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Friday 22 March 2019

Decoding Exam Questions - Two contrasting approaches

With less than two months to go until the GCSE exams are upon us, many Year 11 students are
requesting support and guidance with the most common of issues - what do exam questions really mean? Although we have spent many years preparing them, and we all have approaches that work best for our subject areas, I felt it valuable to shine a spotlight on two approaches used in Humanities that students have responded positively to.

Iceberg Questions in History:

The Iceberg Diagrams teaching strategy helps students gain awareness of the numerous underlying causes that give rise to an event. It’s often difficult for students to see these causes because they rest “beneath the surface.” The visual image of an iceberg helps students remember the importance of looking deeper than the surface in order to better understand events in the past or present. This strategy can be used as a way for students to organise their notes as they learn about a period in history, as a way to review material, or as an assessment tool.

How does it work?

1. Select an Event

Select an event that students are exploring in class. It can be an event from literature, history, or recent news. Students should already be familiar with this event.

2. Introduce the Iceberg Visual
Ask students to list what they know about icebergs, or you can show them a picture of an iceberg. The main idea you want to establish is that what one sees above the water is only the tip of the iceberg; the larger foundation rests below the surface. 

3. The Tip of the Iceberg
Ask students to list everything they know about the facts of a selected event in the “tip” area of the iceberg. Questions they should answer include: What happened? What choices were made in this situation? By whom? Who was affected? When did it happen? Where did it happen?

4. Beneath the Surface 
Ask students to think about what caused this event. In the bottom part of the iceberg (under the water), they should write answers to the question, “What factors influenced the particular choices made by the individuals and groups involved in this event?” These factors might include events from the past (i.e., an election, an economic depression, a natural disaster, a war, an invention) or aspects of human behavior or nature such as fear, obedience to authority, conformity, or opportunism. This step is often best done in groups so that students can brainstorm ideas together.

CUBE Questions in Geography:

Over the years we have all moved towards sessions that look entirely at exam technique. It has a big impact: students feel more equipped to 'think like an examiner'. What was the answer, decode the exam questions using a strategy called CUBE.

In order to teach students good exam technique, it is vitally important that we, as teachers, fully understand the requirements of the exam paper. So surely so should the students? That is what CUBE aims to achieve.

How does it work?
Students need to be made aware of what the acronym itself stands for, it should become part of their routine and mantra when faced with an extended exam question:

C - Circle the command word(s) and define how these impact on the style of writing required in the answer.

U - Underline the knowledge/content required and demonstrate not only what the knowledge is but how it applies to this exact question.

B - Box the evidence/examples needed so that the answer has proof that supports earlier points made, within Geography this is often a case study of a place that has been explored.

E - Explain the question in your own words (i.e. a conclusion that reiterates the key points).


Within the examples above, students can either annotate an exam question using distinct colours to demonstrate and create a plan for how to respond to the different layers/elements required. Alternatively, students can be given a template during which a teacher led discussions supports how to CUBE and this is then used alongside the student as they attempt to answer the question.

For further reading or ideas, follow these links below:
1. Teacher Toolkit - Developing Exam Techniques for the 1-9 GCSE's - I particularly like the BUG technique here.
2. Teacherhead - FACE IT, a formula for learning - discussing how to advise students of exam revision and preparation.

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