Open Evening Ideas for A Level R.S

I have been very fortunate for the last nine years to have a large number of students wanting to study Philosophy and Ethics, with roughly 100-150 students taking the course each year. This may be due to early interventions including changing the name from Religious Studies to Philosophy and Ethics (R.S). This meant that students understood what the course entailed, helping retention. My students also did a number of activities that attracted the attention of the local news such as making a Holocaust patchwork quilt for Holocaust Memorial Day (see Leaving a Lasting Impression).

But unfortunately this year (whilst I am still very lucky to have 90 students) our cohort from schools is going down and R.S is going to be hit over the next few years because of this. So this year, for the first time in many years, I am going all out on Open Evening. Usually I just place books and DVDs of interest around the room, create a handout and have current students answer questions and talk and interact with potential new students. But not this year!

This year we had a number of exciting, interactive activities for students and parents to get involved with.

Around college laminated posters were placed drawing students and parents to the R.S classroom including:

  • Posters with Quotes:
  • Posters with Discussion Questions:
  • Skeleton holding ‘What makes us human?’ outside the classroom

  • Posters with ‘Fancy a Photo with a Philosopher’ (see below)

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First Year Exam Paper Breakdown: Philosophy Soul Question

Here’s a breakdown of a student’s answer for the question on the Soul, Mind, Body unit from the new spec exams 2016 (first years).

‘There is no such thing as a soul’ Discuss (30)

OCR marks given for student’s answer:
A01 9/15
A02 8/15

I used this answer as part of my lesson on essay writing for this unit. I gave the students 3 highlighters: critical words (purple) , use of ‘no/ such thing’ (blue) and every time a new name is used (green). What was clear very quickly is that this student used multiple critical words, wide selection of scholarly names and linked points back to the question.

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First Year Exam Paper Breakdown: Ethics NL Question

Here’s a breakdown of a student’s answer for the question on Natural Law from the new spec exams 2016 (first years).

To what extent does natural law provide a helpful method of moral decision making? (30)

OCR marks given for student’s answer:
A01 14/15
A02 13/15

The structure of the answer is very clear and simple with an introduction, four main paragraphs and a conclusion.

Four paragraph themes:

  1. Links to Aristotle and telos
  2. Four tiers of Moral Law hierarchy
  3. Primary Precepts
  4. Synderesis and apparent and real goods

Each of these paragraphs follows the same structure: theme raised, briefly outlined, link to euthanasia (moral decision making), layered evaluation (helpful or not?). Each paragraph has roughly a 30/70 split between A01 and A02.

There are four reasons (in my view) this answer did well:

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Examiner’s Report 2016: What can we learn?

There isn’t a lot to go by as far as guidance on the new spec exam technique, so last night I read through the Exam Report (accessible here: OCR Exam Report) in hopes of some clarity.

What can we learn?

  1. Link everything back to the question – this comment is throughout the report. In many cases students use other names or ideas and go off topic. Everything must be linked back to the question to make it clear why it is relevant. My tip for developing this: One technique I absolutely swear by is highlighting key words in an essay answer. Whenever students complete an essay for homework (or in timed conditions for mock exams) before I collect them in, I pick some random words in the question (often words I think they will have ignored such as ‘no such thing’ ‘transcendent creator’) which they then have to highlight in their answer. Result: students notice very quickly if they have answered the question or not. Usually students say ‘oh I used different words does that count?’ – answer ‘no’.
  2. A02 needs to be supported by philosophical arguments, names or examples – it is not surprising that A02 is where students lost the most marks as this is the hardest technique to master. My tip for developing this: students learn lots of names and arguments as part of the course but do they use them to there full advantage? Just like above I get students to highlight their critical words (‘interesting’ ‘credible’ ‘vague’), use of names, use of examples to see which colour is missing – self assessment for improved writing.
  3. Students’ recall of names/ arguments was sometimes incorrect.  This is understandable when students are under exam duress and tight time conditions so the report does say that “content was still credited” but students need to recognise that correct content is still key to a top mark essay. My tip for developing this: focus on testing content as well as evaluation. Every week I set a short test (Key Knowledge Test) based on the previous topic. This test is out of 15 (25 for A2) and focuses on key words and arguments not evaluation. Students must revise for these tests as part of on-going revision and then peer mark in class to save adding to workload (I then collect in and make a note of scores) Note: there are also many electronic quiz apps that can be used for this – I’m just old fashion and like paper in their folders to revise from.
  4. Don’t overuse rhetorical questions – these are not good enough A02 on their own. Students need to raise points using rhQ but then explore what the question implies in regards to the question.
  5. Avoid listing names – I call this ‘name dumping’. It is not enough that students have learnt the philosophers names and arguments they must do something with the information – evaluate it, link to question etc.
  6. Running out of time – this is also not surprising. The report emphasizes that it is “depth as much as breadth” but we all know students still have to cover the basics of an argument to be credited the marks. My tip for developing this: give students 35 minutes rather than 37, only a tiny difference but this means that in the exam that extra 4 minutes, with adrenaline and lots of revision – they are less likely to run out of time.
  7. Interwoven evaluation – “these tended to be the stronger candidates” – the report goes through two ways that students evaluated: evaluation was interwoven into answers or followed the part a) part b) structure of the old spec. Whilst the report said that the part a) part b) structure was credited the marks for evidence of A01 an A02 the higher marks often went to students who integrated the evaluation. My tip for developing this: do not leave A02 until the end of a topic otherwise students will associate A02 coming after A01 not as part of it. I integrate A02 throughout a unit. Students always prepare and answer essays at the end of a unit to integrate all information but A02 can be taught throughout (see The Four Steps to Teaching A01 & A02 Effectively).
  8. Little mention of other thinkers in Ethics – now this one stopped me. On the one hand the report comments on how students seemed to misuse names and go down tangents in Philosophy (e.g. talking about Irenaeus more than Hick) but then not enough reference to other scholars in Ethics. I know from looking at a few papers recalled from the exam my students often used names linking with euthanasia (in the NL Q) but few scholarly names in relation to NL and Kant. What I have learnt: This is definitely an area I will be adding into my lesson plans this year – Student research task: find scholars who have commented or follow NL, SE, Kant and Util and also point them towards books such as Vardy and Mackie.
  9. Linking in other topics was often done successfully e.g. life after death (DCT) in with the Soul (Philosophy) or Situation Ethics to Bonhoeffer (DCT) – this is one possibility to help solve the above problem. What I have learnt: this year as part of student’s revision (both in AS and A2) I am going to get them to create a spider diagram in A3 to link topics together.
  10. Comparing ethical theories to one or two other ethical theories e.g. linking SE or Util into NL essay – I think this is risky territory. In 37 minutes students have to explain a theory and evaluate fully (to answer the question asked), this leaves very little time to compare to another theory, which has to be briefly outlined and used for evaluation in relation to the theory in question. It is do-able by all means but very tricky. So for example students can compare the ethics of SE to NL to say which is better or worse but I would only recommend this for my highest ability students, who have control over their writing. Otherwise students have a tendency to go off on a tangent and forget the point they are trying to make. The idea of students comparing to two other ethical theories is a total no go!

Biggest misunderstandings:

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First Year Exam Paper Breakdown: DCT Death and Afterlife Question

Here’s a break down of a student’s answer for the question on Death and Afterlife from the new spec exams 2016 (first years).

Critically assess the view that in Christian Teaching all people will be saved (30)

OCR marks given for student’s answer:
A01 15/15
A02 15/15

These are the main paragraphs of the student’s exam answer:

DCT 1 u.jpg

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Pluralism and Theology: Student’s Work

There are a number of techniques I use when setting an essay for homework:

  1. I give students a choice of questions (e.g 1 from 3). Not so they have a choice (even though this is similar to exam) but because I get a wealth of material that covers more areas of the spec as examples – it also breaks up the marking a bit!
  2. I start by setting essay writing homework for just the introduction and first main paragraph. Why? So I can check the essay writing technique is correct first. I don’t need to read 2/3 sides if the student has not understood the paragraph technique (point-explain-example- layered evaluation, with a 25% A01 vs 75% A02 split).
  3. Students do not complete these under timed conditions and can use class notes/power points because it is important that students first of all develop the right technique. Once the students have learnt this technique it is then possible to start bringing in timed conditions.
  4. On deadline day I give the students a number of highlighters. So in this case one highlighter for the main words  (I pick) in the question and any use of critical terms. This shows me quickly if they have answered the question and evaluated. If there is a gap in highlighting I give them an immediate chance to re-drat. There is no point me marking work to state the obvious, it is also a very valuable self assessment process they need for the exam.

    So here are some examples taken from my students’ work covering two DCT Pluralism questions:

There is no other means of salvation but through Christ.

intro dct.JPG

This is a sophisticated introduction for a few reasons. It is not the quote or definition that makes this sophisticated but the way the student links the quote and definition back to the question in both cases (light blue). This introduction also has an evaluative tone (purple) and engages with the question (yellow – I picked ‘ no other means’ to highlight, whereas students had focused on ‘salvation’ and ‘Christ’, so this shows them to never ignore words in the question).

The first main paragraph of this essay reads:

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