‘Goldilocks effect’ also exists at A Level

30 January 2018

The average A Level English Literature student writes around 1,000 words per hour in an exam – or 17 words a minute, according to a study. Researchers at Cambridge Assessment followed up an earlier study into the length of GCSE English Literature students’ essays and found a similar ‘Goldilocks effect’ in which candidates should not write too little, but should not write too much either.

The researchers say they found examples of candidates who achieved full marks with fairly succinct answers, and examples where very long responses unfortunately resulted in a low grade. In one case, a student achieved an A* with two essays that were only three pages long, while at the other end of the spectrum, one candidate filled the entire length of their 11 page standard answer booklet, and four further extension booklets, but unfortunately ended up being awarded grade E.

“As with the GCSE analysis, quantity does not trump quality. The curve flattens off at around 1,300 words per essay, and so writing more than this isn't consistently associated with getting higher marks,” researcher Tom Benton says. 

The data came from a two-hour OCR A Level English Literature exam sat in June 2016. The lowest grade achievable in the exam (above a U) was grade E and candidates were required to supply two essay answers, each of which could be awarded a maximum of 30 marks. The word counts were collected by computer processing digital images of a sample of 5,010 handwritten scripts. The total word count was then halved to give the estimated word count per essay.

In the GCSE exam, candidates wrote around 13 words per minute on average, or roughly 800 words per hour. In the A level exam the average student wrote 17 words per minute on average, or just over 1,000 words per hour. The researchers say the difference is to be expected as only the strongest candidates at GCSE, who tend to write more, will go on to take A Level. Additionally, A Level candidates will be two years older and have more experience in writing exams. 

You can see the full Data Byte here

Dr Benton and Group Director of Assessment Research and Development Tim Oates CBE will be hosting a live Twitter chat this Thursday afternoon (16:30 -17:30 GMT) when they’ll be discussing this study and other research into writing in exams. Just search under the hashtag #CamEdLive. 

Further information

Our first Data Byte on the GCSE exam - How much do I need to write to get top marks at GCSE? Further background to the work and details of the methods used to collect and analyse the data can be found in: 

Benton, T. (2017). How much do I need to write to get top marks? Research Matters: A Cambridge Assessment Publication, 24, 37-40.