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One of the things that can be difficult to get students to grasp is the importance of exam technique: the idea that what they achieve in their final exam is not just a function of what they know but also of how they express what they know.

Exams, in short, are a social process governed by rules specifying things like what counts as valid knowledge and, perhaps more-importantly, how students can validly realise their knowledge. It can sometimes be a struggle to convince students that it’s not enough to simply know things; you have to be able to answer specific questions in a way broadly demanded by the examiner.

Being successful at A-level Sociology therefore, as with every other subject at this level, is a combination of learning relevant knowledge and being able to apply that knowledge in ways acceptable to an examiner.

The Good News here is that by understanding and exploiting the rules of the sociology game students can successfully achieve their objectives.

The somewhat Less Than Good News is that convincing them of this can sometimes be an uphill battle.

To this end I’ve put together a couple of simple exercises, based on reconstructing and deconstructing real exam answers, designed to show students how taking the time and effort to master the mechanics of answering exam questions can pay dividends in the long run.

1. Reconstructing the Deconstruction

The initial exercise involves students reconstructing an exam answer and, for the purpose of illustration I’ve chosen an AQA Methods in Context one. Since all A-level sociology students have to answer Research Methods questions it’s an area with which they will be broadly familiar, regardless of the specific syllabus followed. You can, of course, do this exercise with an exam answer of your own choosing / creation.

Most UK exam boards now seem to make exemplar answers available to teachers so it shouldn’t be too difficult to find an answer or two that fits the bill. If you’re having trouble you can either write one yourself (and maybe swap answers with other teachers?) or there are plenty around on the web for OCR (H580/01, H580/02, H580/03) and AQA. There are also commercial products – try searching for something like “crime & deviance 10 markers model answers” – that have been written as exemplars.

Process

The Exemplar Answer File I’ve provided is a real student answer to a 20-mark AQA question from 2018 that received 18/20. For our purpose, therefore, it’s as near perfect as we’d want.

I’ve divided the answer into 8 numbered paragraphs (the numbers are just for reference if you need them), each of which needs to be cut into three strips as indicated in the file. If you’re doing this exercise in the classroom it’s a good idea to laminate each of the (24) strips if you plan to reuse them at another time and want to avoid them being damaged in the reconstruction process.

Each student in the class should be given a complete set of 24 strips, jumbled up in some way, from which they can reconstruct the answer by piecing the strips together.

If you’re working with students online you can jumble the strips in Word and get students to copy and paste them to reconstruct the answer.

You can add a competitive element if you think that might help to push things along – perhaps offering a prize for the first student to accurately reconstruct the answer. Off the top of my head this could be something like an all-expenses paid cruise for two to the Caribbean or, if funds are limited, a small bag of sweets.

Once all the students have completed the reconstruction ask them to suggest the question that might have been the basis for the answer (“Evaluate the strengths and limitations of using written questionnaires to investigate working-class educational underachievement”). This is something that should be readily-apparent and is something that can be used in Part 2: Deconstructing the Reconstruction.

Variations

Reconstructing the answer will probably take between 30 and 45 minutes and if you need to speed things up you might want to consider a variation that uses different colours for the three components of each paragraph. Students can then separate their 24 strips into three coloured piles prior to reassembly:

Blue strips are always the first sentence in the paragraph.

Green strips are always the second sentence.

Red strips are always the concluding sentence.

This will cut the reassembly time quite considerably without losing sight of the basic idea behind the reconstruction.

Another variation, which will add quite a bit of extra preparation and time to the exercise, is to give your students a second deconstructed answer. This needs to be an answer that didn’t score particularly well with the examiner (anything around the 50% mark). Students should find this answer substantially more difficult to reconstruct because it will not be well-structured and hence much more difficult to follow. And if your students find it difficult to follow will the same be true for the examiner?

2. Deconstructing the Reconstruction

The second part of the exercise involves encouraging your students to deconstruct the structure of the answer they’ve just reconstructed…

The main objective here is to either introduce your students to something like PEER (or whatever variation you teach) or demonstrate that using this kind of mnemonic is a quick and efficient way to structure an answer that demonstrates the A01, A02 and A03 skills required by the examiner (and which is all-but-guaranteed to generate the Big Marks).

PEERing into the Exam Abyss

PEER stands for:

Point

Explain / Example

Evaluate

Relate to the question.

It’s similar to the ever-popular PEEL so if that’s what you teach it might be best to stick with it.

The next part of the exercise involves asking your students to do a couple of things:

1. Explain how they knew how to reconstruct the answer. In other words, what rules did they follow? They might, for example, observe that:

  • Initial paragraph points are clearly set the theme for the paragraph discussion.
  • Concluding paragraph points are clearly signposted by strong indicators like: Furthermore, Coupled with, Nevertheless, However…
  • Just as the initial point tells the examiner what to expect in the paragraph, the signposted conclusion makes it simple to demonstrate evaluation to the examiner.

    When you throw in the fact they’re getting paid around £7 per script, anything that makes the job easier is going to be looked upon very favourably. Particularly if a clear, well-structured, answer appears in the middle of a bundle of scripts whose answers are poorly-structured.

    2. Apply PEER / PEEL to the reconstructed answer by marking each strip with the appropriate letter. Your students will find that the answer follows the logic of the mnemonic almost perfectly.

    The final thing to do as part of the exercise is to show how structure complements content.

    Content

    In terms of actual sociological content this answer is particularly interesting because, not to put too fine a point on things, it’s nothing special:

    • It’s based on a range of relatively simple, but factually correct, ideas (cost, standardisation, distribution) relating to questionnaires.
    • It only makes reference to a single source (Beriter and Englemann) in a way that is, once again, factually correct but uncritically used.
    • There are general references to “positivists” and “interpretivists”.

    If you want to reinforce this – and encourage your students to understand the importance of any stimulus material they are given in the exam – you could give them the following stimulus material that accompanied the actual question:

    Item B

    Investigating the role of parents in pupils’ achievement

    Parents play a vital role in pupils’ achievement. There may be social class differences in parents’ income levels, cultural capital, educational qualifications, attitudes to school and how they socialise their children, for example into using different speech codes. Similarly, ethnic differences among parents, for example in family structure, discipline styles or home language, may affect pupils’ achievement.

    Questionnaires may be a good way of investigating the role of parents in pupils’ achievement. Pupils can be asked to distribute them to parents at no cost, giving wide coverage. Parents are accustomed to supplying information to the school on a regular basis and this will help to ensure a good response. However, the questions asked may be very personal and some parents may feel that they are being judged. However, they may be less useful when dealing with sensitive issues

    Get them to go through this material and identify anything from it that subsequently appeared, in one form or another, in the student answer.

    This demonstrates how useful stimulus material can be as a source of marks, particularly if a student is unsure about how to answer a particular question. Even in worst-case scenarios (it’s not a topic they revised…) keeping a cool head and not panicking will mean they can always salvage a marks from even the least-promising situation.

    Overall, what your students should take away from this answer is that sociological content doesn’t have to be startlingly original or of any great depth.

    But it does have to be organised carefully in order to wring every last drop of marks from it.

    Finally, if you want to consolidate the idea of using mnemonics in exam answers it’s simple to demonstrate how the student structured their content around the PET mnemonic: Practical, Ethical and Theoretical research considerations.

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