It has been told to me that I have a bull-headed propensity towards taking things literally – something enmeshed in my father’s favourite childhood story. I was about five and we were living in Panama City. My father was working for the ILO and living the expat life. We often had people over for dinner – many of the guests were of UN/diplomatic types – and my father, of old-fashioned ilk, made a point of having his children neatly dressed up to meet guests before bedtime. Also, we were expected to serve guests. When I came out of the kitchen holding a crystal bowl full of peanuts, well, let’s say I was nibbling as I circled amongst the guests. My father saw this and sternly admonished me with “Matthew, drop those peanuts!” So I did. Mouth full of peanuts, I simply released the bowl and it smashed to smithereens on the floor. “Put them down” would have been more appropriate for one as literal as I.

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This is a public forum (students have access to these blog posts!) so I’ll be a tad circumspect in referring to this year’s May Exams. Specifically, the HL Paper 3, the calculation questions. In short, the term ‘calculation’ doesn’t seem to mean what I thought it means…

Let’s face it, most teachers tend to gauge a few probabilities in the run-up to exams, e.g. we all tend to extrapolate from past papers a bit in narrowing down the scope of last-minute revision with our IB2s. Naturally, since there are only four past papers based on the current syllabus, there’s not a lot of data. Having said that, there are clearly a few core areas for Paper 3; supply/demand functions, theory of the firm, national income and indices, and balance of payments and exchange rates. The main common denominator, thus far, has been the focus on mathematical calculations.

This year’s exam was remarkably different and quite frankly does not meet the criteria for ‘calculation paper’, something that was stiffly commented on by a goodly many of my Korean and Japanese students. (Speak of the devil! Two of my wonderful Japanese students just came in as I was writing this…to give thanks for good times and references…and also to give me a gift of cigars. When I told them I was writing about Paper 3, well, they were too polite to speak freely…but have been in my class long enough to acidly hint at this year’s shortcomings.)

It’s simple: the majority of the Paper 3 questions are simply not based in measuring students’ ability to calculate. Looking at the command terms, Question one uses ‘calculate’ 32% of the time – the other two thirds of questions use ‘draw’, ‘identify’, ‘explain’ and ‘define’. That was enough for me to go through all three questions with a red pen, underlining command terms as I read. Here are the percentages of calculation questions from all three questions:

Q1: 32%              Q2: 25%         Q3: 32%

In total, 21 marks out of 75 marks can be considered ‘calculation’ questions – a total of 28%. I find this rather confusing since both other papers clearly use ‘define’… ‘state/describe’…’explain’…etc as command terms. Hard to see that that less than one third of 50 marks – constituting 20% of the final grade – really goes that far in measuring students’ ability to calculate.

What did your students say about exams?