How much should you write in an exam?

22 December 2017

It’s probably one of the most common questions asked by students: how much do I need to write in an exam? Now researchers at exams group Cambridge Assessment think they may have the answer.

Researcher Tom Benton looked at a GCSE English Literature essay question and worked out that there is a clear link between the amount written and the marks awarded.

At the lower grades it’s fairly simple: if you don’t write enough, you won’t be able to earn enough marks. However, length of response alone is not sufficient to achieve a high mark. Beyond a certain essay length, the relationship between writing more words and achieving more marks flattened off. In other words, quantity does not trump quality.

The study, How much do I need to write to get top marks?, is published in the latest edition of Research Matters, which is out now. 

“’How much am I supposed to write?’ must be one of the most frequent questions students ask themselves when faced with an essay task,” said Tom.

“I remember this question being asked by someone in the class nearly every time such a task was set for homework at school, and my own children invariably ask me the same question every time I am encouraging them to do their homework.”

Despite how common the question is, there had been little research in this area up until now, Tom says – partly because the technology didn’t exist. Now, using computer processing of digital images of 5,000 handwritten exam scripts from a 2014 OCR GCSE English Literature exam, he was able to get a clear picture of the relation between how much candidates wrote and the grades they were awarded.

The results give a helpful steer to teachers and students alike. They show that the relationship between essay length and mark awarded flattens off beyond 700 words, indicating there is no benefit in candidates writing extremely long responses. At the other end of the spectrum, nearly all responses of fewer than 200 words resulted in a grade U, suggesting that candidates must write enough to make sure that the examiner can recognise their knowledge.

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young school girl with her hand in the air to answer a question