One of the best ways of mastering exam technique is to use the A-Level Mark Schemes. These are provided by the exam board to help guide us as teachers, but also guide students. When used consistently and appropriately they can be a powerful tool on the pathway to success in the exam.
As teachers we should be using the mark schemes every time we mark an essay. The language is often clear, but sometimes takes a while to fully interpret. The more we use them, the more useful they become. One top tip is to get a laminated copy of all the mark schemes as you are likely to use them time and time again.
Students should all have a copy of the mark schemes. Every time they work on an essay or review feedback, they should be referring back to the schemes. We need to help them with this and encourage them to consistently look at how they can improve their marks.
Breaking it Down
Having said all of this, I think that we need to treat mark schemes carefully and ensure that they are useful for everyone. Whilst they are often very clear and useful, it is a good idea to break them down and make them even more accessible for everyone. I don’t have space in this blog to go through every exam board, so I am going to focus on Edexcel for now and you can always take this approach to your own Mark Scheme. I have broken my mark scheme down into just 6 words.
The 6 Word Mark Scheme
These words have been taken from the Edexcel A-Level mark scheme and I think they are useful to summarise your assessment of the work. Students can then go and work out what each level means and start to use the mark scheme more closely. As a tool for assessment, learning and feedback these 6 words might help to bring clarity.
- No – This is the lowest level on the Edexcel A-level Mark Scheme and it means what it says. There is NO assessible material in the essay, zero marks. Now we don’t really want students to fall into this category, but it is good for them to think about the fact that they could fall into the trap of actually not getting any marks!
- Limited –This is where students give the bare minimum and there response is limited. It might be limited because the question hasn’t been fully answered, or limited because there simply isn’t enough there. The students are limiting themselves and need to work out why.
- General – We can all be guilty of generalising, stating the obvious and not giving enough detail. I have previously blogged about my Match of The Day approach to essay writing and I think this can help. Being general is really avoiding using the facts that we have. Students might be able to give some features, but they are not using them to explain very much, and they aren’t likely to involve any Wider Listening.
- Relevant – No complaints about what has been said. It is all relevant and works in the context of the question. But it isn’t reaching any depth.
- Detailed – This is where what is being said is being backed up, explained, put in context and justified.
- Sophisticated – Students know what they are talking about and they are able to do this fluently, answering all parts of the question and including everything that is needed.
Applying to lessons
Hopefully this approach is possible for the other exam boards as every board has a mark scheme of some kind. With any learning technique or strategy, it is important to embed it into your teaching and use it. One application you might like to use it to get students to write a paragraph for an essay. They then pass this around the class and everyone reads the paragraph and gives it a one word judgement. Once the have all read everything you see where the class as a whole are at. If lots of the work is “relevant” or “general” then you know where the class are at and you can see if their judgements are good. If there are lots of different words then it gives you a very different picture.
Use, share, summarise and apply the A-Level mark scheme as much as possible in your teaching. Make sure that students engage with it and make sure that you always mark essays using the mark scheme. You might not always give a number, you might give one word or one of the marking levels. But if students can start to see how essays are judged then they will make progress.