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Yr 11: 2009 Exam Papers

posted Sep 22, 2009, 1:21 PM by Eddie Woo   [ updated Sep 22, 2009, 2:23 PM ]
Whoa. When I look out the window, it looks like I'm living on Mars right now - the air is thick with dust and it has a deep red glow that's, frankly, kinda scary! (If you are reading this from another location or at a later date and have no idea what I'm talking about, read the weather alert, which describes the gale-force winds that have created heavy dust storms over the ACT and NSW. I've seen dust storms before, but this is probably the most severe one I've ever seen in person. Driving to work this morning was fun!)

The deluge of files continues. This time, we're focusing on year 11. It's no longer a secret (!) that I wrote both the half-yearly and preliminary exam papers for the preliminary 2-unit course (due mostly to the fact that I'm not a year 11 teacher this year). Before I go on about some of the things I've learnt while writing these things, let me give you the relevant links:
Last year I wrote the year 7 exams, but writing senior exams is a much bigger deal. The stakes are higher, and this is reflected in (a) how long it took to put together my first draft, (b) the sheer number of subsequent edits and revised drafts I ended up making, and (c) the passionate (to understate it) response received from students based on the perceived level of difficulty in the exam.

Both exams were received poorly by students. By that, I mean students hated the exams - because they were difficult! However, while I recognise that difficult exams can be a real pain and can cause some real frustration, I think there's a case to be made for having and even wanting difficult exams. The principles are pretty simple - let me  try to explain.

Reason 1: Raw marks are meaningless. 
The first issue that seemed to upset people was that, even walking out of the exam hall, people knew the marks were going to be low. "I already lost 5 marks on question 2!" "There's no way I scored more than 75% on that paper." "I couldn't get anything in question 4 at all!" However, you should remember that (obviously) everyone in the grade sat the same exam, and so if the average is low, everyone is hit equally. 

When we set classes, the deciding factor is not the raw mark but the rank. You should intuitively understand that rankings remain essentially the same no matter how difficult the exam (within reason). Don't focus on your raw mark. It gets scaled quite aggressively before it ends up on your report card anyway.

Reason 2: Easy exams do not distinguish skill levels. 
This is a reason that will not come instinctively to you, but really makes a lot of sense. If we set an exceedingly easy exam, the biggest problem is that weak students and strong students alike will achieve very similar scores. If all of year 11 were asked to draw a graph of y=x2, then chances are that 100% of students (or very close) would get the answer exactly right. That makes everyone feel good, but it's a disaster if we are trying to put you as a grade into some kind of order. On the other hand, if we give a multi-stage question that requires some insight, analytical skill and high-level thinking, stronger students and weaker students alike will be revealed by how far they can get.

Some of you might think it is great if you can slip into 12M1 instead of 12M2, but trust me: there are few things worse than being in a class higher than is appropriate to you. You will lag behind the entire year and feel overwhelmed by concepts that others around you do not find difficult. The class will march ahead through topics that you can barely wrap your mind around, all the way until the trial exam when it will all come down on your head. I've seen it happen, and it's a far happier alternative to be in a place where you are pushing your own limits, not exceeding them.

Reason 3: Difficult exams are learning experiences. 
It's one thing to look at a concept in the program (say, differentiation by the chain rule) and think to yourself, "I know how to do that." It's another thing entirely to then be able to demonstrate that skill under pressure, and recognise that the derivative of ln(sin x) is equal to cot x. 

It's the same in all kinds of areas of life. It looks easy when Jamie Oliver cooks a mouthwatering spinach and ricotta cannelloni, or when Benji Marshal throws a dummy at exactly the right time and makes a line break, or when Tommy Emmanuel plays Classical Gas on the acoustic guitar. But it's only when you try doing it yourself that you realise it is not nearly as easy as it appears. You burn the ricotta, your dummy pass is totally unconvincing, and your fingers are cramping up before you pass the third chord. The point is that you learn your areas of weakness only by testing them, and difficult exams will test them more than easy ones

When you come out after an easy exam, you think "hey, I'm not so bad after all!". This may be true, but it doesn't help you to learn anything new. It doesn't reveal the fact that when there are two square roots on the same side of an equation, you can't just square both sides, cross your fingers and hope it will simplify eventually. It doesn't reveal the fact that without carefully reading the question - even the very first one on the paper - you will never arrive at the right answer. Difficult exams will help you learn, and so you should in fact appreciate them.

Reason 4: "Difficult" is relative. 
This is the reason that no one likes to hear. If people come out of an exam saying "that was crazy", "I can't believe that was so hard", or "I felt like rage quitting after ten minutes", there are two main plausible reasons for why. Firstly, the exam could have been genuinely difficult. Secondly, the people sitting the exam could just be much weaker than they realise. (Naturally, these aren't mutually exclusive, but I hope you get the point anyway.) Who says it was a difficult exam? Couldn't it be that another grade might sit it and find it an average difficulty? Couldn't it be that the grade as a whole really needs to pull their socks up and start working harder on understanding the topics and putting the time into solid practice?

That being said, I do think the exams I wrote were difficult. That was my intention (see the earlier points). But don't make excuses and don't assume. If you find an exam difficult, don't just question the exam. Question yourself as well. Be sobered by the fact that your marks were lower than you expected. There was nothing exceptionally unusual in the exam: in fact, an entire question (Q4a in the preliminary) was taken verbatim from a past HSC question, which many of you were probably given in class. But the performance on that question as atrocious. That wasn't a difficult question: that was just laziness.

Reason 5: Exams as a whole are not the most important thing in life. 
For me, the biggest thing is that those who responded so negatively to the exam did so almost universally because they placed too much emphasis on this exam. I heard that people shed tears after the exam. I don't mean disrespect, but if an exam makes you cry, then you have placed too much importance on it. It's right to view these exams as important, but only enough so that you put a substantial effort into them; not to the point where they really cause you grief. If you understand and believe this reason, many of the others will fall into place as well. I sincerely hope they do so for you.

Okay, so that ended up being a little longer than I originally intended! But I hope it makes sense and is helpful to some of you. In the end, life will always throw difficult 'exams' at you - not just the academic type - so I really desire that you learn to deal with them in a way that prevents you from going insane. Thanks for reading - comments and feedback welcome.