So, just how much should students write in their exams?

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
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A new piece of research has sought to answer one of students’ most frequently asked questions about exam questions – how much do I need to write?

Exams group Cambridge Assessment has sought to offer a definitive answer by investigating the links between length of answer and exam outcomes in a GCSE English literature essay question.

While the research confirmed that at the lower grades, if you don’t write enough, you won’t be able to earn enough marks, it also concluded that “length of response alone is not sufficient to achieve a high mark”.

In fact, beyond a certain length, the relationships between the essay word count and scoring more marks flattens off.

Researcher Tom Benton used computer processing of digital images of 5,000 handwritten exam scripts from a 2014 OCR GCSE English literature exam.

The results show that the relationship between essay length and mark awarded flattens off beyond 700 words, indicating there is no benefit in candidates writing extremely long responses.

At the other end of the spectrum, nearly all responses of fewer than 200 words resulted in a grade U.

The research, entitled How much do I need to write to get top marks?, has published in the latest edition of Cambridge Assessment’s journal Research Matters.

In the article, Mr Benton advises teachers to emphasise quality of answers rather than quantity if students ask about how much they should write.

However, he adds: “If candidates are asked to spend 45 minutes answering an exam question they should aim to provide at least a page of writing in response and at least two pages (or thereabouts) if they want to have a chance of achieving any of the higher grades.

“However, it is also very clear that the length of the response alone is insufficient to achieve a high mark. There is no evidence that writing extremely long answers makes a substantial difference to grade outcome, showing that quantity certainly does not trump quality. To reinforce this, we can note that inspection of individual essays revealed instances where, with well organised responses, students achieved all of the marks available on the exam with relatively short answers.”


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