Exam season: the unanswered questions

Why do some candidates leave blank spaces in multiple choice questions? - and six other perennial exam season questions

Stephen Petty

GCSE and A-level exam invigilator

1. How do invigilators manage not lose it? How do they get through all those countless hours of tedium, day after day?  Will one of them finally “snap”, breaking the silence of a sultry June afternoon exam and begin repeatedly shrieking invigilator instructions as they leap like an ape from one candidate’s table to the next?  

Maybe they all hold it together by playing some secret, coded game devised on their training day – “Slow-motion Invigilation Olympics”, “Invigilators on Love Island” or something? Do they go online each evening and allocate points to each other? Surely something must be going on? 

2. Given the extreme monotony outlined above, why do some retired teachers chose to invigilate? It was the one role in school that teachers used to loathe more than any other, before the noble local cavalry were paid to come to the rescue.

3. Why are there no buckets? When I pass an exam room I often notice a solitary invigilator waving at me. My first instinct is to assume that they are probably just bored out of their mind (see above). I just wave back cheerily and start to move on. But then I notice the look of utter disbelief in their eyes and realise that they want me to come in and escort one of their candidates to the toilet. What a waste of everyone’s time. Why not just put a couple of buckets at the back of each examination room? 

4. Why do some candidates leave blank spaces in multiple choice questions? Today’s smartphone students are, unfortunately, more exposed to the world of gambling than ever before. So perhaps we should be pleased rather than exasperated when some of them surprisingly choose not to take a random punt on either A, B, C or D. 

5. Why do duff exam questions still turn up year after year? Remember the GCSE Romeo and Juliet question where a Capulet character was turned into a Montague, much to the confusion of thousands across the country? Remember how unsurprised you were to hear that story? Why is it so inevitable that there will be a number of atrociously-worded, off-syllabus or downright erroneous questions each year, even though there are teams supposedly scrutinising each exam for the best part of a year?      

6. What should we say to that elated student? “That exam was sick Sir, I absolutely nailed it” they say to us afterwards. But when they go into a little more detail, it gradually dawns on us that their extensive answers seem to bear no relation to the questions set. What to say, other than “well, fingers crossed then”?      

7. What future for the ridiculous Ebacc? Actually, I think I may have the answer to this one. With the actor who played Chewbacca sadly dying recently, I understand the Star Wars team is to set to unveil Chewbacca’s equally nonsensical-sounding Wookie brother – “Ebacca”. So Ebacca will no longer be a strange, useless thing in the world of exams but will be launched into outer space sometime soon. It will join the world of fantasy and make-believe where it truly belongs. I will leave you to guess who will be wearing the costume. 

Stephen Petty is head of humanities at Lord Williams's School in Thame, Oxfordshire

Register to continue reading for free

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you

Latest stories