The Scientific Approach to Open-Ended Science Questions


Come Primary 3, your child will be taking Science as a core subject. The Science exam has two components – the multiple-choice question (MCQ) section, and the open-ended question (OEQ) section. Many students who ace the MCQ section find the OEQ section challenging, leading their parents to worry that their children haven’t mastered the scientific concepts needed to excel. This results in copious amounts of revision that don’t always bear fruit when it comes to the OEQ section.

That’s because a lot of the time, the problem doesn’t lie with understanding the topics taught. If a child can answer the MCQs of a topic perfectly, it means he's mastered that topic. Ask him to explain the topic to you verbally and you’ll find that his foundation is sound.

The issue is that the OEQ section is a test of not only students' understanding of the topics, but also their writing skills. While the MOE directives are to mark the OEQ section holistically, rather than by identifying keywords, this isn’t always the case. In Science (more than in the other subjects), effective answering techniques and exam skills are critical in doing well in the OEQ section.

Here are four tips to help your child score in the OEQ section. Remember, if he's doing well in the MCQ section, then it may prove more useful to practise answering techniques rather than revising topics he's already very familiar with.

1. Focus on keywords in the question

Understanding the question is also critical in knowing how to phrase your answers. There’s a reason why your Science teacher asks you to circle keywords in the question. Different question tags (e.g., how, what, why) require the answer to be phrased in different ways, even if they’re ultimately testing you on the same knowledge. Fortunately, most of you are already aware of how answers should be phrased according to the question tags. It’s simply a matter of being more aware and alert when it comes to the question requirements.

2. Focus on keywords in the answer

Every Science topic has keywords, usually marked out in bold or underlined in your notes. These are the sort of keywords that should be used when answering OEQs. The keywords are not just limited to terms (e.g., light) and processes (e.g., photosynthesis); accurate keywords must be used to describe relationships or outcomes. For example, use “increases” instead of “becomes bigger”. Using such keywords will increase your chances of being awarded the full marks for your answer.

3. Use answering templates

When in doubt, fall back on answering templates used in similar questions. This means that you should look at the structure of model answers in papers from prior years. Science OEQs frequently ask for observations and explanations of certain phenomena. This often means that the question requires you to write “as ABC increases, XYZ decreases”. It’s not just about using accurate keywords in the answer, but also about knowing which keywords often go together. Answering templates are handy to put you on the right track when writing the answers.

4. Remember to use CER (cause-effect-result)

CER is something handy that many of you are taught in school because following this system ensures that you cover all the bases in answering OEQs. Make sure that you understand which parts of your answer correlate to the cause, effect and result respectively.

For example, an experiment that shows how a fire makes a room hotter might test you on your understanding of the chain of reactions that causes this. In this case, the fire is the cause, and the effect is the temperature increase in the room. The result is that the room’s temperature increases from 25 to 35 degrees Celsius. Remember that results often refer to measurable outcomes, while effects are directly linked to causes.

Following these useful tips, your child will be able to apply his scientific knowledge in answering OEQs more accurately, resulting in better grades in Science!

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