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15 June 2017updated 01 Jul 2021 12:13pm

Cheating, tweeting, and deleting: how social media revolutionised exam season

Before and after sitting their exams, students are going online to get their voices heard.

By Amelia Tait

You always had to leave in complete silence. After sitting in a musty, dusty hall for somewhere between an hour and forever, a dinner-lady-cum-invigilator would file you out, row by row. With your Maths/English/Additional Additional Science GCSE behind you, you would emerge, born again, into the dancing rays of the June sun. You would breathe a sigh of relief. And then it would begin.

“What did you put for Question 7 b?” “Did you mention the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact?” “What did you get for that one about an ordinary, fair dice being rolled 400 times?”  

Nowadays, it works a little differently and post-exam dissections continue into the night. Students are taking to social media after (and before) their exams to engage in a wide-range of activities. There’s cheating, there’s protesting, and there’s plain old complaining. There’s joking, there’s lamenting, and there’s old-fashioned revising. Oh, and there are also tens of begging, pleading tweets from the Department for Education.

“The DfE reaction seemed arrogant and laughable,” says Matt Thrower, a parent who was asked by the department to delete a tweet he posted after his 11-year-old daughter sat her Year 6 Maths SAT.

“Hi, can you please remove the tweet referring to SATs? We’re trying to maintain the confidentiality & integrity of ongoing tests,” the official account tweeted to him, after he complained about the paper referring to the Roman numeral, M. “How is that useful info? How is it even maths?” he wrote at the time.

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“I felt annoyed that my clever daughter – who is quite capable of numerical skill and reasoning – was going to be marked down for not knowing what’s essentially a piece of trivia,” Thrower tells me. He refused to delete his tweet – a problem for the DfE because the same SATs papers are taken on different days throughout the country.

Thrower’s tweet was shared more than a hundred times, meaning parents and children up and down the country could theoretically cheat. Older students, taking GCSEs and A-levels, take the same subjects on the same day throughout the country, but when a student has to defer for some reason, the DfE issues strict criteria to the school ensuring that student is kept off social media. 

“It’s a demonstration of how – if you’re lucky, and your post goes viral – social media is a great vehicle for organising and spreading protest,” says Thrower, explaining why he didn’t delete his tweet. “So if you’re annoyed about something and you want it to change, it’s always worth a punt. You never know if your post might be the one to get the snowball rolling.”

Jane* is a Year 6 teacher in London who was asked by the DfE to remove a tweet she posted after her class took their spelling SAT. In it, she complained about a difficult word. Although she thinks parents and teachers shouldn’t use social media to cheat, she believes they have the right to protest unfair exams online.

“I’ve got top set maths in Year 6 and some of those children were just in floods of tears in that exam, and it wasn’t nice to watch as a teacher who’d helped them all year,” she says. “When you’ve got adults, people with degrees, taking the SPaG [spelling and grammar] test and failing, you really have to sort of ask yourselves, like what’s the point? And if there are a lot of people using social media to get their voices heard then I think it’s a good thing.”

For fear of being reprimanded by her school, Jane isn’t freely able to speak on social media about her frustrations with exams. She believes, however, that parents should defend their right to have a say in their child’s education online. “I mean that’s how we get our voice out now through social media, we say this is not right, I don’t agree with this, and other people rally together.”

Beyond tricky Roman numerals, there have been a series of well-documented mistakes in this year’s secondary school exam papers. The exam board OCR has issued three apologies in two weeks for errors in its papers. In a GCSE English Literature question about Romeo and Juliet, the board mistakenly referred to the character Tybalt as a Montague, not a Capulet. Under the hashtag #ocrenglish, students used to Twitter to complain in droves. Online petitions calling for grade boundaries to be changed are also incredibly common.

In this instance, OCR explained on Twitter that the mistake will be taken into account during the process. Most of the time, however, students complaining on Twitter about a tricky or unfair exam are arguably wasting their time.

“There’s nothing wrong with students letting off steam on social media after they’ve sat an exam, but these conversations often aren’t an accurate reflection of the exam itself,” explains Kunal Gandhi, AQA’s Social Media Manager. “Last year the media were quick to jump on social media ‘outrage’ about an AQA biology paper, when there was actually nothing wrong with the paper and it did a great job of testing students’ knowledge – exactly what exam boards are here to do.”

Earlier this month, Gandhi wrote a piece for under the headline: “Our exam board will keep setting hard questions, no matter what students tweet”.

An OCR exam board spokesman says: “Part of our job is to recognise when there is a real issue that will need to be addressed in marking or grading to ensure fairness – and when, as in most cases, it is not.”

Yet even if it doesn’t change anything, online venting is still an important part of students’ lives. A study by the University of Illinois earlier this year found that support on social media can reduce pre-exam anxiety levels by 21 percent. Many students also feel that complaining after an exam can lessen their anxiety about their result.

Jenna Horton-Reeve is a 15-year-old student from Derbyshire. After taking her AQA English Language exam, she joked on Twitter about a tricky question. Her post gained more than 1,500 retweets and nearly 4,000 likes.

In her tweet, Jenna used the hashtags #aqaenglishlang and #aqaenglish, and says she always checks an exam’s corresponding hashtag after sitting it (the students themselves make these up and circulate them). “It’s seeing how good or bad other people are doing across the UK, so you don’t feel as anxious,” she tells me. “Also seeing the funny jokes takes some stress away as GCSEs are pressuring so it makes you feel less nervous about how well you did – which is good because after the exam there’s nothing more you can do than reassure yourself.”

Jenna’s joke is just one of many that flood social media after exams. She says that people normally check the hashtags (such as #aqamusic or #edexcelmaths) for “the next four to five” hours after an exam, and it helps people feel relieved to see like-minded tweets. Yet although these posts are often harmless – and usually, incredibly witty – Jenna says two of her friends have been told off by teachers for their “light-hearted” tweets, and even threatened with having their papers revoked.

“These tweets aren’t upsetting, distracting or offending anyone,” she says. “I feel that GCSEs now ask an unreasonable amount… so it’s fair that we at least get to express our opinions and even share our anxieties with each other to lessen the burden.”

Students even help each other in more direct ways.

Jade-Marie Woolgar is a 16-year-old student from London who tweets out her revision notes in the days preceding an exam. One of her posts – a spider diagram of “language devices” for an English Language paper – was liked more than 200 times on the site.

“So many girls from my school told me that whenever they see me revising it would always motivate them to revise, so I felt as though if that’s how girls in my school felt, then I would like the rest of England to feel the same way,” explains Jade-Marie.

“I just love helping people and if it means that they get a good grade then that makes me so happy… many people DM me on Twitter thanking me multiple times for the help and it makes me feel as though I’m helping in a positive way so I don’t mind doing it.”

She goes on to describe social media as “one big chat room” where everyone can go through the stress together. “I think funny posts are just as valuable as revision posts because it takes away the negative atmosphere of the exam and turns it into something more positive,” she says. 

It is evident that social media is now an incredibly powerful tool for parents, students, and teachers during exam season. The general public now have an invaluable opportunity to get their voices heard in order to push for real change. Yet for exam boards like AQA and OCR, as well as the Department for Education, Twitter can be testing.

* Names have been changed

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