Exam reviews

21st May 2010 at 01:00


Shakespeare not as important

This year's Standard grade economics exam was a trip down memory lane for Ian Stewart, principal teacher of business studies and economics at Inverness Royal Academy.

He was delighted to see a question, worth one mark, on "Giffen goods" at the end of the Credit exam. It was "quite a nostalgic question" he felt, because it had not appeared in the Standard grade exam for many years.

But "all good Standard grade candidates know about Sir Bob Giffen", he said of the economist who identified the trend which results in people buying more of an item, even though its price is rising. The cost of potatoes during the Irish famine was one example, explained Mr Stewart.

This year's exam was far from being locked in the past, however. The Credit paper had questions dealing with rising unemployment and commercial banking activities, while the first question in the General exam was about building a stadium in Glasgow for the Commonwealth Games and the positive knock-on effects for the community.

"In economics you can talk about something in class and it's the first thing they see when they go home and turn on the TV. Economics should be allowed to oust English and maths in the pecking order of subjects. You can get by in life without Shakespeare, but not without economics," he said.

Classical Studies

Voyage back in time

Iain Macleod, classics teacher at Glasgow's Shawlands Academy, had only minor quibbles about the Standard grade exams.

The papers are divided into three sections at each level: ancient Athens, Odysseus and Pompeii. Credit opened with the following: "Citizenship was very important to someone living in Athens. In what way is this statement correct?"

Mr Macleod, whose school had 10 candidates, believed this could have been phrased differently, perhaps with a direct question asking why being a citizen was important. As it stood, he explained, it sounded as if a philosophical argument was expected. This made for a potentially daunting start and might have been better suited to Question 3 or 4.

Question 10 was "very open", asking to what extent it was true that Pompeii's streets were built to suit people and traffic. A struggling Credit candidate might have had problems, he said. Furthermore, both 1 and 10 were worth a hefty five marks.

Mr Macleod spotted an error in the General paper's question dealing with the Laestrygonians. It referred to Odysseus and his men meeting a woman at a well - in fact, Odysseus was not there. This might have confused more "literal-minded" candidates.

At Foundation, he had concerns about Question 7's emphasis on Odysseus's voyage to the underworld, a section of Homer's tale candidates had not read.

But Mr Macleod stressed that all three papers made reasonable demands and he praised the use of illustrations - including images of ancient artefacts and modern-day photography - in the Foundation and General papers.


Women and the war

Standard grade history setters were praised for a doing a "very good job" by Jim McGonigle, principal teacher at Helensburgh's Hermitage Academy.

He did, however, have reservations about Question 1 in General Unit 1b, which asked how important improved medical knowledge was in making people healthier by 1900. The question's phrasing, he feared, would cause some candidates to concentrate purely on medical matters, and not take into account factors such as sanitation.

"How important was the role British women played during the First World War?" asked Question 2 in Unit 2a. Foundation candidates would have struggled to bring in material other than that provided with the question, Mr McGonigle believed.

One of pupils' main gripes with the General paper came after they failed to spot the final part of one question on the other side.

"Yet again", Credit enquiry skills had a considerable chunk devoted to the League of Nations, which was not a major part of the course. "It's been examined too often," Mr McGonigle said.


Good spread of content

The General and Credit papers in the Standard grade exam were "testing", said Janice Wright, a teacher of business education at Boclair Academy in East Dunbartonshire.

The Foundation paper, however, had a good spread of course content and its first two questions should have settled any nerves.

Questions 2 and 6 in the General paper were the most demanding, she said. Terms such as "mechanisation" and "care for the environment" in Question 2, and the specific reference to Coca Cola in the continuous flow production question, 6(b), would have made candidates hesitate before answering, she suggested.

She was surprised to find no questions on product life-cycle in either the General or Credit papers; nor did the Credit paper include any questions on decision-making models or SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) analysis. The allocation of three marks, rather than six, to the "suggest, describe and justify" questions in the Credit paper would have met with pupils' approval, however, said Mrs Wright.


Tricky but predictable

Spanish teachers at St Ninian's High in Kirkintilloch were pleased with this year's Standard grade papers. Principal modern languages teacher Diane Stokoe said questions were well-worded, topics predictable, and text presented in manageable chunks.

Some pupils did encounter tricky elements within the listening papers. General Question 11 required them to make sense of an in-flight announcement, but the recording was muffled. Question 10 at Credit had a Spanish exchange pupil using the word "acabar" (meaning to have just done something, when followed by "de" and an infinitive). Mrs Stokoe thought this likely to cause pupils difficulties, by distracting from the main verb.

A talking point among pupils was use of the word "mascota" in General and Credit reading: on one occasion referring to a football mascot, on the other, more confusingly, to a pet - the latter usage being uncommon in Spain, Mrs Stokoe said.


Sharp and to the point

Standard grade Credit reading topics were engaging and reassuringly predictable, but the language used was "quite demanding", said Carolyn McInnes of this year's exam.

The French teacher at Glasgow's Eastbank Academy believed pupils' interest would have been piqued by drug use in sport and social problems in Villeneuve d'Ascq-Nord, in the north of France.

But some would have struggled with figurative language such as that in a passage about a difficult penfriend coming to stay: "J'avais l'impression d'etre face a un mur." ("I felt like I was facing a wall.") There were also lots of negatives, including tricky ones such as "Personne ne ."

There was an interesting question at the end of General reading, which should have grabbed pupils by standing out from routine fare such as holidays and money. It dealt with hygiene in France through the ages.

Overall, Ms McInnes felt the Standard grade papers were fair, although she stressed that teachers' and pupils' opinions did not always tally: "I thought General listening was fine, but the kids said it was dreadful."


Reading between the lines

This year's Higher English exam was suitably challenging but should still have been accessible, said Linda McGlinchey, an English teacher at St Columba's High in Greenock, Inverclyde.

The close reading passage in Paper 1, a comparison between the cities of Glasgow and London, was interesting. Mrs McGlinchey's impression was that there were more questions than usual - although they were "well-paced" - and, even with the extra 15 minutes allocated this year, candidates would have been doing well to complete it. She was surprised at there being no "linkage" questions.

As a marker of Paper 2, the critical essay, she was looking forward to receiving her scripts. "We will be talking about the quality of the candidate rather than whether they could find something to write about."

The drama section, as usual, offered a good range of questions, but Mrs McGlinchey felt the prose section was "more even-handed" than last year's and provided a good platform for students to show what they could do.

"The poetry section is always the curate's egg, where people will come out and say, `I couldn't find a question,'" she said.

That should not have been the case this year: Question 13 was appropriate, asking candidates to write about a poem in which the central concerns are clarified in the closing lines. Question 14, which dealt with ambiguity, would have been perfect for those who had studied Robert Browning's "My Last Duchess". Mrs McGlinchey predicted that most students would have answered Question 15, about the creation of mood or atmosphere - a feature relevant to "most poetry". Question 16, asking candidates to compare two poems, was not as prescriptive as in the past.

Advanced Higher candidates would have been expecting a comparative question in the Tennessee Williams section, but the question focused on Sweet Bird of Youth and ignored A Streetcar Named Desire, in which many teachers would have invested a lot of time.

The Intermediate 1 exam was set at the right standard. In comparison, the level of language in Intermediate 2 would have challenged the average candidate.


Problems with space

The space afforded for answers in the computing studies Standard grade papers irked Sara Aubeeluck, principal teacher of computing and ICT co- ordinator at Edinburgh's Craigmount High.

Pupils could be thrown, she said, when questions worth one or two marks were given the same space. The potential for confusion increased with haphazard use of words such as "describe", "state" and "explain". "Describe", for example, usually suggested an essay-style response - yet Miss Aubeeluck cited one such question for which only a very small space was left.

This was a headache at a time when literacy is deemed the responsibility of all subjects. Miss Aubeeluck encouraged pupils to write in full sentences, but the limited space on the exam booklet did not allow room for this.

Question 3b at Credit proved problematic by demanding an explanation of differences between integrated packages (such as Microsoft Works) and suites of packages (such as Microsoft Office). Candidates usually dealt with these as similar entities, and would instead have expected to point out their differences from individual packages such as Photoshop, Adobe or Serif.

Miss Aubeeluck liked how the Credit paper had gone back to asking for the full "if" formula in spreadsheets: such questions had been "dumbed down" in previous years.

The use of robots in a nuclear power station was covered in Foundation's Question 3b(ii): a gripper was one of their tools, but what might be another? Miss Aubeeluck said none of her pupils would have picked up marks here, as they were unfamiliar with nuclear power stations - even she was initially unsure of the answer.

Overall, however, all three papers were set at a reasonable level.

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