The secret exam marker: 'One had simply written "banter" in huge 3D letters, another drawn a car on every page'

One anonymous exam-marker reveals the trials, tribulations and procrastination involved in trawling through hundreds of scripts

Katarina Keith

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Considering the meticulous rules around exam papers, it seems odd that hundreds of them are currently under the coffee table in my living room. They are in two piles: marked and unmarked. One is a lot larger than the other.

The module I work on is not part of a core subject and I wonder how much that influences some of the more “unusual” answers. Maths markers, do you ever open a paper and find a giant, A4-size smiley face beaming out at you? Are you ever, as I was last week, instructed by a student to "B nice plz" after an essay question? I admire the gumption, if not the grammar; when I sat my exams, I was so stressed by the whole palaver that I'd break out in a cold sweat if my signature went slightly outside the white box, so it's cheering to see that some young people are more relaxed about the process. 

Some are perhaps a little too relaxed, however. A few years back, one girl gave up answering the questions halfway through and launched into a long and vivid description of her break-up with a boy named Brandon, who had his own pair of handcuffs. (It sounds like she's well shot of him, in my professional opinion.)

Others opt for a clear two-fingers-up approach to the whole business. One student this year drew a car on every single page of the answer booklet. No words, just lots and lots of cars. Another simply wrote the word “BANTER” in huge (and what I must admit were excellently rendered) 3D letters.

There are no marks for spelling on this module, but deciphering the language is a fun puzzle nonetheless – in the last week alone I've seen seen "themominal" ideas, useful "frazes" and a wise understanding of the "kayouse" of war.

I’ve been an examiner for several years now and it is always a strange four weeks. I rediscover the outer reaches of procrastination (at no other point in the year is my house this clean) and find that I am constantly making deals with myself: just three more papers and you can have a cup of tea; finish this school and you can watch Game of Thrones.

There are dark days. Days when there are hundreds of papers to go, when I’m behind schedule and in the middle of marking a centre that has somehow taught 75 children to write the exact same waffling answer.   

There are papers that make me smile. The best are the ones where students respond in a way that is smart and original and unpredictable. These are rare. Then there are the guilty pleasures – the totally blank ones. Yes, yes, it’s sad and a wasted opportunity, of course, but it’s also 15 minutes of my life I have unexpectedly been given back.

More troubling are the pupils who have written a few words and then given up. Or crossed out their entire answer with such force that they have almost torn the page. I had one last year where the student had just copied out every word on the question paper (a tactic one of my pupils used to use in class when he didn’t understand what to do). One girl this year penned an eloquent account of how much she loved the subject but hated exams. She had panicked and couldn’t answer any of the questions, she wrote, so she'd decided to share her thoughts instead. That was a difficult zero to give.

Equally low-scoring was the student who used the time to sketch out a formation for the Middlesbrough-Norwich Championship play-off final that weekend, which he predicted Middlesbrough would win. I don’t know if it’s because I’m such a committed examiner or a such a terrible, terrible procrastinator, but I checked. Norwich won 2-0.

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