We live in an era where politicians wage war in 140 characters, where journalists rely on digital hearsay for breaking news (often not double-checking facts, potentially spreading #fakenews), and millions worship a grumpy cat. Social media has changed so many aspects of the modern day life, so it may come as no surprise that it has had an impact on the assessment world as well.

Students are taking to social media before and after their exams to engage in a wide-range of activities. There’s cheating, there’s protesting, and there’s plain old complaining. There’s joking, there’s lamenting, and there’s even some revising. It’s not just the children either, parents and teachers have been known to take to social media to bemoan, praise or criticise exams.

One consequence of the widespread use of social media is that those who set exams are able to view the reaction of how candidates judge a paper and its question, in real-time. Previously the subject of private exchanges as they left the exam hall, nerves and excitement are laid out raw online via public platforms for all to see.

In order to get a better understanding of what can be learned from the use of social media around exams, Cambridge Assessment conducted a research project looking at the use of social media during the summer 2016 exam season. The research project collected and analysed 6.44 million exam-related tweets that were posted between 14th May and 14th July 2016. What is interesting about the tweets is that they provide an immediate indication of students’ engagement with and reaction to exams.

The word cloud below features the three hundred most frequently used words before and after the 2016 GCSE maths exams set by various awarding bodies. As you can see, there is a large range of response although it is possible to view a coherent set of themes.

The research project also analysed the use of emoji. Nineteen percent of tweets during the stated period contained emoji, and recorded the trend of use over the course of the exam period. What is interesting to see is the peaks and troughs of when certain emoji were used: the ‘party popper’ emoji was most popular towards the end of the exam period, whilst the ‘face with tears of joy’ (often used to denote sarcasm) was commonly used following an exam/exams.

It is important to note that many are quick to complain on social media and not all students are active on it. Twitter users only represent a small proportion of the population, and what is said online should be taken with a pinch of salt. There is often a risk of users on Twitter ‘jumping on the bandwagon’ when they see a topic trending that they can get involved in, which can also give a skewed view of the balance of opinion.

“There’s nothing wrong with students letting off steam on social media after they’ve sat an exam, but these conversations often aren’t an accurate reflection of the exam itself,” explains Kunal Gandhi, AQA’s Social Media Manager in a recent comment article in the i newspaper. “Last year the media were quick to jump on social media ‘outrage’ about an AQA biology paper, when there was actually nothing wrong with the paper and it did a great job of testing students’ knowledge – exactly what exam boards are here to do.”

Good luck to all those candidates receiving exam results over the next few days, from all of us at RM Results!