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Happy Birthday NCEA!
Happy Birthday NCEA!
This year NCEA celebrates it’s tenth birthday.

Yet the exam and marking structure of it still remain a mystery to many parents.

Which is totally understandable. It’s absolutely nothing like School Cert and seems to have undergone changes every year since it was implemented.

However, once one becomes familiar with NCEA – as we are – a few solid patterns emerge. One of these patterns is the nature of NCEA exam questions.

As you’re probably gathering this blog is covering an extremely important topic. With exams just around the corner, your teen is going to WANT to read this one.

There are three incredibly important words your teen needs to become familiar with in order to ace their exams this year.

Describe, Explain, and Discuss

These are the pillars of NCEA exam questions.

Almost all exams at the end of the year will use these three simple words in questions. Yet the types of responses you teen needs to give to each is very different.

The first one – Describe

When questions say “Describe what so and so is”, they are almost always Achieved level questions.

This means they’re at the easier end of the scale. They often (though not always) require only a shortish answer. Most of the time they will only have a line or two available for the answer.

Describe the structure of the Oxygen-16 atom” could be a typical chemistry Achieved-level question.

A sufficient answer would something like, “It has 8 protons and 8 neutrons in the nucleus, and 8 electrons orbiting it.” That’s it.

Describe what something is. Or what it does. Or how it works.

The examiner is not looking for an essay.

The second pillar is ‘Explain’.

When questions say “Explain such and such”, they are almost always Merit level questions.

To continue with chemistry as an example… “Explain why Oxygen forms the ion that it does” could be a typical merit-level question.

But before launching into the ‘Explain’ part of the answer, we think it’s a good rule of thumb for your teen to give one sentence which first describes what the question is concerned with. This could start by simply saying, “When oxygen forms an ion it becomes oxide ions which have a charge of -2.”

Then for the ‘Explain’ part of the answer that your teen needs to explain why or how this happens.

This might sound something like, “Oxygen gains 2 electrons, which each have a charge of negative 1, to make oxide -2. This happens because the oxygen has 6 electrons in its outer shell, and atoms like to have full outer electron shells with 8 electrons. It takes on two more to achieve a full shell thereby ending up with 2 more electrons than protons, and therefore has an overall charge of -2.”

And on an extra note – quite often ‘Explain’ questions are given in conjoint with a ‘Describe’ question. Something like – “Describe the process of mitotic cell division and explain it’s importance in plants and humans.

In this case, your teen be crystal clear what part of their answer is answering the ‘Describe’ part, and what part is answering the ‘Explain’ part.

And finally the big pillar – ‘Discuss’ questions.

When your teens reads “Discuss blah blah bah” they are almost always looking at an Excellence level question.

These questions usually require you to mention a number of examples, how they relate to each other, and how they fit into the big picture.

While some may not specify, ‘Discuss’ questions are actually wanting your teen to go the full hog and describe, explain, as well as discuss the situation – in that order.

Basically they want the whole lowdown. It’s your teen’s chance to give extra examples and facts, and to show the examiner they really know their stuff.

Be sure your teen is aware that sometimes ‘Discuss’ questions or Excellence-level questions masquerade as Compare and Contrast questions, in which case the same answering rules apply pretty much. The only obvious difference is that the Discussion part of the answer needs to be comparing and contrasting.

Sticking with chemistry – here’s a typical Discuss/Excellence question: “Discuss the similarities and differences between the ions that oxygen and sodium atoms form.

Your teen would need to first describe what ions are formed, then explain why/how they are formed, and then discuss the similarities and differences between the two, with this last part making up the bulk of their answer.

It may go something like, “…oxygen forms a negative ion because it only needs to gain two electrons to have a full outer electron shell, and therefore forms a negative ion. The sodium atom has 1 electron in it’s outer shell, so it loses this to make a positive ion. Once formed, oxide and sodium ions actually have the same number of electrons, but they have different charges because they have different proton numbers.”

Your teen could carry on comparing and contrasting the Groups that oxygen and sodium occupy, therefore defining how they react, etc. As we said earlier, ‘Discuss’ questions are your teen’s chance to show off their stuff!

If you haven’t studied chemistry in 30 years or so, don’t stress if you don’t follow the examples used above. If your teen is sitting any level NCEA this year, this should (hopefully) make sense to them.

Of course your teen’s different subjects will differ slightly in their exam question format. Their physics questions will be different to their English questions…

But even so – the Describe, Explain, Discuss dogma is there for almost every subject.

You and your teen might like to have a look at some past NCEA exams after sharing this article with them.

This will give your teen a chance to familiarise themselves with the Describe, Explain, Discuss pattern, and to have a think about how it’s likely to apply to their specific subjects.

The take-home message of this lengthy article is simple…

The key to acing NCEA exams and the examiner falling in love with your teen’s answers is for your teen to follow the rules of Describe Explain Discuss.

It’s ridiculous how many exam marks teens throw away simply because their writing is a bit verbose and incoherent. To overcome this, especially in multi-part questions your teen needs to make it clear which part – Describe, Explain, or Discuss – of the question they’re answering.

To make examiners happy, stick to the rules of the pattern.

Describe. Explain. Discuss.

That, and get your teen to pretend the examiner is a dingbat.

Image Credit: NZQA

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