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READ the QUESTION! - helen-louise
Hrm. So, I finally stopped procrastinating the marking I've been putting off for 2 hours. This post is not an attempt to procrastinate things further, but a genuine question to dyslexics and other teachers. How do you go about dealing with problems such as the following - a question on the Contact process for making sulphuric acid - where the student has blatantly misread the question so missed the point? The bold text in the question is how it appears on the exam paper, and the blue is her answer.

i) State the temperature used in this process. [1 mark]
440 °C

ii) State and explain the effect on the rate of reaction of using a higher temperature than you suggested in (i). [4 marks]
As the forward reaction is exothermic high temperatures favour the backwards reaction as it is endothermic & equilibriums seek to reverse change. therfore raising the temperature would decrease the yeild of SO3(g) Equilibrium will move to the left.

iii) State, with a reason, the effect on the yield of sulphur trioxide of using a higher temperature than you suggested in (i). [2 marks]
Higher Pressure would increase the yeild as their are less moles on the products side so the equilibrium will move to the right.

I suspect that the exam board would give her 1/7 marks, though there's a possibility she may get the 2 marks for part (iii) for her answer to (ii). However, I don't want to bank on that, as even with those 2 marks, the student has thrown away marks by careless misreading. There must be some way I can teach her to take the time to read the questions carefully before starting?

But this gets onto another issue, which is that all of my students always have trouble reading for content. Dyslexia makes that worse, as does having English as an Additional Language, but even the native-born British students with no apparent disabilities seem to have reading difficulties. I think they panic about running out of time and rush their way through the paper, when they would do so much better reading it carefully before starting. Most of them also have trouble with the idea of active checking and the way the brain caches what it thinks is there, so will happily read out loud what they thought they wrote on the exam paper rather than what they've actually written.

I was taught at school to always read the entire exam paper before I started to answer anything. This was reinforced by an exam paper we were given once, at the age of 10, which included instructions such as stand up and shout "hello", and make a hole through the centre of the exam paper. The very last instruction said "Now that you have read the entire exam paper, simply write your name at the top of it and sit quietly. Try not to laugh at your classmates." I was the only student in that class who managed to follow the instructions, and it's something I have never forgotten. Reading the entire exam paper before you start is a good idea, as all exams have the potential to embarrass you horribly, though it's not normally that blatant!

My belief, which is shared by the various exam boards examiners' reports, is that you should:
a) Read the entire exam paper before you begin answering anything. Don't get distracted by an easy question that you can immediately scribble down the answer to. Read the whole thing.
b) As you go through the exam paper, read the entire question again before answering it.

The reasons for doing this are fourfold. Firstly, the subconscious mind is capable of an awful lot of parallel processing. If you read the entire paper before starting, then while your conscious mind works on question 1, your subconscious is busy working on questions 2-7. This is useful, because it saves you time in the long run and leads to more coherent answers. Also, you may find that you have no idea how to answer some of the questions when you read them the first time, yet by the time you come to answer them, your brain will have remembered how to do them. This wouldn't happen if you hadn't already read the paper.

You might feel that you're saving time by reading the question only once, but in fact you work more quickly if you've read the paper and already know what the next question will be about.

Secondly, in order to get marks, it's essential to answer the question as written on the paper - not another similar question you've seen before. Reading each question through twice before you begin, plus a third time as you work, helps to ensure that you actually read the words and take them in. If you read three times that the question is about rate of reaction not yield of product, you have a higher probability of answering the right question.

The fact that the exam board have put some words in bold text means "Pay particular attention to this word to make sure that you're answering the question they've set, and not another similar question that you've seen before".

Thirdly, if you don't read the entire question before you start, you may well waste time writing an answer for part (i) of a question that is actually the answer for part (ii) or (iii). You will then either have to repeat yourself, or draw arrows all over the answer pages - both of which look messy, and do not favour the giving of marks. Most exam mark schemes allow a certain amount of discretionary, or "benefit of the doubt" marks, which can be awarded if the student has almost said the right thing. These tend to only be awarded to students who show themselves to be well-organised and capable. It's difficult to impress the examiner with crossings-out and arrows everywhere!

Fourthly, often a later part of a question contains a clue that will help you with an earlier part. This is particularly common in organic chemistry questions where one substance is converted to another via a complicated route, or in calculations. For example:
(b) The standard enthalpy of formation of 1,2-dibromoethane is -37.8 kJ mol^-1. Suggest the main reason for the difference between this value and your calculated value in (a) (ii).

This tells you that you're expecting an answer with an approximately similar magnitude to -37.8 kJ mol^-1. -16 kJ mol^-1 might be a reasonable answer considering issues such as heat losses to the surroundings. But +30 kJ mol^-1 implies that you've made a mistake in your calculation as it's the wrong sign, and -1160 mol^-1 is so far away that clearly something is very wrong. A wise student would immediately notice the discrepancy and carefully recheck their calculation.

I think I'm going to copy & paste this entire text into OpenOffice & print it out to return along with my marked exam papers :/ But any further ideas for getting this idea into the kiddies' heads would be ever so appreciated.

Current Mood: pensive pensive

10 comments or Leave a comment
thekumquat From: thekumquat Date: 4th December 2007 23:59 (UTC) (Link)
Being as blunt as this might help. I can't think of anything better. Although I'm not sure there's any solution, as it's just as bad when people are applying for jobs or firms apply for consultancy work. I've been in the position of having to give feedback to unsuccessful candidates, which means trying to come up with vaguely tactful ways to say "You didn't answer the bloody question!"

The worst was an hour-long feedback meeting with a director of a large famous investment bank, who justifiably wanted to know why his firm wasn't on our list of contractors any more despite them having done great work for the last 3 years.
They hadn't even filled in two of the eight questions, and two of the others were irrelevant waffle. Eventually I had to say "You said you had children. Are they doing GCSEs soon? Yes. Well they're probably getting very bored of being told by all their teachers that it's vital to read the questions and answer what's actually being asked rather than what you think should be asked."
Banker, in suit costing more than my monthly salary: [brainwhirr] "Oh. Right." [smallquietvoice] "Thank you."

I wish I'd been there to see him explain to his fellow directors how they'd lost a £3 million contract that they were the hot favourites for. Luckily for us there were other bidders just as good. But when you're applying for government work, the process can't go by information not on the form - it all has to be totally fair and transparent.

This may be a useful lesson to them...
barakta From: barakta Date: 5th December 2007 14:07 (UTC) (Link)
I would say that a lot of banking gets away with 'not answering the question you are asked, by answering what you'd like them to have asked'. That to me sums up a lot of banking.

*giggles at your anecdote*
From: artremis Date: 5th December 2007 00:45 (UTC) (Link)
There are polly going to always be some reading errors due to exam stress. But you can stress the looking for bolded words. Be really blunt and ptronising about it. You can apologise for being patronising but explain you doing it because exam-stress can make people silly. And it might help to throw in some cautonary tales like thekumquat's
I wonder if this is partly a science thing? Your pupils have been taught to value scientific facts. They want to reguritate the facts they've leanrt and don't think much about what the examiner wants to read. In more essay based art-type subjects you are encourged to think more about the audience ...
jinian From: jinian Date: 5th December 2007 02:31 (UTC) (Link)
Collating your data to answer your precise questions is huge in science, though, and by now they ought to be able to do it at the elementary level where someone else comes up with the questions!
ruth_lawrence From: ruth_lawrence Date: 5th December 2007 02:31 (UTC) (Link)
Some of our tests down here are designed so that some proportion of the students won't be able to complete them.
hobbitbabe From: hobbitbabe Date: 5th December 2007 03:21 (UTC) (Link)
The 21yo I teach often have these problems. On some of the questions they work on in class (where it's okay to ask) I've written "Although it is important to use SI units in formal reports, it is not necessary to convert for this in-class assignment" as a preamble, or "The unit "ksi" is equivalent to 100 psi" as the last sentence of the paragraph. Many many people put up their hands to ask me "do we convert to SI? or What is the pound-Newton conversion?" and "What is a ksi?" which gives me a chance to encourage them to look carefully for the answers on the paper.

Then I give a little pep talk about strategies for "beating" exams -- which might be more credible from a tutor like yourself than from someone like me who actually creates the exam paper, but they seem to be receptive.

In the laboratory, I'm sometimes reminded of a scene in the Beverly Cleary children's book Mitch and Amy about 8yo twins, a girl who is a fussy careful reader and a boy who is clumsy and rushes in. Mitch decides to make some pudding from a packet. He reads "beat with egg-" and breaks in an egg, before his bossy sister says that she doesn't think the recipe needs an egg and he finishes reading "-beater".
hiddenpaw From: hiddenpaw Date: 5th December 2007 08:13 (UTC) (Link)
Just purely an impresion I'm getting; It seems that she has been told what information she is exspected to get out in the exsam and she is determined to get it down no matter what the question and possibly get it down in the order these points were given to her orrigonaly.

Beyond that she obviously seems to know the answeres, I can only assume that the best way to tackle this is to make it clear to her that she seems to have all the knowledge and what she needs to practice now is reading the questions.
nmg From: nmg Date: 5th December 2007 09:00 (UTC) (Link)
I feel your pain.

Every year, I set an exam for my second year database students. Every year, I either include a question on transactions and concurrency (which invariably involves them demonstrating that they understand two phase locking), or I include a question on distribution and consistency (which invariably involves them demonstrating that they understand two phase commit).

Every year, at least one student writes a model answer for the wrong question, despite me explicitly saying in lectures that two phase commit and two phase locking are different thing, and that every year someone gives a perfect answer to the wrong question.
barakta From: barakta Date: 5th December 2007 14:17 (UTC) (Link)
As someone who acknowledges difficulty in reading accurately I think my only solution to this is to read very carefully and ensure I am reading accurately. Some of this is because I hear with so many words/bits missing that my brain jumps in to fill the gaps, and sometimes it does it when I read as I read so fast that I am probably missing bits and brain happily fills in the gaps without telling me that it's doing it.

I find the read through the exam paper once, carefully, to be one of the best strategies I ever managed to learn. I think someone advised me that the first 10-15 minutes should purely be reading the paper. This is a good way to get the brain into the right mode for exams and if there is any panic then alleviating that. I don't seem to panic in exams, just become very 'focussed' but not necessarily more productively focussed.

Another issue I had with my A-level physics was the exam boards interpretation of certain 'everyday words' such as 'explain' 'describe' 'investigate' as they did not match my understanding of these words. I eventually kicked off at the tutor because I was losing marks for words having meanings that I didn't know about (Maybe a deafie English thing? My English does have bizarre gaps in it). The tutor eventually provided us with an A4 crib-sheet with an explanation of what "explain" "describe" "investigate" etc meant in the exam specific context. I had to learn the wretched thing by rote, but I think it allowed me to be good enough to get my C grade.

If I was doing my A-levels again, I would use a computer damnit. It is possible to type physics A-level as almost all of the wordy bits can be typed and I handwrote equations carefully as my hand wasn't fatigued. I would also insist on asking tutors to explain the language of exams clearly from the start and insist upon us using that language correctly throughout (my GCSE chemistry tutor did this).

Your student has dyslexia, she is almost certainly entitled to use a computer during exams. It might be worth investigating this option (I know some dyslexics don't like using a computer) as it may make her less disorganised and feel less in a hurry.
haggis From: haggis Date: 15th December 2007 15:14 (UTC) (Link)
One suggestion may be to suggest she underlines the key words in every question before answering it. I know that's a technique used in English essay questions.
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