The right exam techniques for secondary and JC maths and physics

*This is especially applicable for both Secondary and JC Maths and Physics students which I specialised in.

I often noticed hardworking and conscientious students having the best of everything… the best school notes, a very helpful school subject teacher, and maybe a really good environment to study. But they just can’t score high enough. Their hardworking efforts just aren’t showing the results.

My definition of “high enough” is above 90 marks, a mark which I consistently scored for both Maths and Physics during my final months in JC. I say this not to brag, but to drive the point that your child could actually score much higher if he/she implements not just the right learning strategies, but also the right exam techniques.

The main reason for such hardworking students’ dismal results: They lack a clear and logical answer structure.

In other words, they lack the skill of expressing themselves in their exams answers clearly, logically, in a way that is easily understood by the examiner. The result? Lost marks. In schools, you or your child may still be able to argue for the extra marks on unclear answers (some parents do that!), but in the national exams, your child does not get back his/her exam papers at all.

The Problems That Come With A Poor Answer Structure

A poor answer structure makes it hard for an examiner to give marks according to their marking scheme. It makes it hard for the examiner to understand the answer. Furthermore, certain points may be missed, and the answer will not receive a full mark even though the student may understand the concept.

Another problem with a poor answer structure is that if your child makes a careless mistake, he/she may not get any marks. Answering with a good answer structure ensures that method marks (and error carried forward marks for Physics) may still be given despite a wrong answer. As I always explain to my students, it’s not just about scoring marks for questions they know and are able to answer correctly. It is also about how to scrape method marks for questions that they can’t answer. Every little mark count, and scoring any additional mark is always better than zero.

An example is given below:

Cambridge Examiners’ Report In 2005, Cambridge produced a report titled “What goes through a marker’s mind? Gaining theoretical insights into the A-level and GCSE marking process”. An excerpt as follows:

The examiner awards marks, bearing in mind the structure, clarity, factual accuracy and logic or other characteristics of the candidate’s answer given in the mark scheme.

Cambridge Examiners’ Report

A rather shocking fact is, despite this being so important, it is a very neglected aspect of lessons.

At best, you see this in school exam papers

Examiners commonly give the inverted V sign to indicate more information needed, but seldom teach students (including your child) how to avoid making the same mistakes in the next exam. This can be avoided if your child knows how to structure his/her answers properly.

Apart from giving the suggested answer, there are usually no further steps taken to help students ensure that they do not make the same mistake again.

Maybe your child didn’t even know that this is a mistake, or an area, in which he/she could work on to see an improvement in grades! Things are just not so clear.

The reason why it is so hard to ensure students have a clear and logical answer structure

One main reason is because class sizes are usually too big. However, this is inevitable in Singapore schools, as the focus has shifted more towards holistic education and not grades. But the truth remains that grades are still the main criteria for entering into universities worldwide.

My personal experience in teaching small group tuition shows that despite me writing and explaining the best possible solution methods on the whiteboard, many students still love to take the easy way out to write shorter answers on their answer scripts. *Some students take it to the extreme, and merely just listen and not write down answers.

It is only by walking right up to each of my student and looking through each of their answers, making sure all students write down and understand the answers I want them to have, that I am able to pinpoint to my students exactly where they could improve in terms of structure and clarity.

Anything more than 8 students in a tuition class is too many, because the tutor’s attention to the clarity and structure of student answers will be so thinly spread out, or even non-existent.

What can be done to ensure your child provide a clear and logical answer

There are THREE things you must ensure your child (or his/her tutor, if you have engaged any) knows:

(1) Examiners Empathy

Examiners empathy is what I defined as putting oneself in the examiners’ shoes. In other words, understand from the examiners’ point of view. Examiners are human. Your child should structure his/her answers in ways that examiners can read clearly and understand. Too many students write answers in a way that only they can read (writing is too small, too untidy) or understand.

That’s not all. Examiners, being humans, may also be unclear in setting exam questions. This is especially true in Singapore’s context. Questions may be unclear, wrong, or provide incomplete information, but the key isn’t to pinpoint mistakes in questions, but to understand or comprehend what key ideas or concepts the questions are testing.

Your child should be answering accordingly to what the examiners want, give the examiners the answers they want in a clear and logical enough manner, and help the examiners give marks to your child easily.

(2) Key Words, Phrases and Concepts

This is especially applicable for Science subjects and JC Maths (I’m not an expert in other subjects)

Examiners look for understanding and proper application of concepts when marking. Proper usage and application of key words, phrases and concepts at appropriate parts of the answers will make the answer look very much more structured and organised, and gives the examiners an impression of your child’s conceptual understanding.

(3) Know how answer schemes are created and used

An example of how a Cambridge answer scheme looks like is shown below:

Examiners mark strictly according to the answer scheme to ensure uniformity and fairness among different markers and across different students. What this means for your child is that if he/she knows how exam answer schemes are created and used, and is able to produce structured answers to help examiners give a tick more easily, he/she will be able to score more marks.

If your child needs help to improve his/her scores, explain to him/her about the importance of having a good answer structure. Or if you have already engaged a tutor or planning to engage one, make sure the tutor give tremendous focus on a proper answer structure.

You could consider Eton Tuition for small group tuition that focuses on each and every student’s answer structure so that they can score better. We intentionally limit all our tuition class size to eight and below so that our experienced tutors can give the maximum attention to each primary, secondary or JC students and ensure that they answer with the proper structure that Cambridge examiners look out for. Contact us for more information!