When context is king

When context is king

Writing in the latest issue of OCR's Agenda magazine, Paul Steer talks birthday party venues, alligator eggs and accommodating a pig when it comes to the context within which exam questions are set.

Some time ago, a researcher decided to transform a science exam question about germinating seedlings into one about incubating alligator eggs. Yet the knowledge and skills required to answer the question about alligator eggs and the original one about seedlings were no different. Those candidates faced with the familiar school science context of seedlings performed much better than those faced with the one about alligator eggs. Some were heard to mutter 'but we never studied alligators'. The moral is that we should stick with familiar contexts when setting exam questions. Context is king. "But we never studied alligators."

Functional Skills qualifications are based on the notion that real, practical contexts are important. Functional Skills, we are told, offer a chance to study maths and English by doing things that make them relevant. For maths, this could include things like learning ratio by mixing hair dye or gaining a practical understanding of area from the context of wallpapering a room. This is based on the view that some people grasp things better if they learn by doing. This approach also makes things more relevant by answering "Why are we learning this?"

the question 'why are we learning this?', and makes things more concrete and therefore easier to grasp.

This is largely a matter of pedagogy – the Functional Skills tutor is expected to make things practical and relevant. This thinking is followed through in the assessments. At Level 1 and 2, the exams attempt to provide realistic contexts. These are presented as scenarios including such things as laying loft insulation, planning children’s parties, or managing a baked potato stand. How real these scenarios are depends on your point of view and your life experiences to date. For many young people, the idea of laying loft insulation (let alone owning a house to lay it in) may seem very abstract.

This raises legitimate concerns about bias. What if some candidates are more familiar with some scenarios than their peers – would that give them an advantage? This can be quite subtle. A children's party might be something we can all imagine but whether it is held at home, in a pub, a theme park or a church hall will have different resonances for different candidates. One common accusation is that the scenarios are often more relevant to the lives and experiences of those setting the exams than those taking them.

Sometimes the scenarios assume a level of knowledge that isn't always present. One exam board developed a scenario around building a run for a guinea pig. Unfortunately, some candidates didn't know what a guinea pig was. They thought it must be a kind of pig and that led them to worry about the scale drawing provided which suggested the run was too small to accommodate a pig. "Unfortunately, some candidates didn't know what a guinea pig was."

Some have challenged the very notion of realism in exams. Exams may be a fact of life but they don’t much imitate life. In life, if you are running out of time you can negotiate a new deadline, if you are stuck you can seek help from a colleague or Google. But not in an exam. Also, exam scenarios are inevitably simplified versions of reality – the numbers used have a convenient habit of being simple and divisible by each other, the data is provided and doesn't need to be collected, tasks have to be crystal clear – unlike in life where ambiguity and untidiness are the norm.

It is sometimes argued that contexts merely add an unwarranted and unnecessary complexity. One exam question asked candidates to calculate how many buses were needed for a school trip. The real answer was 3 buses but a lot of candidates gave the answer of 2.75 buses. Is the candidate suffering from a common sense by-pass, or does this reveal something else? Maybe candidates are seeing through the fakery and pulling out the mathematical sum underneath. This dressing up of simple mathematics in complex scenarios is sometimes described as 'maths in search of a context'.
"Is the candidate suffering from a common sense by-pass, or does this reveal something else?"

In her 2011 review of vocational education, Alison Wolf described Functional Skills as 'conceptually flawed'. She was concerned that, whilst the learning might take place in relevant contexts, when it came to the exam, generic contexts were used which were expected to work for everyone. But, if one of the things we want to assess through Functional Skills is the ability to apply maths and English to any problem, then relevance becomes less of an issue. After all, employers say they want young people who have the ability to adapt to whatever the workplace throws at them – even alligator eggs. "Employers want young people who have the ability to adapt to whatever the workplace throws at them."

Meanwhile the Government has announced its decision to delay planned reforms to existing Functional Skills until some time in 2019. It no doubt has its own tricky issues to resolve about the purpose of Functional Skills qualifications and their relationship with GCSEs. Maybe now we have a little more time, we can dig a bit deeper into some of these questions. Whenever we roll out revised Functional Skills, let's make sure the exam boards and Ofqual are absolutely clear about what is being assessed and why.

"Let's make sure the exam boards and Ofqual are absolutely clear about what is being assessed and why."

Paul Steer
Head of Policy, OCR

Visit @ocr_policy on Twitter for regular policy news and views.

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