GCE A Level Cambridge Examiner Comments (Adapted)

NB: The following here is an adaptation of the comments made by the Cambridge examiners on the following general paper themes.


The Topic Areas

History: The value of history as a guide to human behaviour; the nature of history and the means by which it is shaped; the reliability of historical evidence; historical figures and their reputations; comparison of the past with the present.
E.g.
Can anything worthwhile be gained from continued research into historical events? (1996)
Does a study of history make you optimistic or pessimistic about the future of the human race? (2002).

Politics: The nature and effectiveness of political systems; the qualities associated with political leadership; the effectiveness of international organisations; interference by one country into the politics of another; the relationship between the individual and the state; the means by which political ends are achieved; the use of power in various forms; patriotism and love of one's country.
E.g.
`Patriotism has no place in an international society.' Discuss. (1991).
To what extent can international aid be really effective? (1996).

Social Issues: The relationship between different groups in society e.g. young / old; males / females; different cultural groups; the importance of tradition and progress; the role and significance of religion, sport; crime and its impact; effective control of crime; transport issues; rural and urban life; waste management; young people and socialization; educational issues; fashion and cultural identity; minority groups and their treatment; animal rights.
E.g.
`The best test of a civilized society is the way it treats its weakest members.' (1996).
Is sport too closely linked to money these days? (2001).

Philosophy: By their nature, these topics are likely to be quite abstract and demanding, but they can produce very effective responses when carefully planned and effectively illustrated by means of pertinent examples. Topics may include issues of freedom and control; the value of life; human rights; truth and dishonesty; personal morality; personal and social values.
E.g.
`The truth should always be told, whatever the cost.' (1993).
`The secret of a happy life is moderation in all things.' (1999).

Science, Technology and Medicine: Science and progress; the advantages and dangers of scientific developments; the responsibility of the scientist; science and nature; over-reliance on science and technology; space exploration; the impact of modern technology on society and people's lives; the benefits and hazards of modern technology; developments in medicine; health issues, such as caring for the handicapped and the disadvantaged in society; issues involving life and death; the responsibility of the state and the individual for health care.
E.g.
Can the transplanting of animal organs into human organs ever be justified? (1999).
`Science never provides solutions – it only poses more problems.' Is this a fair comment? (2000).

Mathematics: A difficult question on which to set questions, but the topic does appear with some frequency. Issues might involve the value of mathematics; its role in education and everyday life; the importance of numeracy; the nature of Mathematics as a discipline; the use of mathematics and statistics.
E.g.
`Mathematics is the most perfect language of all.' Discuss. (1991).
`Statistics measure everything, but prove nothing.' (2003).

Economics and Business: This is the topic area in which the use of Economics jargon disadvantages most candidates. They tend to rely on unexplained and regurgitated terms and phrases as if they are simply reproducing a set of notes from a textbook. Essays on these questions must still have the writer's own personal 'voice'. Issues may include the profit motive; private enterprise; the role of the state in business; economic sanctions and their effect; trade barriers; workers' rights and duties; the merits and disadvantages of various types of employment; aid; the relationship between the rich and the poor; government revenue and its uses.
E.g.
`Where business and industry are concerned, the profit motive must always be the main priority.' How far would you support this view? (1998).
`The most worthwhile jobs are usually those with the least financial gain.' (2001).

Geography: The impact of geographical location; natural disasters and their impact; issues relating to food and its production; population and its control; impact on the planet; energy issues; land use; organic food; GM crops; the oceans and their role; deforestation and erosion issues; pollution.

E.g.
To what extent is continued research into nuclear power desirable? (1995).
Evaluate the problems, and benefits, of the various ways of dealing with waste materials. (1999).

The Media: Comparison of the different media forms; the role, responsibility and impact of the media; representation of different groups; celebrities and their status; censorship; advertising; politics and the media; control of the various branches of the media and the implications; the media and its influence on the family and other social groups. Note that the New Oxford Dictionary of English (1998) states: 'The traditional view is that the word 'media' should be treated as a plural noun in all its senses in English, and be used with a plural rather than a singular verb: The media have not followed the reports. In practice, it behaves as a collective noun ... which means that it is now acceptable in standard English for it to take either a singular or a plural verb.' (For the purposes of the examination, consistency is the key).
E.g.
To what extent should the lives of private individuals be the subject of media coverage? (1995).
Compare the effectiveness of any two of the following as a means of news coverage: the radio, television, newspapers. (1997).

The Arts / Cultural Issues / Language: A very broad topic area that includes all the art forms as well as architecture, photography, film; the nature of culture and how it is shaped and influenced by various forces; comparisons between culture and the arts in the past and today; the impact of modern technology on the arts; the social status of the arts; language change; accents, dialect, standard English. Students should be aware of the distinction between 'art' (i.e. painting etc) and the arts' (i.e. literature, music, sculpture etc.).
E.g.
`Enjoyable, but ultimately of little practical use.' Consider the value of art or music or literature in the light of this comment.
(1998).
`Public money should not be wasted on supporting the Arts; they should support themselves.' Discuss. (2000).

Singapore-based Questions: These may discuss the impact of global events on Singapore; its geographical location and the implications it has for life in Singapore; its history and the repercussions of this; social trends in the country; cultural developments and influences.
E.g.
Assess the ways in which the geographical features of your country have shaped its development and its people. (1993).
Consider the importance of Drama in your country. You may refer to live theatre, television and radio plays or any combination of these. (1994).


Some Thoughts on the Use of English
 Recurrent grammatical errors found in weaker scripts. Essentially, these relate to subject / verb agreement; confused and insecure use of tenses; incorrect use of prepositions; incorrect use of language / common confusions; certain recurrent structures, especially 'Although ... because'.

 Candidates sometimes seem to rely on stock words and phrases. Whilst this can assist certain students, it can also detract from a sense of a confident personal voice. Nothing can replace the experience of developing language in context through broad reading of quality texts.

 A simple style does not have to be simplistic. Use simple sentences and ensure that there is no breakdown in sentence structures (Tip: keep sentences short). By simply varying sentence openings, and ensuring that economy of language is achieved, a good mark can be gained for Use of English.

 Introductions are very important. An effective introduction shows an immediate awareness of the central issues of the question, defining any difficult words, or ones that require clear parameters for the purpose of the discussion. Often, however, candidates waste too much time in defining unnecessarily simple ideas, such as a 'school' or a 'business'. Of course, it is useful to give a brief account of the different types in each case, but there are occasions when an over-pedantic attempt at definition merely blurs the introduction, rather than clarifying the direction that the essay will aim to pursue.

 Similarly, it is not uncommon to find the introduction concluding with a simple re-statement of the question. Although this can show a sense of focus, it can also suggest that the introduction has merely gone in a circular direction.

 The development of the argument can also be indicated in a more imaginative way than the use of numerical signposts i.e. 'Firstly...', `Secondly...'. Words such as `Furthermore ..... `Moreover...', `Similarly...', 'In addition...' can be useful as well as varying the key phrases of the question.

 When attempting to discuss a contrasting viewpoint, less successful scripts merely adopt the opposing position with no indication that the direction of the argument is being modified. Again, simple words and phrases, such as 'On the other hand...', 'Nevertheless...', 'However... `Whilst...', 'In contrast...'.

 Examples are essential for any script to gain a good mark for content. The best scripts show the candidate to be well-informed about recent and current events. Examples are up-to-date and pertinent, with their relevance to the argument clearly demonstrated. Therefore, candidates who read widely and keep abreast of current events benefit significantly.

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