Should you choose your exam text based on how past students scored?

Lisa Tran

September 17, 2014

English & EAL

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It’s around that time of the year when you start to contemplate which one of two texts you’ll most likely use in the Text Response component of the exam. And it’s not necessarily an easy choice to make! There are several factors worth considering, and you should definitely take your time deciding which text is best for you – after all, it can make a massive difference in your studying habits leading up to the exam and also how well you perform in the final exam. I’ll share with you a few of the common remarks made by students in regards to the exam and how things generally aren’t as straightforward as they seem!

1. ‘I’ll just spend all my time on one text because I’m not that great with the other one.’

Whoa! Stop right there! The first thing you should keep in mind is that you have 2 texts to choose from for a reason. The moment you decide to stick with one text, you have essentially put all your eggs into one basket. The negative side is exactly that – if you’ve placed all your chances of doing well into that one text, what if things don’t go as planned? Like two incredibly difficult exam prompts that you’ve never come across, a massive freak out I-just-realised-I-know-a-lot-less-than-I-thought leading up to the exam, or worse, that last-minute decision to switch texts for the exam. When eliminating the other option, you’ve basically got no backup. I’m sure you, like myself, have been told to back up your work on the computer and at some point, you didn’t and what happened? Of course, your computer crashed and you lost all your work. If you’re willing to take the risk, then of course go for it. Having a backup or at least having two text options ready provides you with a safety net. Even with two texts at hand, it’s completely natural for you to lean towards one text than the other. The best option, which I believe most of you would agree on, would be to focus more time on one text, but still have the other one at your disposal.

2. ‘I’ll select the text that scores the highest marks in past exams.’

Having a look at past exam marks can give you a good indication of the number of students that select a particular text and also the average mark scored by those students. The table below shows what VCAA used to produce in their Assessment Reports:

‍Image Source: VCAA 2013 Assessment Report

As you can see, the novel Year of Wonders has received the highest average mark. This by no means indicates that examiners are any more lenient on this text, nor do they favour it. What it really means is that it just so happened that the percentage of students who decided to write on this text were higher-than-average English students. Since 2013, VCAA has published a much more realistic table that gives us a better indication of what type of students were writing on these texts:

‍‍Image Source: VCAA 2013 Assessment Report

VCAA then stated:

From this table it can be seen that students achieved the highest scores on average for Henry IV, Part I. However, it can also be seen that on average this same set of students achieved well in the other sections of the English examination. Conversely, students who selected Così had the lowest average score in Section A, but also had low scores in Sections B and C.

UPDATE: It's 2017, so I thought I'd show you last year's examination report just below.

See more of this table on the VCAA website here.

So what’s the take home message here? Don’t simply choose your text because it seemed to score well in recent years.

3. ‘I’ll do the film because it’s easier.’

Don’t be fooled! Films does not equal easy! Perhaps reviewing the film will be quicker than re-reading a text but films have so many layers of intricacy that you’d be silly to think that you’re automatically going to do better in the exam. It’s very hard to be successful just by writing about dialogue and plot. You have to analyse the film techniques, especially those that aren’t going to be mentioned by majority of students in the exam in order to stand out!

4. ‘I won’t do a text because it’s the first year it’s being assessed and I don’t know what to expect.’

Well hey, this is fair enough. But you can probably see it as an advantage. Although you don’t know what to expect, keep in mind that the examiners themselves probably won’t know what to expect from VCE students either. It goes both ways! If you don’t know what to expect, adequately prepare yourself. Collect and practice as many essay prompts as you can, read whatever notes or study guides you can get your hands on, and seek out your teacher and ask them if they have any thoughts on the exam!

5. “I’ll select the text that is newer to the syllabus as many students will not pick this and I will be able to get a better mark.”

The thing is, you really can’t tell how many students will choose a certain text. At the end of the day, examiners cross-mark several different texts which means that one text isn’t going to score better simply because less students choose it. A particular text may appear to receive higher scores because it’s less popular but really it means that the people who chose to write on it were higher-than-average English students (just refer to the tables shown above from VCAA Assessment Reports)!

With all these common remarks from students mentioned above, it comes down to one simple point, but often a point that needs to be reiterated – choose the text that you’re most familar and most comfortable with. Afterall, it’s going to be your writing that speaks out to the examiner. You can be strategic as you like, but choosing the text you’re best at is definitely the best strategy of all! Hope this helps any of you who have been contemplating some of these questions. Keep it up everyone!

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