Thursday, September 01, 2005

Easy Exams?

I have heard a lot about how GCSEs are much easier than the exams used to be when I took them. I believe it. I also believe that they were much easier when I took them than they were previously (the only data point I have for this is that I am told by someone I trust that they were much harder in the 1950s than when he took them, and we are nearly contemporaries).

This has led me to a couple of interesting questions.

1) Are they now easy enough that you do not need to do the course work?
2) Is this slippage going to mean that less innovation comes out of the UK to add to benefit all mankind (great phrase, but as I mean it I might as well be clich├ęd)?

I doubt I will get around to the research required to properly answer question 2 though my feeling is that it already has had an impact. Any other views I am happy to be persuaded.

More interesting is question 1 as I propose to attempt to find out the answer. I intend to enter the examinations for a set of GCSEs from the following three categories:

1) Should know. These are subjects which I have studied for an exam at some point. Maybe it was 20 years ago, but even so, if I had total recall (PK Dick reference?) I would be able to do them.

2) Have Encountered. IE Spanish. I have never studied Spanish, but I have been to South America (where in 1 week I was electrocuted, shot at, dragged behind a bus and kidnapped, but that is another story), so I have come across Spanish spoken fluently, so I am not going from nothing.

3) No knowledge. This is things like architecture, where I have lived in houses all my life, but that should not qualify me for an exam by any stretch of the imagination.

I am as yet undecided which of the following I should allow:

A) A look at the syllabus for 20 minutes.
B) A day to research the subject.
C) No preparation at all.

Comments on which would be appreciated. Also I do not know how many I should take. This will be limited by two factors, first how much it costs to take the exams, and second how much time it takes up. Due to the time constraints I will not be doing course work, so I will project the exam results as if they were also typical of the coursework, though I understand there is normally a significant drop from coursework grade to exam grade. Still it means my results will be lower, not higher, so that is fair. Does anyone know of a GCSE where you do not need to do coursework to pass? Any offers to sponsor particular exams to allow me to test more subjects?

Hey, it is not a completely objective test, but it will provide a feel, which I will write up on here, and it should be a bit of fun.

One final thought: It is not fair to the people taking these exams to make them easy. If everyone does well and no one values the exams then those who have worked hard need not have bothered. This encourages not working, and makes things harder in later life. It took me years to become the workaholic I am today simply because I managed to coast through school without going much. I spent the year before my O-Level year writing the divorce papers for my parents. My report from that year says I missed more than 2/3rds of the school days. It is filled with comments like "I have not seen much of Rufus, but it does not seem to have affected his progress". What sort of message does that give to a child? And if the exams are even easier it will be worse for the people taking them today.

How will they feel to hear on the news that the exams they are taking are not worth taking? They cannot win, whether they do well or not they will get no credit, and they are not learning what they need for further education. Even if the exams are hard enough they are not percieved as hard enough, and if as I believe they are not hard enough how is that fair to the kids who have to take them?

Since posting this I have looked at a few things to help assess the exams, and sent a typical question around by email.

So far it seems that:
A) Everyone who has so far provided a score found the question easy (many responded to me directly).
B) Many of them have reasons that this may not be a bad thing or a problem with the exams.
C) No one I sent the question to admits they studied history.
It certainly seems that for this question, as well as for others i have seen which are not so easy to send around online as I did this, no knowledge of history per se is actually necessary. The proof of course may be in the real exams later, so watch this space.

There is a suggestion that age gives perspective as well as experience, and that these make a difference. This is certainly true, though I remember parents having a hard time with some of the work, so it cannot be sufficient to make the issue completely irrelevant.

For those who have not seen the question I sent here it is:

The question:
Here is a list of five events that helped the Allies to win the war, and five effects which were the result of these events. In this exercise you have to match up the event with the effect. Type the appropriate letter in the box.


1. The British navy blockaded German ports.

2. The Italians defeated the Austrians at Vittorio Veneto.

3. Tanks were improved and became more reliable.

4. The sinking of American ships by the German U-Boats.

5. The initial success of Operation Michael.


This meant that they could be used in large numbers at Amiens.
This meant there were shortages of food in Germany.
This led to America declaring war against Germany.
This led to the Allies appointing a Supreme Commander.
This meant that the Austrians signed an armistice.

This can also be found at

and is posted here for review purposes only.

P.S. Suggestions on other things I can do to help evaluate the GCSEs are certainly welcome.


Anonymous Ian Thomas said...

Ooh! I got five out of five! I'm so clever!

2:52 pm  
Anonymous Tim Wesson said...

Hi Rufus,

I did the test that you emailed around, and got 5/5 with very little knowledge of history (2/10 on your scale).

The test resembled an easy question in an IQ test or an easy sudoku more than being a test of knowledge; you could solve it with simple deductive reasoning.

To be fair, I, like you, studied mathematics at degree level, so reasoning that some would find hard we may not find the slightest problem with, and deductive skills are being tested as well as knowledge (both are needed in a historian).

But yes, I found the question ridiculously easy. I hope that it is an easy one out of a selection (so as to be able to differentiate across a range of abilities), rather than being typical.

Catch you soon.

Cheers, Tim.

2:56 pm  
Anonymous Alastair Cole said...

experience 0, test score 5

2:57 pm  
Anonymous William Tunstall-Pedoe said...

My score was 5/5 for the causes and effects GCSE history question you sent me. I studied history at high school and gave it up before doing O'levels (at 12?) so my history education is probably 2/10 on your scale. The question can be solved with simple logic only (i.e. no historical knowledge at all) as you seem to be pointing out.

3:00 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


Maybe pupils are being asked to view history as a probabilistic interpretation of partially known facts. Why trouble to learn the truth when a something plausible will do instead.

This exam clearly predicts a future when people will not be required to know their own names but only accept flimsily plausible rubbish spooned into their media addled brains.

3:21 pm  
Anonymous Manuella said...

Hey there
5/5 - I gave up history at 15 (before 0 Level) (and we didn't cover ANY modern history at school before that!!!)

3:25 pm  
Anonymous Nicko said...

I got 5 out of 5 too, and like William I gave up history before O-level, getting on for 25 years ago. To be honest the test seemed more like one of English language comprehension rather than knowledge of anything to do with history.

As for have the tests got any easier, I have a couple of comments. Firstly, I sort of suspect that many of these tests get easier as one gets older. With more life experience it becomes easier to work out answers to questions without any background knowledge. This may be why every generation things that the tests are getting easier.

Secondly, back when I took O-level chemistry my school gave us mock multiple choice tests every Monday. A couple of friends of mine and I found this so repetitive and dull that one week we decided to see if we could work out the correct answer from the set of possibles without looking at the questions. The following lesson our chemistry teacher asked if we had had hangovers, since we'd averaged 37 out of 40 and normally all three of us got perfect scores. The structure of the questions meant that the answers could be determined by deduction, much like in your history test.

As for your taking some GCSEs yourself, I suggest that a day of research would be the option to take. This should allow you to familiarise yourself with terminology and give you exposure to concepts with which you would otherwise not have had any contact. It will also mean you've probably done as much work as your average 16 your old :-)

3:28 pm  
Anonymous Simon Wardley said...

Hi Rufus,

Wow - 5 out of 5.

I didn't take an O level in History because I have always been truly awful at it. Hence I concentrated on maths, physics etc.

Anyway, onto observations.

First of all I didn't know that we did blockade German ports, nor that the Austrians were defeated by Italians, let alone what Operation Michael was and I've never heard of Vittorio Veneto.

My knowledge of history is approximately 0/10 - actually you can add English and Geography to that as well.

Fortunately I didn't have to know anything about these subjects to answer your questions. The answers can all be deduced by the most ludicrously simple deductive reasoning - taking around 4 seconds to complete.

I'm sure that this can't be a representative "O" level question - otherwise everyone will be getting "A" grades.

As for your challenge - don't prepare at all and see what happens. The advantage of this would be to give a baseline.

I hope you fail and you should, if the exams are worth anything :-)



4:20 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

jo says....

that would be a five... i admit i am a historian, but ive never studied world war two. on the plus side i appear to be capable of basic logic.
all i can say is heaven help these kids when they get into my uni classes... no actually, i've _seen_ some of these kids in my uni classes...

4:32 pm  
Anonymous Mike Lee said...

Results: 5/5 - shocker I know.

Experience 4/10 - I did well on my History O'level

I think even American SAT exams tend to be more tricky than this question. Hope it's not entirely representative of all the GCSE exams. Back in my day ... (see the Monty Python skit about the four Yorkshiremen) :-)



5:36 pm  
Anonymous Tomasz Bojarski said...

Hi Rufus
I did test and scored 5/5. But I don't know should you count it. However I graduated in chemistry, history was always my favourite subject.
About exams... I'm not sure how GCSE looks or when you supposed to complete it, but I can share with you about some observation from Poland.
At some point I and my friends have realized that we have to learn much more than pupils before us. Later it was looking that those who came to school after us, have even more. This is because in Poland they putted to much attention to knowledge and to few to how to use it. From my observation (I might be wrong) it looks like here in England it works the other way. I think both English and Polish systems are on different ends of this same swing. Solution should be find somewhere between.

About exams in Poland. Right now, this crazy spiral of increasing knowledge was stoped (for last 5 years our education system is in constant reforms). Exams supposed to be easier but it doesn't help. Pupils have even bigger problems that had I and these before me. Some fellows on university, back in Poland where I was studying, and for whom I have big estime, told me after years of observations, that: "With each year, average pupils are less and less inteligent". Maybe this is an answer why exams are easier?
And one more thought. I think that right now, when parents are to busy with their career. When not parrents, but media and social enviroment raise children. To learn is not so "importent" for children as are computer, tely, or going on partys.
I hope that my english didn't make you to much trouble and you get my point...

9:24 pm  
Anonymous Tim Wesson said...

As this debate is so often cast as better-taught newbies as against traditionalists defending old methods for the sake of being old-fashioned, it's easy to miss a very modern concern.

Ageism. Think: an employer wants a younger, easier to manipulate employee but doesn't have an excuse to discriminate. Now they don't have to, as long as they play along with buying into the government's line on exam results. They simply weight results more highly than experience, and rely upon the shift in standards to apply prejudice on their own behalf!

It may even be illegal not to apply such agism when making a call based upon personal judgement. You rejected the younger employee: why? They look better on paper; evidently your entry standards aren't meritocratic. Did they perhaps go to the same college?...

11:58 pm  
Anonymous andrew mckerrell said...

Hi Rufus,
Congratulations to jo who got 5 correct without realising the question was about the Great War for Civilisation and not WWII. Perhaps jo was being ironic.

My own score Experience: 10 (for military history) Correct: 5.
The questions did read more like english comprehension. I couldn't remember what operation Michael was off the top of my head but didn't need to know with the way the question was structured.

Regarding the change in difficulty of questions over time a national newspaper published (in the early nineties) a GCSE trigonometry question and it's equivalent from one hundred years previously. The diagram was exactly (and I mean exactly, the 1990's exam board had obviously lifted it from some store of past questions) the same, but, whereas the original was unlabelled and the student had to identify all the component parts the 1990's version was labelled and some rather bland or multiple choice questions were asked about it.

7:43 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

1, 5, History is not a good choice, most of it is a collection of general knowledge facts that are obtained over time, something that a GCSE pupil has not been exposed to, one question is not realy significant or represetative either, that and a long list of other criticisms too numerous to mention indicate that perhaps some other methodology is needed. Also you should not be adverse to coursework for your examinations, the actual amount of material that you have to submit is not excessive, i sugest that you omit research (that would have been at least partially made up for by the syllabus) and complete the courswork in whatever time it takes to just write it. The other tim

8:28 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Perhaps you should take some old exams from the 50s at the same time as you take the modern equivilant and see how your results differ?

8:29 am  

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