Cranking up the challenge

A crucial question to explore as teachers of science is: what will an examiner do to assess whether students are working at the top grades? What does he or she reach for to test whether a candidate can access the marks that would correspond to Grades 8 or 9?  It’s a bit like watching a sound engineer at a mixing desk – if they reach for the slider to move up the challenge, what’s it connected to?

Of course, when an examiner is assembling a paper it needs to be balanced, and in a number of different ways.  One of these ways is in terms of challenge – a good exam paper will discriminate effectively between candidates working at different levels of performance.  This means that the normal distribution curve of marks from across a range of candidates will be a bell curve with a nice broad base, meaning that the grade boundaries are not too close.  What characterises the items that have the most challenge though?

Let’s tackle a couple of misconceptions first.  Firstly, there isn’t content specifically tagged to Grades 8 and 9 – ideas that, if students can understand, opens up the door.  Most content can, and will, be assessed at a range of grades.  Some material is, of course, HT only but even that will be assessed over a grade range of 4-9.  This isn’t to deny that some ideas are more challenging than others but rather that complexity of concept isn’t the only determinant.

Similarly, there’s the question of detail.  Students who write more get higher grades, or do they?  Again, there’s a degree of truth in this; sometimes students underperform if they have a sketchier grasp of ideas and leave out key points.  However top grades aren’t driven by word count.

So how does it work then?  I would suggest that there are three things that students need to be supported to do if they are targeted with high grades.  These can be thought of as the axes on a three dimensional graph.  One of the axes is conceptual challenge; some ideas are crunchier and although understanding the idea won’t automatically get you a good grade, top scoring candidates have got their heads around those concepts.  Describing refraction with reference to wavefronts might be a good example. The second is cognitive complexity.  The same idea or process becomes more challenging if the stem is altered; applying an idea is more challenging than understanding it and using it to interpret data is more challenging again.  The third axis is the type of response required.  A question becomes more challenging if the candidate has to sequence a number of steps, such as performing a multi-stage calculation or writing an extended response.  Similarly if ideas are linked to other ideas it becomes harder.

What good teachers will do is to provide access to higher grades by incorporating all of these into their teaching – not only providing students with sample questions and feeding back on performance but also explicitly teaching how to work in this way.

What a number of teachers have been asking for are progression grids, showing how ideas in science becomes more challenging at higher grades.  I’ve seen a number of examples and, as always, some are, in my opinion, better than others.  The time has come for me to put my money on the table and have a go.

Collins customers will receive the progression grids via email. Watch this space. For more information please contact your local Sales Representative. Simply use the online form at to get in touch.

Ed Walsh

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