The woes of answering Science open-ended questions

Several parents wrote to the Straits Times recently to express their concern about how the Science open-ended questions are structured.

Despite the MOE’s good intentions to move towards a more inquiry-based learning, and to cultivate inquisitiveness, it does sometimes seem like the exam format is penalising those who do not memorise and regurgitate model answers.

As a parent and a student who went through the system, I understand the pain. What matters more is the understanding and application of concepts and ideas.

However, I can totally imagine a primary school teacher’s dilemma. He/she is faced with the burden of performance reviews and having to deliver results (the grades of her students), emphasising model answers and marking strictly to the scoring scheme of her school.

So how do we reconcile the two—- acing the exams and being able to comprehend and apply what one has learnt?

When it comes to open ended questions, I have a mixed approach.

1. First, we resolve the practical aspect- getting the A*.
Teach our children the model answer and emphasise the keywords needed to score the mark. I also share some techniques to answering open-ended questions. This way, they know how to adhere to the exam requirements.

2. Apart from learning the exam know-how, I encourage students to think actively. In my class, they are not penalised for giving an answer different from the model answer, as long as they demonstrate an understanding of the problem and answer the question precisely.

This way, they are prepared for the exams and also trained to think critically.

For parents worried about the strict marking in school, please be reassured that the marking for the PSLE exam is a lot more controlled. Exam scripts are marked multiple times by different people. PSLE questions are also prepared and vetted carefully so they are usually clearer and less vague than those you may come across in assessment books or school papers.

Wallace is the founder of Study Room, a premier education centre, and teaches Maths and Science at the school. He was a former trader who has recently pursued his passion for education. You can find out more at and

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