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:

Each students wrote two answers. I have 40 students in A2. That means I had one week to mark 80 answers. There are two systems I swear by to get the job done:

Firstly, once students have written their answers I give them two highlighters. I pick 1-2 random words from the question (so Q1 ‘true’, Q2 ‘should have’, Q3 undermined’ Q4 inherently’) and students have to highlight the use of them in their answer = have you answered the specific question asked? This is necessary for the top 3 bands on the levels of response. Second colour to highlight critical words (e.g. interesting, credible, plausible) = evaluation.

Secondly, I only grade the students answers I never add feedback to their work. One reason is because this takes far too long. Another reason is because the students rarely read it- they go straight to the grade. Finally I believe that it is all well and good for teachers to point out the problems or feedback where students lost marks but the students need to self-reflect, self-mark and be able to spot their mistakes when I am not there. Instead I do feedback sheets highlighting the main areas where marks were gained and lost.

Using the Levels of Response:

So when it came to the marking their essays I turned to the levels of response of course. Well…blooming heck!!! Now I am no stranger to exam board marking and after nine years teaching old spec I am fairly familiar with essay technique. But just reading through the bullet points of the levels of response really hit home the challenge that faces our students! These are not easy hoops to jump through. Yes it will make them better writers. Yes it will make them more prepared for university. But three exams, two years of content, no second chances…the reality hit home.

It also became apparent that if students score at the bottom of both ‘good’ bands, that is 8/16 and 13/24 = 21 that is a D going by the old spec marking of 50%=D (that’s 20/ 40), C=60% (24) , B=70% (28) etc. Now I understand grade boundaries fluctuate. Let me explain grade boundaries to the best of my understanding. Students’ essays will be marked in summer with levels of response and the mark scheme (these are points that the examiners would credit in students answers – this is not an endless list but gives markers an idea- anything relevant to the question is awarded marks). Students are given two marks, one for A01 (out of 16) and one for A02 (out of 24). Once most of the papers have been marked the examiners get together to work out the grade boundaries. This is because a range of grades must be given including A/A*’s. This means that whatever the top marks are that have been awarded this sets the benchmark and the grades are worked out from there, so that there is evidence of marks from across the bands. It is a very complicated process but it means that all students have a chance of scoring the top bands.

This provides me with little comfort though, as students still need the techniques in order to be awarded the marks (bands on the levels of response) in the first place. So what was the result?

The result:

13 slide ppt feedback (my students might have called it a ‘grilling’) where we went thought step by step all the areas that students need to work on, using the levels of response as guidance and they wrote their own feedback on their work. Did it work…I will see when I mark their re-drafts. For now it’s a glass of wine for me (I know it’s only Tuesday!!) and marking my first year’s mocks.

Here is a summary of the feedback which consumed an hour and 45 minutes of lesson time.

  • Step One: Mark Your own answers – using the levels of response students mark and grade their answers
  • Step Two: Self Reflection – students write the positive and negative reasons for the marks they received
  • Step Three: Argument – in the margin of each main paragraph students write for or against – depending on if they actually argued for or against the question
  • Step Four: Name Dump – students highlight every time they use a name/ raise a new point. How many names/ points have they followed with an evaluative comment?
  • Step Five: Critical Problem – highlight all the critical words – how many are justified and explained?
  • Step Six: Extras – how many extra details are added such as stats, details of key thinkers, exploration of the meaning of the words in the question.

At the end students were given a target sheet to help them draw their thoughts together, focusing the lesson upon what they have learn, how they are going to make the changes and remind them what they need for university.


The full PowerPoint and Target Sheet can be downloaded for free from the TES website – just click on the images below 🙂

a2 mock feedback.JPG

target sheet.JPG


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