Inside Exams

Podcast series two now available

Ways to listen
Google Podcasts
Apple Podcasts
Share the podcast


Teacher Craig Barton is back with series two of Inside Exams, the podcast that gives you an access all areas pass to snoop around behind the scenes at AQA.

He’ll be meeting the people who write and mark your students’ exams, as well as pioneering teachers, to get answers to all the questions you ponder throughout the school day.

© AQA 2019

Question the question

Series 1
| 13 May 2019

By Dan Rogan, Chair of Examiners AS and A-level Maths.

Having worked as a teacher for 30 years and as an examiner with AQA for seven, I have come across my fair share of assessment questions that might not be all they seem at first glance. To help allay any worries about such questions in the run-up to this year’s exams, I’ve explored their make-up and put together some tips and tricks for both teachers and students, to tackle them in the classroom and the exam hall.

The anatomy of a problem-solving question

We don’t have a brief to write questions that ask students to think laterally.

As examiners, we set questions which address the Assessment Objectives. For example, in A-level Maths, only 50% of the marks are for simply doing maths. About 25% of marks are for mathematical communication and the final 25% of marks are for AO3 (solve problems within mathematics and in other contexts). It’s this final 25% that leads us to set questions that require students to apply their mathematical knowledge to what might be unfamiliar situations. We often call these problem-solving questions.

We are conscious that these questions are typically found to be more difficult by students, particularly under exam conditions and we work hard to make the questions as accessible as possible. We consider the vocabulary we use, we try to use as few words as possible and we do our best to make sure the context is one that all students can understand.

Tips for teachers

Honing skills will make a difference

As their teacher you are really well-placed to help students develop their problem-solving skills and it’s important to think carefully about how problem- solving can be used during the course.

If we concern ourselves with the process more than the answer, we can help students recognise that it is having a go that matters in the exam. You don’t necessarily have to mark and correct every attempt, or even model a correct solution, but make sure that students get the chance to think, with support from you and their peers.

Tips for students

Preparing to solve the problem

Preparing for exam success isn’t necessarily achieved by doing exam questions.

It can be comforting to practise solving problems if you get them right, but frustrating when you don’t. So, students, you can best prepare by ensuring you have an excellent grasp of all the skills required; working through many straightforward questions is really important so you can differentiate and integrate using all the techniques you have learned.

You’ll need to get the basics firmly established in your long-term memory so they don’t occupy your working memory when trying to solve problems and the best way to do this is through practice.

It’s often better to practice solving questions in an unfamiliar context in lessons and when revising with peers. Talking about how to solve problems with others will help you have the right kind of thoughts when faced with this situation in an exam.

Gain marks for your thinking

You’ve worked so hard for two years so when confronted with a problem-solving question in an exam, your adrenaline can really start pumping as you face an unfamiliar context. Don’t panic! It’s a good idea to take a moment to read the question once to get the gist of it and then again, more slowly and carefully.

Don’t spend too much time thinking; this can overload your working memory and may cause good ideas to be lost. Write down what you’re thinking, then criticise it if needed.

If you can think of two different approaches to take, it’s worth trying both. If you don’t cross out one method, we will mark both and give you credit for the better one (assuming you don’t make it to the end). And that’s important too – don’t worry if you don’t get the right answer.  We give you marks for using the correct processes and for explaining your reasoning. It would be very unwise to cross out your work just because the answer is wrong! It seems contradictory but we all make mistakes, especially under pressure, and we try to give marks for your thinking.

And as a teacher myself, I should remind you that the key to success is expert subject knowledge, which of course means hard work throughout the whole course!

The calm after the ‘Twitterstorm’

Don’t let social media negativity worry you.

Exam questions will have been very carefully written, checked against the specification and Assessment Objectives, discussed and tested before going to print.  A ‘Twitterstorm’ about a question doesn’t necessarily mean that it was a bad one, was wrong, or even that students found it difficult; it’s just going to be chance that gets it publicity.