Formula Sheets, Blank Texts and GCSEs

Following the recent changes in GCSE exams, there is a petition up at the moment with 79434 signatures titled ‘Allow GCSE Students to have a formula sheet in their tests’. To tell the truth, I have quite a few problems with this petition… so lets talk about them!

(A little disclaimer before I start – I completely understand that people have different ways of learning and that for some people, there are some subjects that are harder than others, so I am not downplaying the difficulty of public exams. I just think that there is a wider problem surrounding the issue of having formula sheets, which I hope to discuss here with no disrespect towards other students.)

My first problem is that some students think that formula sheet = higher mark = higher grade. But this isn’t always going to be the case. Firstly, having a formula sheet is unlikely to give students a higher mark because to do well in an exam, the student needs to have a firm understanding of the subject. In a physics exam for example, less than half the marks available are for actual calculations, the other half of the marks are for being able to explain ideas and principles (where a formula sheet won’t be much help). Furthermore, having a formula sheet does not tell you when or where (or how) to use the formulas, if you dont know how to rearrange or apply formulas, a formula sheet isn’t going to be particularly helpful in the first place. In terms of the actual grades, grade boundaries are set on how well the country does overall, everybody getting a good mark does not mean that everybody gets a good grade.

Secondly, if a student is going to properly study the subject, will they really need a formula sheet? And if they are not passionate enough about a subject (and their education) to memorise a few formulas, should they really be put in a position to be able to access the higher marks in an exam? Many students realise that most formulas on a formula sheet can be worked out using prior knowledge. One example of this is the formula for orbital speed which is given on the formula sheet for the Edexcel IGCSE Physics. A student who knows some basic maths, how to find the speed of any object (speed = distance/time) and how to find the circumference of a circle (2π x radius), can put the two equations together to find the equation for orbital speed (speed = (2π x radius)/time).

If memorising equations is difficult, surely memorising dates and words from other languages is equally as hard. So why shouldn’t we get a sheet with key dates for history, or a vocabulary list for languages?

Similar to the petition about formula sheets, there is one running now that wants to ‘Authorise open book examinations for GCSE English Literature 2017’. This petition has 86,491signatures. There was an almost identical petition opened last year which got 25394 signatures which wanted to ‘Allow GCSE English candidates to have blank texts during their exams.’ The government responded to the petition with the following;

‘GCSE English literature content requires students to read the full text of the books and poems they study. Students will not need to remember the exact wording of poems by heart in order to succeed.’

For me, this excerpt from the governments response highlights the fact that the new style of GCSE is not aimed at students not achieving, but instead is aimed the requirement for students to know their subject matter well. The rest of the response talks about how the new closed book exams require a student to study and know the texts and the surrounding themes and context well and in depth in order to achieve a higher grade.

Carrying on from that point, I think that the students signing this petition need to understand that the whole point of the new GCSE system is to make the summer examinations more challenging, and to really spread out the spectrum of achievement and differentiate between those achieving at the national standard, and those achieving way above it. The fact that the changes in the exams were so recent doesn’t really support the possibility of the government changing their stance on open books or formula sheets.

The new grading system is more challenging, but in my opinion it is wrong to see it as being ‘unfair’. In 1988, only 8.4% of GCSE exams were awarded an A or A* grade, which was up to 24.4% in 2012. With so many more people achieving top grades nowadays, we needed a new system which would allow us to show students performance more accurately, and the new, more challenging GCSE exams (with or without a formula sheet) are the government’s way of doing exactly that.

In the time it took to write this – about 45 mins, the petition has gotten an extra 45 signatures, and is now up to 79479 signatures. Whilst I can’t be 100% certain, even if the petition does reach the required 100,000 signatures, I think it’s highly unlikely that the government will reintroduce formula sheets or blank texts. However, there is one thing that I am 100% sure about, and that is that I won’t be signing it.


2 thoughts on “Formula Sheets, Blank Texts and GCSEs

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