Writing Less, Better

The Jaffa Cake Conundrum - A focused and personalised technique

This article has nothing to do with the 1991 VAT tribunal whereby McVitie’s allegedly produced a giant Jaffa Cake to prove they were chocolate-covered cakes (and not VAT-incurring chocolate-covered biscuits). Secondly, credit and thanks must be given to Dave Payne for the Jaffa Cake Conundrum and “writing less, better”. Without numerous discussions together I would not be writing the following.

How do we help students to effectively respond to written tasks? One scenario I go through with my classes is the Jaffa Cake Conundrum: it is late at night and a teacher has a huge pile of marking in front of them; the packet of Jaffa Cakes they have been using to keep them going is empty. With blood glucose levels dropping, the overworked and underpaid educator could be excused for not giving as much credit to a piece of work as it might deserve. Without the quick release of sugar from the biscuit-sized cakes, it is vital that student responses are clear and address the task, thus solving the Jaffa Cake Conundrum.

My classes seem to enjoy this story and I have been known to embellish it with the concept of satisfying the Jaffasaurus, a mythical beast that is kept happy by writing less, better. Both tales have the advantage of relating to students the issue of overplaying one’s hand and not responding efficiently to a task. This can be seen even more acutely when students answer examination-style questions; I have developed a checklist to aid students for any written task and ensure they write less, better.

  1. RTQ
  2. Repeat step 1
  3. ATQ
  4. Name it, don’t use “it”
  5. BUG
  6. KISS

If students have adhered to the above acronyms the chances are they will have responded effectively and efficiently to the task or question. Perhaps you recognised some of the acronyms? If not these short explanations, worded for a student, might help:

(1&2) Read The Question or RTFQ*: Don’t rush and don’t assume you know what a task is about or what the question is asking you. Instead, read instructions carefully and ask if you are unsure. This is so important that I would advise you to do it twice!

(3) Answer The Question or ATFQ*: Having twice read through the question or task instructions, clarifying where necessary, start writing something that is directly relevant and meets the success criteria. Do not just repeat the instructions or questions!

(4) Name it, don’t use “it”. Pronouns are a real nuisance in extended pieces of writing. They are liable to make me ask the following questions; what does “this” mean? To which character are you referring to when using “she” or “they”? “It” refers to what exactly? By using keywords and terminology your work will be more lucid and effective.

(5) Box the command word, Underline the keywords and Glance at the marks. This exam technique will help you drill down into exactly what is required when responding to a question. The “U” helps you decide what to write about, the “B” how you write about it and the “G” how much you write. So “Describe how starch is broken down in the small intestine (2)” becomes:

(6) Keep It Simple, Stupid. Why make things more complicated? Sometimes you might need to describe a complex mechanism or concept, but the art of making the complex understandable is more highly valued than that of making the simple complicated.

KISS leads directly to a book review Richard Dawkins wrote in Nature on Intellectual Impostures by Sokal and Bricmont. In the article, Dawkins argues only those “with nothing to say” would cultivate a literary style that was neither clear nor lucid. Instead, to hide their lack of knowledge and understanding, they would create something that is quite the opposite (Dawkins, R, 1998, Postmodernism disrobes, Nature, vol. 394, pp141-143).

Although I fully support encouraging flair and verbosity in students, it should not be at the expense of clarity. An easy final strategy is simply reading aloud written work on completion (although I recognise this might not be such a good thing to do in an exam! In this scenario silently rereading will work much better). Prose that a student thinks is fluid and articulate on the page is often revealed to be byzantine and convoluted.

By going through these ideas and framing the issue in terms of the Jaffa Cake Conundrum students have a very different perspective compared to the drilling exam technique. Indeed writing less, better can become a key concept in all students’ work.

If you are further interested in Feedback and Assessment ideas, and local to Hertfordshire / London you may be interested in Forum on Education, a secondary education conference on Saturday 28th May. All details can be found at bit.ly/uked16may05.

This article originally appeared in the free May 2016 edition of  UKEdMagazine – Click here to view.

Michael Smyth is a Biology teacher and Assistant Head at St Albans School. A former HoD with a keen interest in Teaching and Learning, Michael is also an A level examiner and strong proponent of promoting learning beyond results-based teaching. Find him on Twitter as @tlamjs or blogging at tlamjs.com.

* When particularly irked by a piece of work I often scribble RTFQ in the margin. Of course this stands for Read The Full Question… I hope you weren’t thinking of something else!

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