One of the reoccurring discussions in the economics department is why so many students with solid abilities in economics receive lower-than-expected marks in data response questions (DRQs – Paper 2 in the most recent syllabus). The data is reasonably unequivocal for us; DRQ marks are on average one IB grade boundary lower than for essay questions (EQs, paper1) over a three year period.

What then is the question? Simple: since both DRQs and EQs follow a reasonably straightforward “define – explain – diagram – evaluate” approach, why would students get lower marks in a format that very neatly breaks down these command terms into separate questions?!

The standard-issue DRQ looks as follows:

a) (i) “Define…” (2 marks) (ii) “Define…” (2 marks)

b) “Explain…using a diagram” (2 marks for diagram, 2 marks for explanation)

c) “Explain…using a diagram” (2 marks for diagram, 2 marks for explanation)

d) “Evaluate…” (8 marks)

Now, assume a reasonably good student and reasonable questions: one weak and one solid answer to the definitions in a) ) 1 + 2 marks; a hazy diagram but reasonable explanation in b) = 1 + 2 marks;  incomplete diagram and hazy explanation in c) = 1 + 1 marks, and; reasonable definitions + basic answer to the question + basic evaluation (“winners vs losers”) and one reference to relevant passage in the text = 4 marks. The sum total is still 12 marks – a grade 6!

Not really rocket surgery. The ‘define-explain-diagram-evaluate’ progression is pretty much exactly what reasonable students will follow when addressing EQs. Part a) asks students to “Explain…” – which is, mostly, a matter of defining core terms, using a diagram or two for support and then answering the question. Part b) asks students to “Evaluate…”, “Discuss…” or “…to what extent” – which is, guess what, a matter of doing pretty much exactly what is asked in d) in DRQs!

So the question we were confronted with is this; why does the bottom third of my students receive an average of 14 marks in the EQs (grade 4 to 5) but only 9 marks or below in the ‘average’ DRQ (grade 3 to 4)?

Here is our preliminary answer: weaker students are mis-allocating their time by trying to read everything in the data/article when answering the questions. In other words, rather than looking at the component questions in DRQs as ‘stand-alone’, they are putting a lot of unnecessary effort into interpreting the content of the article extracts. Too much detail. Not good.

Don’t read anything you don’t need to!!!

We ran a simple test. We gave two similar DRQs to the same classes. In the first one, we simply removed the data/article. In the second, we left it in. (It bears comment that the classes are remarkably similar in terms of grade averages – over the entire IB2 year, there is a very small 0.1 difference in average IB grades. Thus, we seemed to have a reassuring degree of ‘ceteris paribus’ when we ran our test.) Results; significantly higher marks and grades on the first test than on the second.

This led to some teacher soul-searching. We had a good hard look at the make-up of our classes – primarily the three IB2 classes I have. We tried to find common denominators amongst the third of the students with the largest grade differential – i.e. the students that performed significantly lower in DRQs than EQs. We found three discernible and often overlapping patterns:

1. Many of these students were ESOL kids of later date. They moved abroad in their teens.

2. Virtually all of them had not done any form of international pre-IB years – such as the GCSE/IGCSE/MYP.

3. A significant proportion came from school cultures where rote-learning and textbook regurgitation are the norm.

You’re waiting for our solution aren’t you? We don’t have one. Yet. Our short term leaning is to get the students to at least identify questions in DR papers that can be addressed without looking at the data excerpts. This saves a lot of time and allows students to focus on clarity of addressing the question. The long term solution probably entails ‘un-teaching’ the rote approach and spending time in the pre-IB years teaching basic data and writing skills. Again, we really don’t have an answer.

Suggestions and comments welcome.