Lessons from examining AS Literature


This year I examined the Modern Drama and Prose paper for OCR. Obviously as an examiner, I have to respect certain confidentiality etc so the following is not specific to actual candidates, but will reflect the way I approach my own class in September.  As this was the first time my department went with OCR, there’s also some reflection to do on the process as a teacher/curriculum leader.

As it ended up quite a length post, here’s a summary:

  • Understand the way the mark-scheme is applied, shading the answer with assessment objectives.
  • Answer the whole
  • Balance seen/unseen texts, and genuinely compare them within a coherent argument
  • Have good handwriting

Using the mark-scheme

I really like the OCR approach to the mark-scheme. At standardising (which was face to face) it was very clear that we were expected to be using the top band which, often in my teaching experience, AQA doesn’t as much, and their grade boundaries don’t require it to the same extent. I haven’t extensively explored the new spec so someone may correct me and I’ll happily change but the mark bands seem broadly in line percentage wise (the top being 21/25 for AQA and 26/30 for OCR) and work similarly down. The descriptors aren’t quite as easy to map across but don’t seem particularly different. OCR’s mark bands include, in order, the key words Excellent / Good / Competent / Some / Limited. AQA’s key words are Perceptive/Assured – Coherent/thorough – straightforward/relevant – simple/generalised – Irrelevant/inaccurate.

OCR’s method appealed to me more personally. Allocate the band (excellent/good etc) and then use the addressing of the AOs to shade the mark within that band. So someone who’s written a superb essay on a play, clearly gets the whole writer’s methods, the critical interpretation, but who’s missed a fair bit of context, can still achieve “Excellent.”

When teaching, I’d still say you need to make students aware of the AOs – what they need to cover to write a great essay. You still need to make sure there are some essays when they need critical interpretations and others where they don’t. But for me it was less mechanistic than I’ve previously found, and I wasn’t trying to find ten marks for context even though the analysis of form, structure and language was outstandingly good. It felt more balanced.

Answer the whole question

I’d say on reflection this was the major difference between top and second band candidates for me. The question is usually something like:

“When Blanche says she can’t stand a naked light-bulb, she means she can’t face the truth”. In the light of this comment, discuss the role of Blanche in A Streetcar Named Desire.

A competent student will write an essay on Blanche’s character. It’ll be decently structured, explore her changes. Linguistic analysis is decent, closely quoted/reference and there’s a sense the candidate knows the play and understands it. Some contextual knowledge, though it’s not always that relevant. They’ll mostly refer to the question sentence – discuss the role of Blanche. This does them a disservice in two ways: one, they’ll not fully address the whole argument about her importance, and two, they’ll find it harder, actually, to pin this down and their argument becomes fuzzy and unfocused. It’s too big to address in forty-five minutes – the statement helps to pin it down.

A good candidate will write an essay on Blanche’s character, and be more focused on the facing of the truth – the argument will include comments at the end of many paragraphs linking back to this theme, they won’t stray into too many other themes. Context will be a bit more selective, too – the use of plastic theatre to create the sense of unreality, maybe, or the fact that Williams struggled with reality in his own life, both his sexuality and his sister’s illness. Although these might be mentioned by a less qualified candidate, the application will be better here. Their argument will be about truth and illusion in some way, rather than Blanche in general.

An excellent student will use the whole quotation to create a very structured debate. They might explore the idea that Blanche’s retreat into madness is a failure to face reality, or that she chooses to hide from truth where she can. Often they used the motif of light to do this as well, fully using the whole quotation. Especially in this question, it was a superv way in given the deterioration of the light, its changes from subtle to glaring, the symbolism of the lantern being torn away and so on. Some of the most impressive suggested that Blanche fully understands the truth but chooses to manipulate it, and pointed out the irony that when she finally does tell the truth about Stanley’s rape, nobody believes her.

Precision, in short, is the benefit. I think a big problem for A-Level students in 45 minutes is deciding what to include and it can feel like a waste to know so much and go into an exam only o write about “one thing”, as a student once told me. But by really focusing on the whole quotation you’re not overwhelmed by the whole text, and can write a very focused, detailed essay.

Write a great introduction

Be clear, specific and precise. Address the whole question. Be authoritative and confident. Address each assessment objective in the introduction however briefly.

Do not say “I am going to write” or anything of that nature. Or “it can be argued.”

More on introductions here.

Dealing with the extract question

For the post-1900 novel question, the balance of the extract and the novel was best it seemed when it was around about 1/3 extract, 2/3 novel. Some of the most interesting answers had a very coherent structure, identifying similarities in a topic sentence and working out from there, e.g. in the 1984 question focusing paragraphs on ideas like: the clothing of the characters; the names including Ministry of Love contrasted with the Palace of Corrections; the use of language – removing Newspeak, and the character’s use of “we” as being reductive; both characters writing a diary; the physical setting of the cracked walls in the extract and the state of Victory mansions; the use of names – Equality 72521 and comrade; the idea of resistance being impossible. These connections could either be very closely language focused or more thematic, but they worked to tether the two together. Excellent answers also wove the seen and unseen together in each paragraph, moving back and forth between them. They also referred to the whole (seen) text in different ways. Some references to the appendix were particularly good on noting that Orwell’s 1984 seems to come to an end at some future point, suggesting that removal of individuality is fundamentality impossible.

These kind of comments are also good because they have a connected, coherent argument rather than a discussion almost without a thread of purpose. It’s easy to pick three things off that list, write a paragraph or two on each (which could go in any order) and then it’s done. But I don’t think that leads to excellence. An argument is still needed, and the ways each novelist approaches the theme are just as important. That’ll be my focus with the unseen for A Level, and the Dystopian comparison.

Being able to use the whole of the information was important here too. Those who look at the dates, for example, and discern something about the changes in society that affected the writer. Again, engagement with the question rather than a pre-prepared answer. I think the Carter suffered from people trying to shoehorn in ideas about the Gothic when that wasn’t in the question – this is not a comparative study paper, and students need to be prepared for the text not the genre. You could address the Gothic very effectively, but only if it serves discussion about the relationship with the supernatural in fairytale.

Handwriting is important.

We don’t pay enough attention to this, I think. I read so many that I found really difficult. Good, clear handwriting is essential – it’s easier to read in the first place, and it scans better at the resolution used by exam boards. And quite simply when you’re struggling to read the words, the sense of the argument gets lost. It’s almost inevitable, as this article in the Guardian also suggests.

Write in black, write clearly and at a decent size. Obviously nobody’s going to count words to a line in an exam but as a decent size check I’d say around ten would be about right. I read some scripts where there were four words to a line, and that was just as difficult as reading some where there were twenty. All our practice essays are handwritten and I do comment on handwriting.


Given that length I’d better finish there! I’d love to share ideas about this and prep for the coming year – you can find me on twitter @miss_tiggr for more!

What do you think?