Exam reviews

11th June 2010 at 01:00


Express yourself

Questions in previous Higher philosophy exams have often been open to varied interpretations - a concern that, as a marker and principal teacher of philosophy at Dingwall Academy, Bernard McGhee has raised with the Scottish Qualifications Authority before.

This year, however, he was happy with the paper. "The questions were fair and allowed pupils to express the knowledge they have rather than highlighting the knowledge they lack. There was nothing that I looked at and thought: `This is terrible.'"

The moral philosophy question set out a scenario which Mr McGhee felt was useful for the pupils. "I welcomed that, and I would like to see it every year."

While most of the questions were well-balanced, Question 5, for 30 marks on Descartes, posed some problems. It required a sophisticated knowledge of the "clear and distinct" rule - one out of six meditations that pupils had studied. Mr McGhee would have liked to see a more explicitly-worded question that tested pupils' knowledge directly. "It would have been better to see it in a context," he said.

Other questions - on Hume and on moral philosophy - were open-ended in a way that allowed pupils to express their knowledge.


Global warming: human factor

The Higher was fair overall, reckoned North Berwick High's principal geography teacher John Rutter, although some pupils found Paper 2 "quite challenging".

Question 1 on rural land resources was a "bit wordy", while he "wouldn't be surprised" if some pupils failed to realise there was a second page of diagrams for Question 4 on management of urban change, showing population change in Mexico and urban sprawl in south-east England.

There was a good start to Paper 1, with a topical question on global warming that pupils would have found engaging. They had to describe human factors in global temperature increases and possible consequences.

There was some nudging in the right direction with more information than usual, such as in Question 2 on scree slopes and corries. But Question 7, which was not compulsory, limited the knowledge pupils could draw on by focusing solely on commercial arable farming; in other years, they would have been allowed to focus on a type of farming of their choice.

The Intermediate 1 and 2 papers were fair and held no huge surprises. The latter had a timely question on earthquakes, given recent events in Haiti (pictured) and Chile. Intermediate 2 also covered the formation of ribbon lakes and industry in developing countries, which Mr Rutter could not remember appearing in past papers.


Challenging, but not shocking

Pupils were presented for a number of Gaelic exams at Plockton High this year. Gaelic teacher Donna Lander felt that overall the papers were fair and gave pupils plenty of opportunity to demonstrate their knowledge of the language.

In the fluent speakers' Higher paper - which three Plockton students sat - the reading was challenging but the listening was fair and an improvement on last year's paper. The pupils were especially pleased with the essay question.

Mrs Lander thought the listening section of the learners' Higher paper was more difficult, but not as hard as last year's, according to pupils who had sat the paper before and were hoping to gain a better grade second time round.

In both Higher papers, some question formats had been changed from previous years, but pupils were happy with them "once they got over the shock", she said.

Of the other levels, Mrs Lander felt that the Advanced Higher paper for learners was challenging, with students struggling with the translation, but this was to be expected as "Advanced Higher is a challenging level".

Intermediate 2 for learners, like the Higher papers, had a challenging listening section but was a fair paper overall.


Happy with style and content

John Mackay of St Mungo's Academy in Glasgow and his colleagues in the chemistry department thought this year's Higher chemistry was a fair paper, similar to previous years. Most of their pupils were happy with it both in content and style.

A question about infrared spectroscopy caused a "wee wobble". The topic is covered in the Advanced Higher course but appeared to have been "pulled down" and used as a problem-solving question. It was difficult, but Question 15 out of 16 should not have "thrown" pupils for the rest of the exam.

Mr Mackay finds there is a pool of questions from which each year's paper draws, meaning that if pupils have done enough practice they will see questions reappearing. This year, Questions 17 and 19 had appeared before and Question 24 was a compulsory one on synthesis gas, and easy to gain marks.

Overall, it was a fair and accessible exam, and if pupils had worked for it they should have done well.

At the other levels, candidates of Advanced Higher chemistry were stretched by their paper, but it is a difficult level, Mr Mackay said, and the questions were as expected.

The same was true of both Intermediate 1 and 2 papers, with pupils for the most part happy with the exams.


Chance to shine

"A fair paper with no tricks to catch pupils out" is how this year's Higher physics appeared to Michael Walker, a physics teacher at Robert Gordon's College, Aberdeen.

A number of extended questions which asked for explanations gave pupils who "knew their stuff" the chance to shine, and meant that good pupils would have done very well.

The Advanced Higher paper was broadly similar, with some demanding questions that would have stretched pupils - as they should be at that level - but not "nasty or unfair".

In the Intermediate 2 exam, one or two questions were beyond pupils' knowledge and would have caused problems. Question 7, on electronics, had ambiguous wording that might have led to pupils misinterpreting it; there was also a question which asked pupils to give two reasons, when an experienced physics teacher could only come up with one.

However, none of Mr Walker's pupils complained about the paper this year or last, and the pupils themselves felt the exams were fair. He said: "From our point of view, it was a job well done."


`All things to all men'

The Higher economics exam must be comprehensive, contemporary and up-to- the-minute; the 2010 paper managed to achieve all three, according to Ian Stewart, principal teacher of economics and business studies at Inverness Royal Academy.

It managed to be "all things to all men", with questions on the volatility of the world oil market, UK interest rates and the recession, falling national income and over-dependency on Chinese imports.

The two compulsory interpretation questions, based around oil prices and UK interest rates, provided a good nucleus for loosely-associated questions requiring a wide knowledge of the syllabus and an ability to interpret economic conditions. These small two to three-mark questions covered a substantial part of both the micro and macro areas of the course.

The essay section was equally eclectic, with "traditional" questions on market failure, perfect competition versus monopoly, elasticity of supply and developing economies, alongside more topical questions on the problems a recession poses for the Government, how to "neutralise" inflation and whether or not there ought to be import controls on Chinese goods.

Generally, the 2010 Higher paper was straightforward and fair, yet challenging and contemporary, and would have provided a good grounding for further economics study; the pupils themselves thought the paper was "OK".


Fair and wide-ranging

This year's Higher Accounting was a fair paper covering a wide range of topics, said Jennifer McKew, business education teacher at Lenzie Academy in East Dunbartonshire.

If pupils had prepared, there was no reason for them to have any major problems. Most liked the majority of the questions and were hopeful of good marks.

Question 4 of Section A was in a new format, which put some pupils off attempting what was otherwise a good question. It was written in a long paragraph with words underlined, and asked pupils to explain the meaning of them. Although the knowledge required was not beyond their capabilities or the demands of the course, pupils needed to read the question fully before attempting it. However, if they stayed calm and did so, there was no reason for them to struggle.

As usual, several candidates felt that Section A was more straightforward than the problem-solving questions in Section B.

To Ms McKew, there did not appear to be any significant problems or any major changes from previous years.


Little to surprise them

"Biology is akin to learning a new language," said Marion Glancy, principal teacher of biology at Madras College in St Andrews.

This factor, combined with the literacy demands of the extended responses, the numeracy demands of the problem-solving questions, and the hefty knowledge base required, always makes Higher biology a challenging paper.

Pupils this year felt that there was little to surprise them. As ever, many complained about an inordinate volume of lengthy mathematical questions, but their complaint was, according to Miss Glancy, unfounded.

The multiple-choice questions contained a variety of types and some novel and more creative ones which required a more integrated approach to the course content and a greater breadth of knowledge than in previous papers.

In Section B, Miss Glancy was very happy to see some questions which needed an explanation for the candidates' responses. This ensures that "genuine misinterpretation" of the question is less likely to be penalised and is a positive step forward in the assessment process.

"We are, after all, assessing their knowledge of the subject," she said. "I would welcome this type of justification being extended to the multiple-choice questions in the future."

The extended response questions were fair, and it was interesting to note that the evolution question demanded a greater knowledge requirement than in previous years, which may have given candidates more chances to gain marks.

Overall, Miss Glancy thought the paper compared favourably to previous years.

Researched and written by Victoria Prest.

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