Shining a beacon on command terms

I have set and marked papers for the Business and Management since the early 1990s and written many examiner reports for papers, extended essays and internal assessments. However, in all those reports, there have been very few original or distinctive comments that might not have been found in any other examiner report. That is because across cohorts, students are relatively constant in what they do well and what they do poorly.

I cannot remember how many reports I have started with the words: ‘many candidates failed to answer the question asked’. This seems a simple statement, but addressing it in the classroom is more difficult as it requires teachers to develop a whole range of examination techniques that we may assume, often incorrectly, students should possess by the time they reach the sixth form. Students have to be able to understand the various nuances of a question that may be phrased in a similar fashion to ones they have answered before, but require an emphasis on an element that is more unusual. It requires students to synthesis ideas to address the question asked and to evaluate and balance conflicting points of view from data that is original and unknown. It is crucial that students use information from the data they are provided rather than trot out generalised theory that may be negated by the stimulus material provided. It also requires students to understand that the command term at the start of the question may be different to the one they have revised. Indeed this is a crucial point. Students may in fact write about the correct topic, but possibly not to the depth required, or potentially worse as it has detrimental spill-over effects on other questions, to far more than the depth required. As an examiner I despair when I see a student answer a question, only requiring a few lines or a couple of bullet points, over several sides.

This time last year with the examinations looming I was exhorting that teachers cramming students in the lead up to examinations concentrate on the command terms used in questions. As I said then:

As we approach examination season, it is essential that students are fully aware of the meaning of command terms that appear in examinations and understand how these command terms are translated into markschemes for the examination papers and into assessment criteria for the internal assessment.

As an examiner and marker, it is always depressing to read answers or projects, where it is clear the candidate has little understanding of the requirements of the command term used in a question. Of course, with higher order command terms, such as ‘evaluate’ and ‘discuss’, the consequences of such misunderstanding may be many lost marks.

When setting questions, examiners base their questions on the learning outcomes. All the papers are ‘mapped’ against the syllabus to ensure adequate coverage of topics, and then measured in terms of the skills they test.

The problem is that I am not sure that all teachers understand these ideas either, and I hold my hand up to say then when I first began to examine I lacked knowledge as well, because at the time business questions started with terms like ‘how’, ‘what’ and ‘why’. As questions these were fine, but what they failed to address for the student was the depth and breadth of the answer required in order to obtain full marks; the only guide being the mark allocation. Since that time examination techniques have become more formalised and standardised to ensure comparable standards across years, examining boards and subject papers and the role of the command term has been to achieve this result. The command term has become a ‘beacon’ that shines light on depth and breadth.

Business and management students know the command terms they may face – they are in the back of the guide. I know of many teachers who religiously put these terms and their meanings on pieces of card and display on the walls. However, do students fully appreciate their significance? This is what the revision period must address. So if you have revision classes planned in the next week take time to deconstruct past questions and to emphasise that each paper must follow the same formula from year to year in terms of depth and breadth, including sections on papers.

So for your delight, I am repeating what I have said before and will say again – make sure your students understand the significance of the command term and what expectations result from its use. Also, please, please get your students to USE information from the stimulus materials in the question or case study – after all why did the examiner put it there, if it is not relevant to the questions asked?

Skill Levels and associated command terms:

  • Skill Level 1 – knowledge and understanding: Define, describe, complete, outline, state, identify, classify
  • Skill Level 2 – application: Calculate comment, compare, construct, distinguish, explain, formulate prepare
  • Skill level 3analysis: Analyse, apply, examine, interpret
  • Skill Level 4synthesis and evaluation: Advise, discuss, evaluate, justify, recommend, to what extent

In any session there must be a certain percentage of questions that test each of the levels. Higher Level papers will contain a greater proportion of questions that test higher order skills.

The subject guide provides details of the command terms with examples and explanations of their application.

Business and Management questions must test a range of skills across the examination papers and internal assessment.

  • Level 1 skills are tested by asking candidates to recall and show some understanding of this knowledge. A student may show these skills by identifying business issues and theories, defining terms and describing situations, from say a case study. It may be appropriate for students to bullet point.
  • Level 2 skills require candidates to explain business concepts and apply business theory to knowledge or situations which have been identified, grouped or listed.
  • Level 3 skills test analysis of a situation. This can be done by organising data and commenting on any patterns in terms of importance, such as identifying trends. In addition questions may be asked on the advantages and disadvantages, costs and benefits of certain actions. The answer MUST identify BOTH sides – advantages AND disadvantages. The difference between a level 3 and a level 4 answer is that students may identify advantages and disadvantages, costs and benefits, pros and cons for an ‘analyse’ or ‘examine’ question, but they are not required to make balanced judgments about them.
  • Level 4 covers the higher order skills. These are tested by questions which require candidates to come to some conclusions and to make supported judgments. Here the candidates may compare different business policies, analyse their advantages and disadvantages and evaluate which of the policies may have the greatest and most beneficial effect. The expectation is that the answer is balanced and that both sides of an argument or issue are examined before a judgment is attempted – one sided judgements without recognising opposing views or data will be marked down. In other words judgements are supported by some data, facts or figures and information from the stimulus material. This will often require the student to synthesise their arguments or the arguments of others, showing the key elements. This last skill often eludes students who write in great length about very little!

A good revision technique with students is to highlight command terms in question papers and also in the markscheme levels. This should indicate that a student cannot reach a certain level without having shown evidence of a particular skill. Writing command terms, with explanations, on cards and then sticking on classroom walls is always beneficial. This is even more valuable if the students are the authors. Show students papers over several years that repeat the command term sequence and those that always have a stepped approach:

  • Define
  • Explain
  • Analyse
  • Evaluate

And finally … although in reality this post could run to many pages, remind your students that it is often more difficult to earn the final few marks on a question than the first few marks. In other words, if they are having time problems, it may be better to stop writing an answer to a question, leave a gap (hoping to return) and then start the next question. It may be beneficial, when under time pressures, to bullet point rather than to write a few lines of prose that cover only one issue; at least the examiner knows what would have been covered and the extent of knowledge and selection, even if the student does not achieve the higher mark bands for analysis and evaluation. Indeed, it is not necessary to answer questions in sequence and it is poor examination technique when students do not attempt higher tariff questions because they spent too much time on sections with lower marks; where they felt more ‘comfortable’ and wanted to cross all the t’s and dot all the i’s.

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