When faced with an exam question, what do you pay the most attention to? The verb, perhaps? The key terms? The amount of space given for your answer?

All these things are super important to take note of in order to write a satisfactory response. However, there’s one other crucial detail which is the key to getting full marks in any question, and it’s the smallest detail of all: that tiny little number in the corner.

This number is the question weight. It tells you exactly how many marks a question is worth. Not only is it an indication of how much to write, it’s also the key to figuring out exactly what you need to write, and I’m going to teach you how to decode it.

Understanding the Marking Criteria

Do you know how marking criteria work? Most students don't! It’s easy to look at it like a rating system - 5/5 means you had a great answer, 3/5 means it was ‘just okay’ and so on - but this isn't the case at all! 

The marking criteria act more like checklists of things you need to do in order to get full marks. Every HSC marker is given the same checklist, and you're given a mark for each item you include in your answer. If you check off all the requirements in the marking criteria, you get full marks. 

If you knew what the marking criteria were before you answered the question, you could just make sure you did all those things and VOILA! Full marks guaranteed.

Well, what if I told you there is a way to know what the marking criteria are before you answer a question every. single. time? All marking criteria follow the exact same pattern. You'll even see the same wording come up time after time. If you familiarize yourself with these marking criteria patterns, eventually you'll be able to accurately predict the criteria for any question. It's the ultimate exam hacking skill, and here are my tips on how to develop it.

'Be The Marker' Study Methods

1. Start reading your criteria!

Start familiarizing yourself with what marking criteria look like! Take a peek at the marking criteria for past papers, and of any practice tests you complete! Familiarize yourself with their structure and take note of phrases and criteria that commonly occur. 

2. Mark yourself

Allocate a significant portion of study time to practice questions. Try to guess what the marking criteria of each question will be before you answer them. When you're done, check out the marking criteria and see how close you were. Then mark your answer! 

3. Mark someone else

It’s one thing to mark your own responses but marking someone else’s truly lets you get in the mind of the marker. Take a past paper or some practice questions with a friend, then switch and mark each other’s, according to a marking criterion. If there isn’t a criterion available for the question, write your own and then mark it!

4. Write your own

That leads me to my next method - have a go writing your OWN practice questions and criteria as a study activity! You can answer and mark these on your own, as well as forwarding them through to your friends to complete and send back to you to mark. Basically, the more time you spend in the shoes of a teacher/exam writer/marker, the more you’ll develop this skill!

... have a go writing your OWN practice questions and criteria as a study activity!

Common Marking Criteria Patterns

By using these study techniques, you’ll become more and more familiar with common marking criteria logic and patterns, but I’ve outlined some of the most important below!

  • The top segment is what contains your full-marks checklist. Notice that for smaller-weighted questions, there will usually be the same number of criteria as there are marks. This means each of these criteria is worth one mark. 

  • In higher weighted questions, there may be fewer criteria than there are marks. This means each of the criteria is worth more than one mark each. Sometimes the larger criteria will be worth 2 or 3 marks! 

  • There will usually be one or two marks for 'demonstrating an understanding' of each of the key terms in the question. There may be one mark allocated to your ability to link these key ideas together. There will also usually be one mark allocated to every example requested in the question. 

  • In discuss or compare questions, there will usually be an equal number of marks dedicated to each item you are discussing. For example, a 4 mark 'similarities and differences' question will usually have 2 marks dedicated to similarities and 2 marks dedicated to differences. This means you'll need to give 2 of each to get the marks!

  • In discuss/justify/assess/analyse questions, there will usually be an entire mark dedicated to having a judgement statement - aka a sentence giving your opinion.

  • In higher marked questions, there may be a mark allocated to response structure and use of language - even in non-English subjects.

  • There may be a mark allocated to giving a definition or example, even if the question doesn’t explicitly ask for it. This is why it's always a good idea to include these in every response, just in case. This also means if you find yourself unable to answer a question, you can still score a few marks by providing these things!

Putting it into Practice

Now that you’ve studied up on marking criteria, you’re familiar with important trends to look at for and you’ve implemented ‘Be the Marker’ methods into your study routine, you’re ready to start putting this strategy into practice!

When you are faced with a question in an exam, you should immediately take note of the mark weight. Using your understanding of criteria and the patterns you've noted, try to figure out what each of those marks is for. You can even write out your prediction of the criteria on the side of the page. Then, as you write your answer, make sure you're ticking off all these things and you're guaranteeing yourself full marks! 

Over time, this will become second nature to you, and you'll be able to instantly do it in your head. This is a skill, and the best way to develop it is practice!