Facebook protest over AQA English exam

20 Jun 2010

UPDATED

<Please see the comments which have been posted in response to this, in particular the well-argued case made Sian, which includes further details of the extracts in the exam paper>.

584 students have now joined a Facebook campaign to protest against the nature of their A-level English Literature examination.

The students are angry about the AQA exam (LITA3: Reading for Meaning - Love Through the Ages) which  took place on 15th June this year.

 They have complained that the extracts they were required to read were simply too long to be analysed properly during the time available.

Student Bianca Khatri said "AQA decided to give us 4 extracts that were each at least 1 page long - students ultimately had 30 minutes reading time over the whole paper, which meant students realistically had 7/8 minutes per extract to analyse each text and look for language devices". 

 She added "this meant with the inadequate reading time, students had to leave out crucial information from each extract in order to complete the exam on time".

Another student, Surina Bawa, said "I found this examination to be an extremely unfair way to test the candidates of A level English literature students".

AQA's website says candidates taking the 2.5 hour paper should answer two questions, taking 30 minutes "to read, think and plan" per question and  45 minutes for writing each answer.

A specimen paper on AQA's website gives four extracts, comprising  two short sonnets, an extract from Romeo & Juliet and a passage form Hardy's novel, The Woodlanders. These extracts amounted to about three pages of text.

As the 15th June exam paper is not available, it is impossible for me to judge whether the students have a case. However 560 does seem a large number of candidates to have been sufficiently upset to complain to the Facebook page. 

The students are hoping that AQA will give them a response.

The Facebook page is at: www.facebook.com/group.php

User Comments

jane fleming - 20 Jun 2010

Eng Lit Exams

These students were surprised to find they were not prepared for the exam. I am disappointed these students couldn't do the exam, having spent some time in the past term on the skills of analysis without necessarily seeing a text before hand . They should attempt an A Level from the 1960s.

Toby Croft - 21 Jun 2010

LITA3

Okay, so I took this exam, and it was insanely unfair. The first question was how was love presented in two extracts, which wasn't so bad, although there was some text from the 18th century which was insanely ambiguous in its meaning, and I found so many people had written different things about it.
The second question was utterly impossible. It was to comment on how the nature of love was shown in the extracts given. Well, in all honesty the extracts given were obscure in their nature, to say the very least.
I found that the extracts length was not the big problem, but the content of the extracts. The teachers in our English department all read through it and could not agree on one single interpretation on the second question, and they also stated that the exam was unfair, and that they would have struggled doing it.

Ronald Baxter - 21 Jun 2010

Eng Lit Exam

In reply to Jane, I would like to comment, I for one was thoroughly prepared for this exam, I find your comment slightly unfair, as you cannot make a judgement on a paper you have not seen let alone sat. If all the texts were over a page long each and utterly confusing, how can students be expected to plan, read, analyse, and write two essays in 2 hours! Myself, as with other students felt that the exam did not fully test our skills in English Lit, but was more about testing our time management.
Furthermore, there are over 550 student who felt the same way!Perhaps we should attempt a paper from the 1960s and you should attempt this paper when it is released!

Sian - 21 Jun 2010

English Literature Exams

Mr Baker,

You say in your article that you have not seen the paper yet; These are the texts we had in our English examination on the 15th of June and the approximate length of the extracts given to us:

- Prose: The Magic Toyshop by Angela Carter (approx, one page and an eighth on exam)

- Prose: A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy by Laurence Sterne (approx, one and a quarter pages on exam)

- Poem: The Definition of Love by Andrew Marvell (full poem, eight quatrain’s long)

- Drama: Labour’s Love Lost by William Shakespeare (from Act IV, 85 lines long – one page and a half on exam)

They were all longer than the extracts in the January paper, and much more complex, leading to difficulty with forming a detailed analysis in the time given.

@ Jane Flemming:

It has nothing to do with not having the analysing skills A-level English Literature requires the students to have. Yes, the choice of extracts left a lot of people confused, concerned and incredibly frustrated (as in addition to being hard to understand, for a lot of students there seemed to be very few comparisons and contrasts they could make both with the other extract and with their wider reading) but it was the length of the extracts combined with the time limit AND the complexity of the extracts that has caused a lot of upset at this exam.

It’s incredibly difficult to write a coherent analysis which displays the candidate’s abilities sufficiently when the combination of text extracts serves to limit the student’s opportunity to present them. Let alone, when they’re very long and time is ticking away. Exams are supposed to be challenging… but exams like these only rob the students who have worked hard all year and have spent lots of hours revising of their only chance to prove themselves. And looking at the student forums and the facebook group (now with 579 members) much of the students in the country feel that that is exactly what has happened here.

With applications to universities being at an all time high this year, the pressure on students is worse than ever. And in addition to fewer university places, there is increasing unemployment – which is set to continue to rise. It’s no longer just a case of “they should attempt an A Level from the 1960s” – these exams have the potential to make or break the futures of the people taking them. I find such a remark infuriating and insulting actually – my intelligence and abilities - and the rest of my generation’s intelligence and abilities - are no less than yours was at the time you took your examinations. If you’ve sat exams yourself, then you surely have a notion of how unfair they can be. Such was this exam for us.

b. allworthy - 21 Jun 2010

AQA

I think there were issues with this examination. The topic is 'Love Through the Ages' so the students had to be prepared to answer questions on texts from a wide range of times, but I was shocked to see that three of the four texts were not only pre-20th century, but pre-19th century (Stern, Marvell and Shakespeare), with a reasonably complex and quite long Angela Carter extract as the only more recent text. Very few students will find an excerpt from an 18th century novel easy to grasp (in this case Sentimental Journey) on a hasty reading. This seemed much more difficult than the sole sample paper we were given. Love's Labour Lost (with a wide range of classical references) as opposed to 'Romeo and Juliet', for which they would at least know the plot.
We'll have to see how it pans out in August, but I'm worried.

Ruth B. - 22 Jun 2010

AQA LITA3 exam

As a parent whose son sat the AQA LITA3 examination on 15/6/10 I would like to contribute to this debate.

By all accounts this was a complex and demanding paper in which even students aiming at the top grades felt completely overwhelmed. There must have been many parents all over the country who had to comfort their son or daughter when they arrived home and get them into a positive frame of mind for another A2 exam the following day. The knock-on effects of such a nightmare experience in the examination room are potentially very damaging when confidence has taken severe denting. I understand that my son’s school is in the process of lodging an official complaint to AQA and that there is the possibility of a joint protest with other schools in the county.

Mr Baker, there are another two aspects to this story which would merit further investigation:

1) Why are examination papers not published on the relevant board’s website within days of the examination, or at least within a reasonable period of time? For example, at the time of writing (22/6/10) the January 2010 LITA3 paper is still not available online. Why such lack of transparency?
Do the exam boards make money by selling them to schools? It would be interesting to know.

2) This is not the first time AQA seem to have had had difficulty in pitching an English Literature A2 paper at the right level. This is a new specification, and the January 2010 LITA3 paper was the first A2 paper they have set for the current cohort of students (though most schools, like my son’s, only entered their students for the June exam). Looking at AQAs own data (available on their website), the grade boundaries were lowered considerably, requiring a raw mark of only 53/80 (i.e. 66%) to achieve an A, 43/80 (i.e. 54%) to achieve a B etc. One could draw the conclusion that in setting two papers within the space of six months which fail to meet their own declared objectives of being “accessible to candidates of all abilities”, AQA have somewhat lost the plot.

One final point: I sat A level English Literature in June 1975. Yes, we were tested on two years’ acquired knowledge rather than just one, but the questions related to set books we knew in depth. We were not expected to have such extensive wider reading as today’s students, and did not have to cope with unseen passages. I would also argue that there was much less at stake for most candidates, as only relatively few of us had University places resting on the results.

Ann - 24 Jun 2010

AQA English Literature Exam 15.06.2010

I am a mature student of 55 who has been going to evening classes to obtain my A Level in English Literature. Myself and my fellow evening class students came out of the exam dispirited and all saying the same thing, that there was not enough in the extracts to enable wider reading to be brought in effectively. I await the results with trepidation!

Georgia - 24 Jun 2010

AQA LIT3 Exam

As others have stated, I too feel that the extracts given to us were too long. Their context was also difficult to grasp from just one read, which meant more time was needed to re-read, and then once the context was established, analysing the text still had to be completed. I have no idea how AQA expected us to read 4 long extracts and analyse them in 30 minutes.
As I said before the context was very difficult to grasp and took a number of reads to get a vague understanding of the text in front of me.
Before the exam, I felt incredibly prepared. Since starting this course I had been preparing wider reading, and had made endless lists of quotes that I could use in my exam. When it came time to sit the exam, I found it incredibly difficult to incorporate any of my wider reading in my essays, the context of the extracts were too ambiguous to include any wider reading that we had previously gone over in class.
The questions were also really quite difficult. The first one wasn't so bad, as there was a wider scope for interpretation as we hadn't been given a theme. But the second question was appalling, "the nature of love" was a terrible theme to have been given. It wasn't concise and it was difficult to spot "the nature of love" in the texts we had been given. As this exam was one of the first of this specification, I expected the questions to be marginally easier, with a much better theme. "Love through the ages" is such a broad subject, so I, as well as my fellow students, were expecting a theme along the lines of: romance, marital, or parental love; all the types of love we had covered in our lessons. Essentially our lessons were a waste of time as the work we had done and the texts we had analysed didn't aid us in our exam. To conclude I think that AQA should rethink the grade boundaries, and most certainly rethink the paper for the continuing years. As all teachers say "the exams are not there to trick you", but from this exam, I can't help but think that AQA want us to fail.

Also @ Jane Fleming:
Most, if not all, students were prepared for the exam. We were surprised by the questions and the length of the extracts. Every single student has had an experience in analysing an unseen extract (we did it for our AS level exam as well!) but the length of the extracts made it damn near impossible to analyse them in detail. As for the reference to you sitting A-levels in the 1960s, I think that you are unable to comment as you have no idea towards the situation we have been put in. I'm aware that the older generation think that exams are getting easier, but believe me, they are certainly not. It is fast becoming a test of your common sense and time management skills as opposed to a test of your knowledge. The questions themselves are becoming part of the exam, as they too, are very difficult to comprehend. We shouldn't be tricked in our exams, they should make it as easy as possible for us to showcase our skills, allowing us to be marked solely on our essay writing, not our ability to analyse swiftly and write a complete (and well written) essay in the time given.

Sarah - 29 Jun 2010

AQA LITA3 Exam

Like most student I also found this exam ridiculously long, confusing and impossible to analyse all the extracts A01 and A02 in depth. I was fully prepared for this exam, I had done many practise papers under times conditions, analysed many wider reading poems, plays and novels and memorised significant quotes to include in my exam. I had also studied and memorised a significant amount of A04 (context) and the influences the time periods has on the different styles of writing, however, I found including comparisons in context extremely difficult because as other students have pointed out three of the four extracts were from the same time period! I thought this exam was ridiculous and unfair given the time constraints; I was panicked throughout the entire exam! I’ve been asked by Lancaster University for a B in English to do Theatre studies and I can only hope that they will take this ridiculous exam paper and it’s hundreds of complaints into consideration, if not, this exam paper has ruined my dreams. The facebook group now holds 751 members, I think this is a shout out to AQA that clearly they did something wrong. I wish everybody the best of luck in their results and hope for all of you that if you do not achieve the English result you needed your university will still consider you.

Charlie - 19 Jul 2010

AQA Eng Lit Exam

For those claiming that the students should have been able to analyse the long texts within the 30 mins. maybe right, but I found the extracts themselves completely useless, in that there were not many things to be said, never mind many things to compare/contrast. It seemed to me that the texts had nothing in common and had nothing happening in them, it was hard to pick up upon the theme of love they were both concerning and hard to pick upon any significance or reference to any particular love within the texts. The exam in general was a wash out and nothing like the specimen paper or anything we had been prepared for.

Adrian Everitt - 06 May 2012

AQA Lit exam

Hi Mike,

I'm not familiar with with the AQA papers but it is interesting to read the students' comments.

In Peru, I currently teach the CIE A.S. English Language course (Cambridge's international version of A/A.S. Levels), and always find it frustrating that students have so little time on the 'Passages for comment' paper (i.e. unseen texts, usually non-literary, in this case). For the candidates, it's just a flat out sprint, with little chance to properly engage with the texts. This is especially a pity as the task in itself is very worthy: to consider the language features, style and intentions of an unfamiliar piece of writing, and then to express one's insights in a clear and well organised written response. I am pleased to teach a course that develops these skills, but annually frustrated at an exam paper that only measures them at hyper-speed. I mean, what's the point of that?

From what the candidates of this AQA paper are saying, it seems they may be victims of a similarly senseless hurry. And what a waste! Laurence Sterne, Andrew Marvell, William Shakespeare, and even dear Angela Carter: giants of literature whose writing should be savoured and relished, not served up as an indigestible quick dip!

Complex language is challenging, especially literary language. I cannot understand the sense of depriving exam candidates of the time they need to rise to such a fine challenge.

To put it bluntly: why not add, say, another hour to the paper length? Give them more than enough time: what's to lose?

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