Help! I've just taken the worst chemistry exam ever produced!

There's a strange thing about exams. They always get easier between the time that students do them for real and the time that next year's students do the same paper for revision purposes. The paper that seemed so hard to someone taking it for real, seems just like any other paper when future students use it for practice.

It is natural to find the real thing harder than revision papers - it matters to you in a quite different way. Because you are worried about it, you come out of the exam remembering every single mark that you might have lost. You spend ages niggling about something that might possibly have cost you 2 marks, and ignore all the things that you got right.

The first thing to do is calm down! Once the exam is finished, it's past history and there is nothing whatsoever that you can do about it until the results come out. In my time as Head of Chemistry, I went to a lot of conferences about teaching chemistry. I can only remember one thing about any of them! Someone said: "If you've got a problem that you can't solve, it isn't a problem - it's a fact. So there's no point in worrying about it."

In other words, it is only worth worrying about things that you can do anything about.

Even if your exam was truly hard, that really doesn't matter - as long as everybody else found it hard as well. If you were the only person to find it hard, that's different - that's definitely not good news!

Exams always vary in difficulty - it's impossible to set papers of exactly the same degree of difficulty year on year, and so there are procedures in place to compensate for that.

The mark that you score on a given paper is very unlikely to be the mark that is actually reported to you to determine your grade. If the paper turns out to be harder than normal, the pass mark for a given grade is lowered. If it is easier than normal, the pass mark for that same grade will be made higher. Marks will be scaled - so that on a hard paper, a raw score of, say, 64% could produce a score reported to you as, say, 81% - probably an A if you are doing a UK-based A level. You will have lost more than a third of the marks on the paper, but if it was a genuinely hard paper you can still get a grade A.

I can remember my students coming out of a physical chemistry exam years ago - several of them in tears because it was so difficult. Later the same day they did an organic chemistry paper which they were pleased with. But when the marks were released, many of them seemed to have scored more highly on the harder paper than the easier one - because the marks were adjusted to allow for the difference in difficulty.

Every year in the UK journalists and political commentators get themselves worked up because some examiners (often maths!) have allowed people to pass with about 15% and get a grade A with about 30%. It's no big deal - the examiner that set the paper simply got it wrong and made it too difficult. It would have been totally unfair to fail everybody for something which wasn't their fault. Life's like that - examiners are just people who can make mistakes like all the rest of us. I'm not suggesting that extreme cases like this are welcome or even acceptable but, if they do happen, there are procedures in place for sorting out the mess.

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© Jim Clark 2007