A2 exam technique spot 5: selecting the right question

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May 29, 2014 by Paul Goldsmith

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Whatever exam board you are taking over the next two weeks, the key choice is going to be that of which questions to answer. It could be a choice of data response, or it could be a choice of what I call “free essay”, which tends to consist of an ‘analysis’ type question and a longer ‘evaluation question’, although in Edexcel unit 4 the free essay consists of two ‘evaluation’ questions, one shorter one longer.

There is nothing worse than getting half way through an answer and realising that you have chosen the wrong question and you just can’t do the one you are doing justice. You simply don’t have enough time to start again so you will just have to make do, with the key thing being to do the work not pick the wrong question? But I have also seen students think they are answering an easy question because they have mis-read it, and it is important to have strategies not to do that.

So here are some tips you can use:

1 ‘tick question mark,cross’ – particularly useful for the data responses, the key being that you look at all the questions, put a tick next to the ones you know you can do well, question mark next to the one you are not sure about but think you can have a go, and a cross against the questions you just couldn’t do. I would argue that the presence of a single cross is a problem, because the truth is that with most questions half the marks are quick and relatively easy to get with definitions, a diagram maybe and some explanations, whilst getting zero in a smaller question is very damaging even if you can do well in the longer questions. You should choose the data response in which you have the most ticks obviously, but just beware of any crosses.

2 How useful is the data? when you are choosing between data responses, and I have written about this before so I won’t write too much on it, you should look carefully at how useful the data is. First of all, the data may have all the answers, in that it may contain the arguments for and against the proposition in your long answer question. That is extremely helpful. It also may be on an industry you know a lot about so you can use a lot of examples from it, although bear in mind the examiners tend to include plenty of explanations of egg industry if they know students are unlikely to know a lot about it so don’t be out off if it is on an industry you don’t know much about.

3 If it is a free essay, think about whether you know a lot of real world examples – again something I have written I about before. If you know you have a bank of real world examples for a question, such as industries for a2 micro and countries for a2 macro, then you can pick up easier application marks, and it is also likely you can get better evaluation marks too, as for instance you can talk about where the proposition in the question holds, and where it doesn’t, using the examples.

4 Read and consider every word of the question carefully – this is where planning is so important. Do you have the knowledge and understanding to answer it ( do you know the policies asked for, or the case for and against if needed?). Do you know the diagrams you can use for it? (in a long essay you should try and have two, in a shorter one at least one in my opinion), and most importantly at A2, do you know the evaluation points you can use on a question? The biggest mistake made in AQA micro is answering a question asking whether the market or the government can solve a problem by simply writing a list of government policies. They are completely different questions and you need to check you are answering exactly what is asked. If you are being asked whether a policy is the ‘best’ one, do you know the case for and against that policy for the particular problem in the question AND do you know any alternative policies? Be very careful not to mix up the words ’cause’ and ‘consequence’ in an analysis question, or ‘reasons for’ and ‘effects of’. You could write a perfect answer on the causes of a problem and get nothing as it was on the consequences of the problem.

I always tell my pupils that they SHOULD be paranoid as the examiners ARE trying to get at them. This is not to criticise the examiners. In fact, it is an acknowledgement of the thought and effort that goes into question writing and exam setting. I think it is important that if the pupils know that, they can be on their guard and not make too many silly mistakes. The key for you if you are a student is to have a plan for selecting the right question for you. A bit of planning of all the questions you will answer before you start writing the answer to the first one will go a long way.

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