Giving students advance notice of exam topics for summer 2021 should be handled with care

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Ofqual has today (Thursday 3 December) published research into the predictability of exam papers in the context of 2021 exams. It looks at the factors that influence how predictable exam papers are and distinguishes between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ predictability.

Ofqual has also published a partner research paper on exam optionality. This looks at the use of optional questions and topics in exam papers.

Some stakeholders have suggested using greater predictability and optionality in GCSE and A level exams to help address the impact the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has had on education.

Research into predictability suggests that care must be taken when changing the format of exams so as not to overly reduce students’ familiarity with them. While exam topics or questions that are too predictable encourage rote-learning, a certain level of familiarity is helpful so that students can prepare and are not distracted by the surface features of questions. Familiarity also helps to reduce student anxiety. In the context of the pandemic, giving students more – rather than less – certainty over the format and content of exams will help students show what they know and can do.

Ofqual’s research, however, which analysed past papers, suggests that optionality could be less helpful for 2021. The research shows the difference in difficulty between the different optional routes through exam papers and qualifications can vary widely, in some cases by as much as one grade. Differences in difficulty can usually be managed through processes such as using marking and/or adjusting grade boundaries. But the more optionality there is, the more challenging it can be to do this and the more unfamiliar the papers become to students

Interim Chief Regulator Dame Glenys Stacey said:

Our research suggests that predictability can be helpful for students in the form of familiarity with the topics and – notably – the structure of the questions. It can help to reduce exam anxiety. This is useful to know in the context of 2021 exams but it is not a panacea. We must make sure that exams are not so predictable that they become simply memory exercises. Students should still have an engaging learning experience, and the challenge of a true test.

Optionality might seem an attractive prospect, but our research shows it can disadvantage the very students we intend to help. While options can give some students confidence in exams, they can increase pressure on other students who may worry about choosing the ‘wrong’ option or want to change their minds part way through.

Ofqual is considering optionality and predictability, in conjunction with other measures that can be taken to help make exams less daunting for students.

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