Why you must show students mark schemes – the secret success criteria


Following on from Ofqual’s implication via their survey that making students learn a mark scheme is ‘undermining qualification standards’ and gives them an ‘unfair advantage’ I’ve thought about how exam boards don’t help the situation. I believe that there are ‘hidden’ hurdles for students in exams. Until Ofqual insist that exam questions are marked fairly in relation to the question that is asked, teachers that care about students results, will look at mark schemes and in turn teach these to students. 


I teach with two exam boards. One for GCSE religious studies and one for AS/A2 Critical thinking. In both cases there are hidden success criteria that if unknown will limit student achievement.

For the GCSE one of the questions is always structured as follows:

Do you agree with/think that X?

Give two reasons for your point of view.

4 marks

Now you would think that if a student gives two reasons that they would get full marks because the question only asks the candidate for this. However this is not true. If you just give two reasons you get half the marks.

Here is the mark scheme:

1 one brief reason
2 two brief reasons or one developed reason
3 two reasons with one developed
4 two developed reasons

 If a student does not ‘know’ the mark scheme this will mean that they can only achieve 50% of the marks. My question is, why doesn’t the question say ‘Give two developed reasons’?

It does the same in another question where it says ‘Give reasons’ but candidates can only achieve full marks with 3 reasons or a combination or developed/simple reasons. There is a ‘hidden’ hurdle for candidates. Why not make this explicit?

In a similar way the A level I teach does the same, with unknown emphasis on particular elements to achieve the higher marks. Here is an example question:

Write an argument…..

In your argument you should include relevant principles and explain why you have rejected at least one alternative choice. Support your argument by referring critically to the resource documents.

36 Marks


Now you would expect the mark scheme to credit:

  • Using principles (as this is plural then at least 2 seems logical)
  • Rejection of an alternative
  • Critical reference to documents
  • As they’ve asked you to write an argument it will also be looking at the argument structure & reasoning

However, the mark scheme reveals that to achieve full marks:

Accurate identification and developed application of at least 3 contrasting plausible ethical principles or at least 2 contrasting major ethical theories.


 If a student chooses to write about ethical principles then 2 is not enough. Why doesn’t the question say this?

On another paper it asks:

Write your own argument to support your view.You should use your own ideas and you may use ideas/evidence form the resource book to help you.


Whilst all students know how to write arguments at this level the mark scheme puts emphasis on particular argument elements and additional features that they may not ‘naturally’ do without knowing the mark scheme, including:

  • questioning of key terms

  • anticipation of counter arguments and effective response

and in some mark schemes it adds:

Typical indicators of Level 3 are:

  • use of intermediate conclusions
  • use of hypothetical reasoning.

Consistent and well-supported use of intermediate conclusions and/or hypothetical reasoning is an indicator of Level 4.

In addition to the indicators of Level 3, typical indicators of Level 4 are some of:

  • use of relevant counter-argument with persuasive response

  • use of relevant analogy

  • use of relevant examples or evidence

If I don’t read the mark schemes as a teacher and then tell the students this they will not be able to access the higher levels. Whilst some of the points form the basics, if examiners are being given this sort of information as to what achieves higher levels then surely it is right that the students know this? Ofqual imply that getting the students to learn the mark scheme gives them some sort of advantage. They are right of course. If I didn’t tell the students then it would come down to chance if they included the specific things that examiners are looking for.

So the question is, do you prepare students with all the information you can or leave it to chance? I know what I do.



2 thoughts on “Why you must show students mark schemes – the secret success criteria

  1. This is the only ‘responsible’ way to prepare students for exams. When so much relies on their results it is absolutely down to the teachers to use any materials we have to prepare them to perform to the best they possibly can in a confining system. Using the mark schemes isn’t unfair; what’s unfair is that some teachers don’t bother – they’re the ones who are disadvantaging their students.

    It’s partly because of these ‘hidden tricks’ that I mark exams (though I won’t pretend the money isn’t nice!), despite that now being a ‘suspect practice’ in the eyes of some people. But am I supposed to take the knowledge I gain of exactly what the exam board are looking for and then NOT tell my students? What sort of teacher would that make me?

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