What you NEED to know from the OCR Training Course!

A friend from another school has recently been to an OCR training course (My car was stuck in the snow doing wheel spins in sunny Scarborough!) and the major snippet of information is that on the content table of the spec, if it mentions a Bible passage or a text from the Pope for example, this could be used as part of a specific question.

Whilst I have covered these areas within the unit and students know to make reference to them in their answers, I was not expecting them to be part of the wording of questions. This was quite naïve of me! In my ten years of teaching OCR specs I know that anything mentioned on the spec could be used in the exam questions, I am just pleased I am now able to incorporate it into my exam practice with students.

A possible question for example might then be: Critically assess the view that official Christian teachings, with reference to Ephesians, should resist current secular views on gender. To me this sounds quite a clunky question but the powers-at-be at OCR have made it clear that this sort of question is possible. 

Foot note:

I finally made it to an R.S course, well it was more like an intimate get-together in Leeds with about 15 other teachers and author Hugh Campbell (who is always a pleasure and I highly recommend attending anything he is speaking on). Here are some of the highlights and tidbits from the morning – mostly aimed at students:

  • Avoid “Blue Peter answers” – here’s one I made earlier. It is obvious to an examinerheres-one-i-made-earlier-blue-peter when students have learnt essays and try to crow bar them into another question. The key tip: students have to answer the question in front of them. Anything mentioned (whether learnt in that topic or not) is accredited marks if it is relevant to the specific question asked.
  • Weave in evaluation – be critical of scholars immediately e.g Hume is right to say….because…
  • BUG technique – Box in question, Underline the key words, Glance at the question again
  • Always stick to the timings (40mins for A2) never just think ‘oh five more minutes to finish this essay off.’ No!! Why…because you will get more marks writing a second full answer than you would get for completing a conclusion for the 1st answer.
  • Never write in the margins, when exam papers are scanned into computers it cuts them off.
  • Don’t just stick a link to the question in the last sentence of the paragraph -integrate it throughout.
  • Avoid ‘I think’ assertions as this is not academic writing
  • If you don’t finish an answer leave half a page gap and start next question – this way an examiner doesn’t have to scroll through pages and pages on a computer to find the remaining piece of your answer at the back if you add more at a later time.
  • Introduction: define terms in the questions and if a broad/ general question mention your focus, so the reader knows how you have interpreted the question.


How to Improve your Essay Technique: A-Level DCT Mock Exam

My A2 students have completed their first mock exam under timed conditions. Usually when I set essays for homework students can use their notes and do not complete under time restraints. This is because I want students to develop the right essay writing technique before making things more difficult. However a college wide mock exam meant my students had to finally bite the bullet and complete their first exam paper (questions written by me since there are no previous questions to go on).

  • Task: Answer two from four questions
  • Topics: A2 DCT Pluralism and Gender
  • Time: 40 minutes per question
  • Expectation: Focus on answering the specific question and evaluate everything
  • Help: Students were allowed to use their DCT revision pack notes to support them (If you would like your own copy of the 55 page pack, just click on Revision Pack to be transferred to the shop).

So what where the questions:

  1. To what extent does an exclusivist view point represent the true Christian message?
  2. Evaluate the view that Christians should have a mission to those of no faith.
  3. To what extent has secular views on gender equality undermined Christian gender roles?
  4. Critically assess the view the Christianity is inherently sexist.

The marking process:

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Gender and Society: Student’s Work

The question was:

“Should official Christian teachings resist current secular views on gender” discuss

Students were given this question as homework. There were no time constraints and students were allowed to use their class notes to help. I believe that students need to first of all develop their technique before removing support (notes) and adding extra pressure of time conditions.

They are currently doing their first mock exam of the year (November 27th) under timed conditions, so have had three months of practicing their essay writing technique first. The students are allowed to use their revision packs for support. By March next year students will do a full exam with no notes and under timed conditions, so this is what we are working towards. If students don’t have the technique, removing notes and adding time pressure will not support them in  improving their writing only aggravate the writing process.

These are three introductions for the essay (my comments can be seen at the end as footnotes):

intro GS.JPG

Examples of main paragraphs:

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First Year Exam Paper Breakdown: Philosophy Soul Question

Here’s a breakdown of a student’s answer for the question on the Soul, Mind, Body unit from the new spec exams 2016 (first years).

‘There is no such thing as a soul’ Discuss (30)

OCR marks given for student’s answer:
A01 9/15
A02 8/15

I used this answer as part of my lesson on essay writing for this unit. I gave the students 3 highlighters: critical words (purple) , use of ‘no/ such thing’ (blue) and every time a new name is used (green). What was clear very quickly is that this student used multiple critical words, wide selection of scholarly names and linked points back to the question.

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First Year Exam Paper Breakdown: Ethics NL Question

Here’s a breakdown of a student’s answer for the question on Natural Law from the new spec exams 2016 (first years).

To what extent does natural law provide a helpful method of moral decision making? (30)

OCR marks given for student’s answer:
A01 14/15
A02 13/15

The structure of the answer is very clear and simple with an introduction, four main paragraphs and a conclusion.

Four paragraph themes:

  1. Links to Aristotle and telos
  2. Four tiers of Moral Law hierarchy
  3. Primary Precepts
  4. Synderesis and apparent and real goods

Each of these paragraphs follows the same structure: theme raised, briefly outlined, link to euthanasia (moral decision making), layered evaluation (helpful or not?). Each paragraph has roughly a 30/70 split between A01 and A02.

There are four reasons (in my view) this answer did well:

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Examiner’s Report 2017: What can we learn?

There isn’t a lot to go by as far as guidance on the new spec exam technique, so last night I read through the Exam Report (accessible here: OCR Exam Report) in hopes of some clarity.

What can we learn?

  1. Link everything back to the question – this comment is throughout the report. In many cases students use other names or ideas and go off topic. Everything must be linked back to the question to make it clear why it is relevant. My tip for developing this: One technique I absolutely swear by is highlighting key words in an essay answer. Whenever students complete an essay for homework (or in timed conditions for mock exams) before I collect them in, I pick some random words in the question (often words I think they will have ignored such as ‘no such thing’ ‘transcendent creator’) which they then have to highlight in their answer. Result: students notice very quickly if they have answered the question or not. Usually students say ‘oh I used different words does that count?’ – answer ‘no’.
  2. A02 needs to be supported by philosophical arguments, names or examples – it is not surprising that A02 is where students lost the most marks as this is the hardest technique to master. My tip for developing this: students learn lots of names and arguments as part of the course but do they use them to there full advantage? Just like above I get students to highlight their critical words (‘interesting’ ‘credible’ ‘vague’), use of names, use of examples to see which colour is missing – self assessment for improved writing.
  3. Students’ recall of names/ arguments was sometimes incorrect.  This is understandable when students are under exam duress and tight time conditions so the report does say that “content was still credited” but students need to recognise that correct content is still key to a top mark essay. My tip for developing this: focus on testing content as well as evaluation. Every week I set a short test (Key Knowledge Test) based on the previous topic. This test is out of 15 (25 for A2) and focuses on key words and arguments not evaluation. Students must revise for these tests as part of on-going revision and then peer mark in class to save adding to workload (I then collect in and make a note of scores) Note: there are also many electronic quiz apps that can be used for this – I’m just old fashion and like paper in their folders to revise from.
  4. Don’t overuse rhetorical questions – these are not good enough A02 on their own. Students need to raise points using rhQ but then explore what the question implies in regards to the question.
  5. Avoid listing names – I call this ‘name dumping’. It is not enough that students have learnt the philosophers names and arguments they must do something with the information – evaluate it, link to question etc.
  6. Running out of time – this is also not surprising. The report emphasizes that it is “depth as much as breadth” but we all know students still have to cover the basics of an argument to be credited the marks. My tip for developing this: give students 35 minutes rather than 37, only a tiny difference but this means that in the exam that extra 4 minutes, with adrenaline and lots of revision – they are less likely to run out of time.
  7. Interwoven evaluation – “these tended to be the stronger candidates” – the report goes through two ways that students evaluated: evaluation was interwoven into answers or followed the part a) part b) structure of the old spec. Whilst the report said that the part a) part b) structure was credited the marks for evidence of A01 an A02 the higher marks often went to students who integrated the evaluation. My tip for developing this: do not leave A02 until the end of a topic otherwise students will associate A02 coming after A01 not as part of it. I integrate A02 throughout a unit. Students always prepare and answer essays at the end of a unit to integrate all information but A02 can be taught throughout (see The Four Steps to Teaching A01 & A02 Effectively).
  8. Little mention of other thinkers in Ethics – now this one stopped me. On the one hand the report comments on how students seemed to misuse names and go down tangents in Philosophy (e.g. talking about Irenaeus more than Hick) but then not enough reference to other scholars in Ethics. I know from looking at a few papers recalled from the exam my students often used names linking with euthanasia (in the NL Q) but few scholarly names in relation to NL and Kant. What I have learnt: This is definitely an area I will be adding into my lesson plans this year – Student research task: find scholars who have commented or follow NL, SE, Kant and Util and also point them towards books such as Vardy and Mackie.
  9. Linking in other topics was often done successfully e.g. life after death (DCT) in with the Soul (Philosophy) or Situation Ethics to Bonhoeffer (DCT) – this is one possibility to help solve the above problem. What I have learnt: this year as part of student’s revision (both in AS and A2) I am going to get them to create a spider diagram in A3 to link topics together.
  10. Comparing ethical theories to one or two other ethical theories e.g. linking SE or Util into NL essay – I think this is risky territory. In 37 minutes students have to explain a theory and evaluate fully (to answer the question asked), this leaves very little time to compare to another theory, which has to be briefly outlined and used for evaluation in relation to the theory in question. It is do-able by all means but very tricky. So for example students can compare the ethics of SE to NL to say which is better or worse but I would only recommend this for my highest ability students, who have control over their writing. Otherwise students have a tendency to go off on a tangent and forget the point they are trying to make. The idea of students comparing to two other ethical theories is a total no go!

Biggest misunderstandings:

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