General Paper 2017: A Post Mortem

Each year, when the General Paper exams loom, my emotions are a tumult of excitement and anxiety: excitement because I absolutely love the challenge posed in the GP exams. As an educator, GP delights me no end as the questions indeed require students to think and evaluate critically, and write cogently on a myriad of current-day issues. So, to be able to navigate the GP papers well is a relevant skill today.

The anxiety arises because I know how hard my students and I have worked over the course of 2 years in preparation for the exams, and, of course I want them to do well--hence the inevitable nerves.

My cohort of students come from different JCs, with varying grasps of GP. I'm not looking for As across the board, but I am expecting improvements in scores as a reflection of their effort put into the subject.

Still, GP2017 is now done and dusted. I've checked in with my students and now weigh in on General Paper 2017...

Paper 1 was a fair paper, offering a good mix of topics for candidates to choose from. 

The ever popular science and technology-related questions took a back seat this year, though Q2--on the use of animals for scientific research--is fairly accessible to most. Those who focused on media-related issues had 2 rather manageable questions to choose from.

The key to acing the GP essay is in the evaluation and analysis, so those who merely listed factors and/or went about essay topics in a 'pros and cons' manner would have presented limited arguments. These scripts would not score well in their content.

In preparing our students for Paper 1, we are delighted to have addressed the following questions particularly well 🙂

Q3: In your society, to what extent is it acceptable for public money to be used for the acquisition of works of art?

--The key to acing this question is to address "acceptable" and "acquisition of art works", rather than simply evaluating whether public funding should be applied to the arts.

Q5:Is regulation of the press desirable?

--The reasons for "desirability" should be addressed, including 'who', and in what way, regulation of the press benefits.

Q8: Examine the role of music in establishing a national identity in your society.

--Candidates should examine what the SG national identity is. They would need to address the extent to which music impacts the establishment of that national identity. Students should not focus excessively on the other factors that influence the development of our national identity.

Q10: 'Practical ability is just as important as intellectual skills.' How far is this true in your society?

--At the onset, candidates need to address what 'practical ability' and 'intellectual skills' are. Then, they need to weigh in on how and why in the context of SG, these two aspects are of of equal importance, or one outweighs the other.

Paper 2 comprised 2 passages on sharing and collecting personal data online. 

Most students found the paper manageable though the Application Question (AQ) took an unexpected turn in its phrasing, requiring students to address how far (they) agree with the arguments presented by both authors, in the context of (their) society. This is a slight deviation from the typical AQ asking which author the candidate agreed with in the context of their society.

Some students found it difficult to justify their responses with concrete evidence.  

One possible approach to the AQ is as follows:

First: Candidates can address a similar argument presented in both passage.

...that (users') information is constantly being collected about their location, demographics, behaviour and habits [Psg 1 para 4] and anyone with an online presence is continuously... broadcasting their personal data [Psg 1 para 4].

This is true in SG because:

  • 70% of Singaporeans are active social media users on-the-go, more than double the global average
  • internet penetration rate in SG is among the highest in the world at 82%
  • we have access to most global e-commerce sites like Amazon, Taobao and social media sites: FB Snapchat, Instagram
  • algorithms and bots are always picking up users' information, evident in how online ads are displayed according to the respective user's preferences and searches. Google search results on a particular keyword also differ from user to user, depending on their search history.
  • a user's location is also immediately detectable so various recommendations can be pushed out by websites. E.g. UBER and Grab services, location app on FB etc

These factors culminate in a constant collection of personal data by various online sites, which are then used to market to the user.

Second: Candidates can then take the above argument further by referencing Psg 1 [para 1] "If you are not paying for the product, you are the product"...since for most companies, "their services are monetised either by marketing portions of web space to advertisers or through peddling [users' data to organisations]" [Psg 1 para 2].

  • Student can cite how all online sites and articles feature ads [eerily curated to suit their preferences and interest]
  • Author's point is of limited application in SG due to government regulation e.g. Personal Data Protection Act [briefly state what PDPA does e.g. governs the collection, use and disclosure of personal data to maintain individuals’ trust in organisations that manage data].

Finally: Candidates can address an argument in Psg 2 and present a qualified agreement. For instance, Psg 2 para 5: the author argues that in natural disasters or emergency situations, 'swarm intelligence' or information is useful as more information collected means a more powerful swarm response to the disaster.

  • Agree--in the recent terrorist bombings in major cities and the Hong Kong typhoon, many were able to use the Safety Check app on FB. Similar applications and programs can therefore collate data more comprehensively and enable more thorough response to disasters.
  • However, author's argument is limited in veracity because the infrequency of disaster and low probability of becoming a victim of disaster simply cannot justify the sheer amount of personal data being collected on a daily basis, and used against the individual for marketing and profiteering purposes; or worse, as a tool for crime or other nefarious activity against the person. E.g As it is, SG ranked 6th in a 2016 study on global card frauds. The study looked at risky behaviours like leaving a smartphone unlocked when not in use, shopping or banking online without security software, and responding to e-mail or calls asking for banking information. The instance of identity theft and fraud can only escalate if information is readily and easily "swarmed" online.
  • The adage "nothing is ever deleted from the internet" remains true and personal data protection should be prioritised.

Note that: By limiting or qualifying agreement of relevance of the authors' arguments, a candidate fulfils the 'extent' or 'how far do you agree' aspect of the question.

Our J1 students are already preparing hard for General Paper 2018. We take a break from lessons until January 2018. I look forward to more intellectual sparring and argumentation with my students in the new year!

~Contributed by Geraldine Chew [Ms] 6 November 2017

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