Improve Your Essays Using Mark Schemes

For the past year, I have been very interested in the pedagogy surrounding metacognition and how students learn, probably sparked from hearing Bradley Busch at different events (The Science of Learning – What you need to know.) From this, I have been thinking a lot about my students’ essay writing techniques. What I have realised is that I spend a lot of time focusing on essay structure, how to apply critical words, supporting students in articulating a more mature use of language that focuses upon the material covered but are the students really learning how to write an essay? Can a student improve if they are unaware of the writing hoops they are meant to jump through? 

As a teacher, and a previous marker for the exam board, I know exactly what an essay should read like. Plus after all the hundreds of essays I have marked, it also feels like the examiner’s mark scheme is etched into my brain. But this is not the case for the students. They know that line of argument is important because I drill it into them. They know they must answer the specific question asked because they highlight their essays after completion. However what I realised is that they probably don’t know WHY I ask them to do this because they don’t see beyond me marking their essays. My students know of the examiner’s mark scheme (it pops up in lessons sporadically) but they have never applied it to their work with any consistency. Not using the examiner’s mark scheme systemically through lessons feels like a key strategy in self-assessment that I have been missing out on. 

So, nearing the end of last term I copied and pasted the examiner’s mark scheme Annotation 2020-01-14 134937.jpginto a more student friendly table. Front side A01 descriptors, other side A02 descriptors. Each table consisted of 3 columns, first column for the five levels (6 for A2), second column for the descriptions that go with each level and then a final column for the student reflections. Since the end of term often culminates in mock exams and essays, I thought it was the perfect time to pilot the new sheet. So, every student got a mark scheme table sheet and on their unmarked essays (some were second drafts from previous whole class feedback) they highlighted which of the descriptions best suited their work. Afterwards they calculated their mark based on how many points were highlighted within that level.  

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At first the activity did need quite a bit of explanation, further coaching and repetition but the students soon picked up what was being asked of them. The questions that followed were exactly what I had wanted: “what does breadth or depth mean?”, “how many would a ‘range’ of scholarly views be?” and “I haven’t really used the words in the question throughout, so I haven’t really addressed the question well have I?”.  Questions such as these showed me that the students were starting to think like examiners, applying the examiner’s words to their own essay and really reading them from another angle. Once the students had marked their essays and reflected upon what they needed to do to improve, they were given the opportunity to redraft.  

Through students identifying areas to develop themselves, using the language of an examiner and then going away to improve their essays without my input, moves essay writing from the usual teacher feedback transaction into high level understanding.  My job is to step in when a student says, “I know I need to do but I don’t know how”. This means that it is the student who is doing the reflection, even if they then struggle with the next step of their essay writing, which is where the teacher then supports the learning process. Whereas the usual transaction is either the teacher pointing out the errors in an essay and then giving the solutions or pointing out the errors and the student not understanding what the errors are.  

 

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