Explicitly teaching how to focus on the question has become an increasingly important part of exam preparation. In a world where students are subjected to so much digital information at such speed I personally feel many of them are losing the ability to really process what they are reading. The impact of a misunderstood word can make the difference in a grade. As an examiner it breaks my heart when you can clearly see that a candidate is able but a lack of clear focus on the question has to limit their mark. Here are some ideas to explicitly teach focusing on the question:
- Hold a three stage discussion. This can be done in pairs or as part of a class discussion. Give the students a sample paper and mark scheme.
Stage one – Discuss which word in the question could be missed or misread.
Stage two – Discuss what effect this misreading or wrong focus could have. For example; if the question asks students to focus on the appearance of a particular character and they miss the word appearance, what else could they end up writing about?
Stage three – Look at the mark scheme and discuss the impact of the error in terms of marks which could be lost. I find that linking this simple mistake to the mark scheme can really help students to remember the importance of reading the question carefully.
To make this exercise more powerful you could ask student to complete the above steps but actually write a response which has missed the focus and mark it. The impact of this should really stick in their minds. It can be further developed by asking them to write the answer again but with the correct question focus. The stages of this process, coupled with the comparison of the two answers, can make a real difference.
- I often ask students to highlight the key parts of the question, but adding a layer of restriction can help them to focus further. Tell them to highlight the key words in the question but limit it to five words. Ask them to do this individually then discuss their answers with a partner. Then reduce the number to three and, depending on the level of question, this can potentially be reduced to one word. Although this might not always be possible the discussion it promotes will help them to be more careful in their approach to the question.
- The last one is simple but effective! Tell the students that, once they have identified the focus of the question, they must write it out on the top of their response in a few words. Encourage them to get into the habit of this. When I see this at the top of exam papers it is generally a candidate who keeps a tight focus on the question, so it is definitely worth nurturing this habit in your students!