In defence of brevity

Alison Wood, Head of Education Policy, explains – succinctly – the importance of precision in short-answer questions

The Economist asks: ‘Why do more teachers not … give students an appreciation for brevity?’ and suggest that ‘brevity should be the rule, not the exception, for non-fiction’.

Teachers of AQA’s new AS/A-level in philosophy which was examined for the first time this summer do precisely that. The philosopher Wittgenstein said: ‘What can be said at all can be said clearly’ and philosophy students learn to be absolutely clear and precise in their answers. The exam contains short questions that focus on assessing students’ ability to give ‘a clear and correct answer, with no significant redundancy’, while questions demanding longer answers require students to give ‘a full, clear and precise explanation (where the student) makes logical links between precisely identified points, with no redundancy.’ 

‘No redundancy’ can mean brevity, but it isn’t brevity alone that matters. Brevity can be an indicator of the ability to be precise and to identify exactly what needs to be said and no more. As one teacher put it, the students get full marks not for writing everything they know, but for ‘nailing it.’ Anyone who has seen a professional philosopher in action knows that this is what they do. It is a sign of deep understanding. 

As one teacher put it, the students get full marks not for writing everything they know, but for ‘nailing it.’

In short-answer questions, we saw students ‘nail it.’ In longer explanations and essays, students set out arguments in their correct logical form, with some using logical notation. In essay questions, students argued with clear and sustained intent. They stuck to the point and gave utterly convincing answers to very challenging questions. They arrived at conclusions through a balancing of arguments, with appropriate weight given to each argument and to the argument overall. They didn’t try to tell us everything they knew, but identified what was important, distinguishing crucial arguments from less crucial ones.

In the exam, we don’t expect students to pick up their pens and write furiously for three hours. They read the question, think about it, work out exactly what the answer is and then give that answer absolutely clearly and precisely. Under examination conditions, our students drafted answers; went back; took out superfluous material; checked the logic; clarified points and absolutely ‘nailed it.’ 

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