Student Marking Exemplars – flipping a revision session for answering a SAQ

How to answer a Short Answer Question? This is the most frequent request I get from students when asked what they would like to cover in a study revision session. Their exams consist of a combination of Multiple Choice Questions (MCQs) and Short Answer Questions (SAQs). Typically for each student their performance on the SAQs is lower than for the MCQs. Not a surprise, it’s much harder to synthesise an answer on a blank sheet of paper than to recognise or work out the correct answer from a list of plausible options.

My 1st year chemistry students experience answering a formative SAQ under exam conditions ahead of a summative mid-term test to help familiarise them with what to expect. Feedback during this session helps to clarify what a good SAQ answer consists of using the formative SAQ as a specific example.

The key message I emphasise is to show both knowledge and understanding in their answers. If the question uses list or identify, then this requires knowledge of the correct answer. It is not asking to explain your answer or justify your reasoning. If the question asks for an explanation or to discuss the answer then understanding is required. The weighting on question parts within a SAQ can also indicate this with knowledge only questions weighted less than knowledge + understanding questions.


The students were also provided with written guidance on answering SAQs which included the main types of questions for 1st year chemistry.                               Top Tips for answering a SAQ                                               

top tips SAQ

A short answer questions means that the answer is relatively short compared to an essay. The answer may involve working out a calculation or may consist of several sentences and could include chemical structures/diagrams.

An answer that’s longer than necessary won’t cause you to lose marks, as long as everything you write is correct. But if incorrect, you will lose marks. In addition, writing more than necessary wastes time that could be spent on other questions. So you should only write more if you think it’s correct and crucial to answering the question.

Despite this guidance and further feedback from all staff within the module during smaller workshops, there was still a lack of confidence from the students with SAQs.

So I decided to flip a revision activity and provide the students with two exemplars answering a SAQ on the sample exam paper. I created the two answers, both with deliberate errors and the activity required the students to mark the questions. I explained that the students should mark both answers according to a 40:60 ratio for knowledge: understanding demonstrated in each answer. I wanted to revisit the initial guidance from the formative workshop on knowledge and understanding. Answer A was almost a top answer but included an error. Answer B was incorrect but aspects of the answer demonstrated correct understanding of the key concepts asked in the question. The aim here was to illustrate how we look to reward correct knowledge and understanding, that chemistry SAQs are not necessarily text only as they may include chemical structures or figures. I marked Answer A as 90% and Answer B as 40%.

It was clear early on that this activity challenged the students to think, they had to reflect on their own level of knowledge and understanding of the topic whilst marking the answers.

What was most interesting was the marks the students gave to both Answer A (my mark 90%) and Answer B (my mark 40%). I used mentimeter to capture their marks and it caused amusement when student marks were polled as the range of marks was indeed quite large!

The average student mark for Answer A was 56% and the average for Answer B was 54%. The highest mark for Answer A was 80% and the lowest was 20%. A similar pattern was seen for Answer B, highest mark 82%, lowest 30%. The students were challenged with the process of evaluation and from Bloom’s Taxonomy, unless good knowledge and understanding exists as a strong foundation, the intellectual skills of evaluating and analysing will be difficult to achieve. In terms of Answer B, 1/3 of the students gave a grade above 60%. Student feedback on the session was very positive, it got them thinking about SAQs from a new perspective and it was good feedback to them on what they needed to revisit in their revision. I used this activity as a pilot and will definitely want to repeat again including other topics and the critical aspect is to include some common errors or misconceptions in the exemplar answers.


Bloom’s Taxonomy (I don’t represent anymore using a pyramid)

Teaching with Mentimeter

I discovered mentimeter over a year ago and was eager to implement this technology within my teaching and obviously evaluate its use and effectiveness. So in this blog post, I will share my thoughts, be open about the lessons I have learned along the way and suggest useful ways to include mentimeter within presentations or classroom activities.

Mentimeter is an online interactive presentation tool, with no plug-in required and it’s free! (an essential factor for many educators when considering using or piloting a new technology).  There is no limit to the audience size and each presentation can include two different question types or 5 quiz questions. I have used the open-ended comments, word cloud and multiple choice questions formats. Other options are scales where participants can rate a statement, 100 points for prioritizing items and a gamification option to find a winner. I think the range of options and ease of use make it my favourite new technology tool to use. There are payment plans which allow greater functionality particularly to include branding and exporting data to excel but personally for teaching and interactivity the free version is ideal.

I first used mentimeter to understand better how my 1st year students were finding their chemistry module. Have you like me experienced that moment when you ask students for feedback or pose a question to be met with a sea of silence? I can understand this, students are reluctant to speak up in a large group (particularly 1st year at university) and if they do, it can be to tell you what they believe you want to hear.  Therefore, I introduced the open-ended comment function with my 1st year Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Science students. It is the online version of write down on a post-it note your thoughts to the following question “What are your biggest challenges with learning chemistry?” The great thing with this mentimeter option is that the comments are anonymous so students can freely post their replies. From a teaching perspective I want to hear all comments, positive and negative, so removing the identity aspect, this allows students freedom to respond honestly. It allows a more inclusive approach, providing a mechanism for the ‘quiet learner’ to participate. I have also used this function during induction activities to ask students “how will studying at university differ from your previous school experience?” and engage them into this discussion.

Learning at university

The students really enjoy watching the comments appear on the screen. There is a profanity filter too although I have never had any issues with the comments written, just once when a student posted there would be a party and gave the details. We had to have a group conversation about professionalism. It didn’t happen again!

I have used multiple choice questions during lectures which is a great way to test understanding. There is the possibility to use peer-instruction with this approach and after having read “Make it Stick: The Science of Successful Learning” earlier this year, I incorporated using questions prior to instruction to help maximise learning. I invited students to answer a question on chemical bonding at the start of the lecture with 8% of students selecting the correct answer. At the end of the lecture, it increased to 61%. I was very excited to see this in action.

My third mentimeter use was with a Word cloud to understand how my 1st year students were feeling about chemistry at the very start of the module. I allowed students to respond more than once which is the lesson learned. They got a bit giddy seeing the words appear as the word cloud created live and some students started to include inappropriate words and slang that I had to look up to understand! So next time they won’t have the option to post more than once.

word cloud.png

Some of my colleagues have expressed concern about students using their phones during lectures and the potential distractions but I haven’t found this problematic. Setting expectations and managing unwanted classroom behaviours is always important. It has been very much a positive addition to my teaching practice. I have understood my students much more than previously and with my initial pilots, I have been impressed with the potential to use mentimeter from the instant interaction at the start of a presentation and inclusive student engagement to more structured learning developments.

PS I have no involvement with mentimeter, just sharing my experiences.