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Improving application (context) marks in business essays

Updated: Dec 6, 2023

I was reading the BBC News site this week, trawling for interesting articles that might work as back to school / welcome back project for my sixth formers and I came across an article from and entrepreneur who talked about "falling in love with the problem". He was talking about a business selling safety gear, but it did make me think about a problem I have in class and as a business examiner.

The problem - why don't students use the case study in their answer?

Every year I am exasperated at the number of students who simply ignore the case material and talk in general terms. They clearly know the material and have revised they just fail to apply it. I find the same with GCSE and sixth-form students. They can revise (hurrah) they write an essay (woop woop) their handwriting is not too bad (yay) which leaves me scratching my head as to why I am still (after all these years) reading general essays. Some examples (I made these up, but you get the idea):

"The business should use a SWOT analysis, then the owner could find out what opportunities there were in the market for the product".

And so the product was? The business was? The owner was? The market was? The answer is too general to get out of level 1. It's clear the student was in the lesson and had understood the material. So now we understand the problem we must create a solution.

Some suggestions for solutions:

1) Talk about fish. Run an exercise research the fish industry, from fishing in trawlers, to the fish markets, through to processing and on your plate as a fish finger. They learn all about this industry inside and out, maybe for a week or a fortnight if you have the spare time. Now set 10 questions based on this industry and they must use as many of the key terms that they can; fish, trawler, cod, Birds Eye, processing, breadcrumbs, and so on... Marks area awarded in all 10 questions for how much they talk about the fishing industry and not how well they answer the question.

Thereafter you can say "when the question is about fish talk about fish".

2) Read a case study sample question together as a class. Brainstorm a list of relevant words and put them on the board. Rank them in terms of importance from best to least and then assign them a point value. Students must now write their answer using as many high value words as possible.

3) Find a good long case study. Write 10 quick questions on the case study and answers and have these ready. Now give students 5 timed silent minutes to read the case study. Ask them "so you think you know this case study?" wait for confident nodding. Now roll out your 10 questions and ask them to mark and score them. Unless they have a photographic memory they will score maybe 3 or 4 out of 10. This proves that a quick skim is a waste of time in an exam. What they need to do is read the question first, then read the case study and select which parts they will be using as high-value keywords or as quotes.

A final word about problems and solutions, is to ask students what the problem is in the case study and what are their solutions? Nice discussions can be held in pairs and verbal answers to set questions, a solution for a plenary perhaps?

Sarah is a business teacher trainer; she has taught business for 23 years and has been a business examiner for over 20 years. If you would like to book a staff CPD session or exam revision session for students (via Zoom) please email:
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