Sorry is not good enough – Exam paper mistakes

9 exam paper errorsExams seem to be in the news a lot these days, unfortunately often for the wrong reasons. This month we were told of at least six errors on exam papers sat by students studying A-level, AS-level and GCSEs taken in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. The errors were on questions with marks ranging from 1 to 11 and effect 90,000 students. In fact it is hard to keep up; only yesterday there was news of another possible three mistakes, bringing the new total to nine!

The examining bodies have said they were sorry and that they would take into account the errors when they come to mark the paper, ensuring that no students would be disadvantaged as a result. Firstly an apology is not good enough, it should not happen in the first place and secondly they can’t “take into account” the full impact of the mistakes. And it looks like David Cameron agrees……

Now of course everyone makes mistakes, but when the consequences are as important as this there should be a system in place to ensure they are spotted. That system should include having an examiner, an assessor and a sitter. This is in addition to the normal proofing and arithmetic checks. The examiner writes the paper, and presumably checks it, the assessor also checks the paper, ensuring the wording is clear and that what is being asked is within the syllabus and technically correct. The sitter should then attempt the paper under exam conditions, to make sure that it can be completed in the time available. If these processes are followed it would seem almost impossible for a mistake to be made, I wonder what went wrong?

Equally it is not possible for the examining body to ensure that no student is disadvantaged. What can they do, be generous with the marks for any attempts made?  What if the student looked at the question tried to do it, panicked and as a result wasted valuable time, making little or no attempt at the rest of that question, there is in effect nothing to mark. What can you do in these circumstances; just add on say 5 marks!

How can you take into account the student who raced through the second question because they spent so much time on the first and made mistakes due to the time pressure, add on another 5 marks!

And what about the student who looked at this question, lost their confidence and so failed to complete the paper, add another 5 marks!

Listen to this confident student describe the impact of a mistake in the exam.

And he got no reply…..

What to do if there is a mistake

There is however some good news, you can still give yourself the best chance of passing if you apply some simple exam techniques.

1. Stick to the mark allocation – if it is a 10 mark question then only spend 18 minutes on it, 1.8 marks per minute for a three hour exam. So even if you cannot answer the question because of a mistake on the paper you will not be wasting time that could be better used on the next question.

2. Don’t think you have to get everything exactly right. Your objective is to pass the exam with the highest mark, so you may have to accept that you will not get 100%. And of course getting 100% correct is impossible when the examining body has put down the wrong information! Do your best and move on.

3. Make assumptions – read the exam question slowly, underline the key points and if it doesn’t make sense clarify what you think it is saying by stating your assumptions. Then answer the question in accordance with your assumptions.

4. Don’t bother asking if you think there is a mistake. There is little point asking in the exam if there is a mistake on the paper. The invigilators on the day are unlikely to be subject experts and so will do nothing. Let others put their hand up and ask, you should keep your head down and get on with answering the question.

Remember exams are more than tests of knowledge and they are not always fair, but they are equal, everyone in the exam room is faced with the same examiners mistake. How you deal with those mistakes however can make all the difference….

Another TED lecture worth watching

And finally I have another TED lecture for you to watch. It is presented by Sir Ken Robinson who gives a very interesting talk on what he describes as a crisis in our education system – personalised learning not standardised/production driven learning.

2 thoughts on “Sorry is not good enough – Exam paper mistakes

  1. Spot on with your comment on exam errors: An exam error cannot usually be fully compensated for by changing how the papers are marked. As you elude to Robert it looks like the papers were not checked thoroughly before being sent out.

    I have seen hat TED lecture from Ken Robinson before, it is very well delivered, but What I did not understand was how you actually deliver personalised learning to a budget:- I would have thought the reason for standardised “McDonalds” learning is that it is much cheaper to deliver.

    Perhaps technology can help provide the solution as he hints at towards the end of his lecture, but I wish he would give a few more specifics.



    • Dominique everyone is talking about personalised learning at the moment although as you suggest, they talk about it without saying how to do it. To my mind apart from a very expensive E learning solution that would not only be aware of your academic history, but would adapt and change the content of the course, the questions and solution as you work through thematerial, personalised learning is more of an attitude and approach.

      Recognise that one size does not fit all, so be flexible in the way that material is delivered and the responses given to the learners. Deliver content in a multi channel way, visually, auditory kinaesthetically and in as many different formats as possible, via email, on-line, classroom, using Apps etc. Not as scientific I agree, and a little bit of a shot gun approach but better than one size fits all.
      Oh and one last thing, in a personalised learning situation the learner needs to be motivated, they need to want to learn and they have to take some responsibility, it s not a one way street.


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