The tyranny of command verbs

I have written before about why I find generic taxonomies of verbs so depressing. Not only are words such as ‘analyse’ or ‘describe’ vague, but they are also redundant in the context of subject disciplines, each of which provides its own forms of description, analysis, and so on. Yet these so-called ‘command verbs’ remain the driving force at GCSE and, to a considerable extent, at A-Level. Exam boards specify what command verbs they are going to include, and then set out in the mark scheme what a response to that particular command verb looks like. This is perhaps the most important reason teachers spend so long drilling children on the ‘correct’ (i.e. exam-board-mandated) response to a particular command verb.

This all helps to make marking more reliable (not that this is what you would think given number of complaints about marker reliability). It also makes teachers and pupils feel more comfortable, in that they know what sorts of questions are going to come up and how to tick the boxes to get the marks for these. But, as Heather Fearn put it so well, the result of this is that you trade reliability of marking for validity of assessment. Almost inevitably, you end up judging children on whether they have ticked the right boxes for the particular command verb the exam board specifies, rather than their ability in the subject discipline per se.

All of this made me think that it would be interesting to compare our diet of command verbs at school level with what a leading university does for its undergraduate assessment. To do this, I had a look at some past papers for the Cambridge University history and geography courses. History survey papers in Cambridge typically give around 30 questions, of which a candidate picks three to answer in three hours. The geography paper I saw offers six questions, of which the candidate answers two in two hours.

Let’s start with the history questions, from a paper on later medieval British history:

  • What evidential problems stand in the way of writing a history of the Anarchy?
  • What limits were placed on the political uses of violence within Anglo-Norman and Angevin England? Answer with reference to any period of one hundred years or more.
  • How, and how successfully, were the localities ruled between c. 1300 and c. 1500?
  • What role did the church play in the politics of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries?
  • Who got more out of parliament, the king or his subjects?
  • What were the causes and consequences of Richard III’s usurpation?

Now take a look at the following questions from a geography paper:

  • What can geographical perspectives contribute to an understanding of the uses and limitations of housing as an important component of an individualised safety net?
  • To what extent are unemployment rates no longer a satisfactory indicator of economic well-being in the UK?
  • In contrast to the post-war period, we can no longer rely on states to regulate global finance. Discuss.
  • How does the influence of neoliberal ideology on taxation vary geographically?
  • What, if anything, can anti-austerity campaigners in the UK learn from the decline of inequality in Latin America?
  • Explore the extent to which national-level statistics on austerity hide the scale and scope of public sector cuts.

What is most striking in both of these papers is the great variety of ways in which questions are phrased. Although they appear in places, words such as ‘evaluate’ or ‘analyse’ do not make much of an appearance. In many cases, questions are phrased in quite ‘descriptive’ terms (e.g. how does…? what can…? what were…?), yet it is quite clear that phrasing the question in these ways does not encourage a ‘low-level’ response.

Now of course maybe it is the case that the academics in these two university departments are just not very good at writing exam questions. Perhaps it is the case that we in the secondary sector could teach them a thing or two about forming appropriately challenging questions. But perhaps we should be pulled up – at least for a moment – by the fact that some of the world’s leading experts in their subjects do not write exam questions in the same way as exam boards write them. Perhaps we might reflect on the possibility that the current exam system at GCSE and (to a considerable extent) A-Level is not preparing children well for university study. And we should at least consider the possibility that our approach to assessment might have lost sight of what it is that we are here to do.

6 Comments on The tyranny of command verbs

  1. Three years ago I meet the languages school liaison officer of the university of Cambridge. Not only she taught German but she was also very active in Second Language Acquisition research. She had never heard of Bloom’s taxonomy. I am not surprised, as it is totally useless to explain language acquisition.

  2. Max Bourdieu // 11 November 2017 at 19:21 // Reply

    What I find more striking about the geography paper questions you’ve highlighted is how they seem to have very little relation to geography at all, and instead the geography professors seem to have plundered the territory of sociology for their entire paper.

  3. Tim Pearson // 12 November 2017 at 17:36 // Reply

    Totally agree the way that teachers are placing so much on the way to tick boxes in answering GCSE questions is soul destroying. The pressure of results over knowledge and understanding of a subject has to change.

  4. teachingdottalk // 22 November 2018 at 22:12 // Reply

    This is something that concerns me as well, especially as I find myself tempted to incorporate such question styles at younger year levels in an attempt to buy more prep time for my kids. But I console myself with the thought that the regularised command verbs/vocabulary found in GCSE History exams does at least make students familiar with the notion that there are different modes of writing, and that historians are able to use all of them in different ways and for different purposes. In other words, I hope that by using the structure provided by such questions I am helping my students to understand the value of developing skills and discipline in writing that might otherwise seem unnecessary or arcane. I wonder if the value of using such structures at GCSE level is akin in some ways to using scales practice to teach the piano: in other words, we are have created a system that bears little resemblance to the way professionals actually execute their craft at the elite performance level, but which is nevertheless useful for developing and assessing knowledge and skill at the novice level. What do you think?

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