Tweeting about exams

Tweeting about exams

Simon Lebus blogs on new research from our Data and Analytics team looking at tweeting patterns during exams.

We're now into the exam results season bit of summer. July this year was, of course, a turbo-charged month for heavy duty political news but August has gone quiet again, except for acres of Olympic coverage. This partly reflects the natural rhythm of news creation (August traditionally being the silly season as so many politicians and commentators are on holiday, making it in principle less likely that 'things' will happen – though for a contrary view see the historian Andrew Roberts' recent piece in the Daily Telegraph "August is bloody and dangerous, but rarely 'silly'"). Another driver is the displacement of news creation and comment onto various social media platforms, and these will no doubt (partly reflecting the generational skew in terms of social media usage) be buzzing with activity later this week when A Level results are published, and again next week when GCSE results come out.

The late Mike Baker, formerly the BBC's education correspondent, made an interesting study of the rise of media interest in exam results from its being non-existent in the 1970s to its gradually ramping up to the current state of perma-interest that exists nowadays, spurred on by the twin stimuli of the increasing use of exams for accountability purposes and now nearly universal requirements for high-stakes upper secondary education certification for career and university progression opportunities.

Another manifestation of the widespread contemporary preoccupation with exams is the increasing use of social media during the exam season as a forum for exam 'post-mortems'; those vaguely furtive conversations that people used to have as they left the exam room, in which they would dissect their own exam performance and that of their colleagues, looking variously for reassurance or the thrill of knowing that you've done better than your classmates. We thought it might be interesting this summer to try to get an understanding of the size of this phenomenon, not least because we and other exam boards often find ourselves having to react to media stories based on candidates' instant feedback that an exam has been too difficult/too easy/too unpredictable/not based on the parts of the syllabus that candidate had revised for/includes unfair or unanswerable questions.

Research presented in our latest Data Byte, which is based on 6.44 million tweets during the period 14 May to 30 June (excluding the half-term week beginning 30 May where no exams took place) shows a gradual increase in exam related Twitter activity in the period leading up to an examination, with a diminution (unsurprisingly) while the exam is taking place, and then an explosion of activity after the afternoon exam session has finished.

Why is this interesting? Mainly because it offers a vivid, direct and quantifiable insight into how preoccupied people are with exams and also because it so clearly illustrates the phenomenon that what used to be private exchanges, conducted entirely face to face between people who knew each other, now take place in a digital space between many thousands of interlocutors. I also can't help wondering whether something has been lost in consequence - the main purpose of these conversations used to be reassurance and commiseration. Now, in a seemingly bizarre application of the principles of voting democracy to public exams, social media is often used instead as a platform to lobby exam boards to mark more leniently where a paper has been felt to be too difficult, an ironic counterpoint to the normal silly season press coverage of easier exams and slipping standards.

Simon Lebus
Group Chief Executive, Cambridge Assessment