond in the afternoon is something that you just can’t really account for.  So, I can certainly see there, from a school-wide perspective, why SLT or pastoral members of staff would want to get involved during the downtime, if you like, between the end of the first exam in the morning and the second exam in the afternoon.  

Craig Barton: Would you say, overall, social media is a good thing or a bad thing, in terms of your job?  Does it make it easier or harder?

Jon Sellick: If we’re talking social media generally, I think it makes it more difficult, there’s no doubt about that.  In terms of the students’ perspective and their mindset, in general, you know, from a pastoral point of view, the students that you’re receiving into your lessons are, potentially, different to the ones that they would be if social media didn’t exist.  The dramas that social media can throw up in any given school day are way beyond anything we can probably imagine from our earlier teaching years, or certainly from when we were at school ourselves. I suppose I’d be interested to know how current PGCE students are trained to deal with this, because, obviously, for me and you, when we were doing our PGCE, and for the vast majority of teachers out there in schools now, it’s never been a thing.

Craig Barton: Well John, you have given me so much to think about in terms of social media and controversial questions, so John, thank you so much for inviting me in today, I’ve loved every minute of it.

Jon Sellick: Cheers Craig, thank you.

Craig Barton:
Raquel and John have both given me a lot to think about.  I’m not sure I considered just how positive a force social media can be after an exam.  Raquel’s team can quickly quash any little concerns a student might have and as John pointed out, the laughter and light-hearted breather online communities provide can go a long way towards making a student feel calmer and less alone. Throughout this series, I’ll be probing more exam writers, markers and pioneering teachers, so if you want to swat up ahead of exam season, make sure you rate, review and subscribe to this podcast. Until next time, goodbye.