This article was written for SecEd magazine and first published in November 2019. You can read the original version on the SecEd website here.
You can access the full archive of my columns for SecEd here.
Perhaps understandably, most subject leaders are reluctant to let trainee teachers loose on exam classes. It is highly likely, therefore, that you reached the end of your training year without ever having taught GCSE or A level.
As such, many new teachers feel somewhat unprepared for teaching GCSEs and A levels when the time arises, often during the NQT year.
So, what do you need to know and do? First, and most importantly, you need to know that teaching exam classes is not significantly different to teaching non-exam classes. Good teaching is good teaching – so do not overthink it.
What you may find different, however, is working with awarding bodies – including using exam specifications, mark schemes, past papers, examiners’ reports, and so on. You may also be unused to preparing students for the exam hall – and now that a majority of courses are linear with terminal exams, preparing students for these high-stakes assessments is more crucial than ever.
Working with awarding bodies
Specifications, modules and topics
You may not yet have the authority to select an awarding body, but if and when you do, consider which exam board offers the most rounded programme of study, which board will allow you to teach the knowledge and cultural capital your students need, and which exam board offers the most rigorous curriculum that will challenge students to be the best they can be.
You may need to make decisions about which modules within that specification you teach. Consider which modules will be most relevant to students’ lives and experiences and which will teach the knowledge and skills that will build upon what has already been taught.
Awarding body documentation
Each awarding body and each subject will, of course, be different. Many, though, are moving away from paperwork towards online webinars and video tutorials. I would advise you to systematically work through all the planning, teaching and assessment materials that your exam board provides on its website. Do this before you begin writing your own plans as you will find it insightful.
All exam boards will have a specification and this is the oracle to which you should regularly return. Print it out and annotate it. Keep going back to it to ensure you are covering all the content specified – it is easy to miss something vital and thus find your students unprepared for a certain exam question.
As well as setting out the assessment arrangements and objectives, most specifications also list the subject content that students must acquire – these are helpful in focusing you on the “outcomes” of your teaching and can be used as threshold concepts or learning intentions. It may be helpful to make explicit which outcome is being assessed by each piece of work you set students in class and for homework, and then to split the marks you award accordingly to provide more useable feedback.
Past papers and mark schemes
Most exam boards will give you access to a range of past exam papers and mark schemes. Naturally, these are handy to use as ready-made mock exams but do not limit their use to this. It is helpful to give students as many opportunities as possible to handle exam questions and plan out their answers and walk through the steps they would take in response to questions rather than answering the questions in full each time. The mark scheme can be used as a teaching tool for students, too, not just as an assessment tool for you. For example, students can use the mark scheme to help them plan their responses, and to self and peer-assess. Many mark schemes will have indicative content which can be used to provide model answers or as writing frames.
After each set of terminal exams, the awarding body will publish an examiners’ report which provides a high-level overview of how students fared in each question. These valuable reports explain how students interpreted the questions and where they did well and – perhaps more usefully – where they did less well.
Teaching towards (not to) a test
I would advise you to be mindful at all times of how you are preparing students for the exams. This, I think, has two aspects to it: teaching coping strategies for the stress of the exam hall and teaching them how to revise.
Coping with stress
Sitting terminal exams is stressful. Students are under huge pressure to remember the content.
In classroom learning, students will be engaged in what neuroscientists call “cold-cognition” – mediated by the prefrontal cortex and the hippocampus, this allows students to remain calm and rational, to think and process information.
But in the exam hall and under intense pressure, students engage in “hot-cognition” – mediated by the hypothalamus, this is when norepinephrine is released, a hormone that mobilises the body for a “fight or flight” response. It also inhibits communication and rational thought.
Cortisol is also released, which impairs memory formation (encoding) as well as access to existing memories (retrieval). This explains why your mind goes blank when you are stressed.
So what can we do to help students cope? First, we can dial down the rhetoric about “make or break” exams. We can do more to contextualise exams, too, so that students perceive tests as less threatening and more useful as sources of information and feedback.
Second, we can “walk” students through the exam process as often as possible, not just by doing mock exams in class, but by literally walking them into the exam hall and talking them through the physical process and talking to them about the exam conditions they will have to know and obey.
Third, we can teach students coping strategies to help them handle stress and keep themselves calm. This might include mindfulness or meditation strategies to reduce the feeling of panic, and it might include moving onto another question and returning to the difficult one later.
It might also include teaching students how to make sense of an unfamiliar of confusing question, by focusing on key words and so on. It might involve teaching tactics such as using the marks available per question, the amount of space allocated to each answer, and so on, to help them make judgements about how much time to spend on each question.
Teaching revision strategies
Advances in our knowledge of cognitive load theory have helped us know more about effective revision strategies. For example, we now know that just reading through revision notes is not a very effective strategy, certainly not as effective as, say, retrieval practice (SecEd, 2017) activities such as self-quizzing. We know, too, that revision cannot be left until the last minute but must be spread out over a longer period and make use of spacing and interleaving (SecEd, 2019).
Distributed practice is far more effective than massed practice. Embedding retrieval practice and recall into your teaching from the start is more helpful than teaching the curriculum up until February in year 11 and using the final term for revision.
This can be done by embedding retrieval practice activities into every lesson, such as a multiple-choice quiz at the start which requires students to recall, process and apply their prior knowledge. This strategy can be combined with interleaving to ensure students are required to retrieve knowledge they learnt yesterday, last week and last month (albeit from the same or related topics).
Planning regular opportunities for students to take notes, quiz themselves or each other, and peer-teach is also time well spent. A free recall activity can also pay dividends and requires no planning or marking. It is simply a case of asking students to write down everything they can remember about the last lesson. That’s it. Simple but effective. Of course, you could interrogate students’ notes and unpack any misconceptions or misunderstandings, but it is not essential for the strategy to work.
The act of retrieval from long-term memory (thinking about, by bringing into working memory, what they learnt last lesson) and doing something with it (writing it down) is enough to strengthen the storage and retrieval strength of the information in long-term memory and make it easier to retrieve next time and, eventually, in an exam.
Explicitly teach study skills
A useful strategy is teaching students how to self-study. Often, we assume that students can do this innately. But to study well, students need to be given the tools. For example, we should teach students how to take notes, perhaps using Cornell’s Model (see online). This makes note-taking an active process and also aids students’ subsequent recall and quizzing of information.
Explicitly teach self-quizzing
If a student reads a chapter in a textbook and then wants to review the most important information in that chapter, she should cover up the answers and attempt to recall the information from memory. This method is much more effective than just copying notes because the student is boosting her long-term memory. Every correct retrieval improves the speed and ease of all subsequent attempts at retrieval.
Self-quizzing can also have an indirect effect on student learning because when a student fails to retrieve a correct answer, their failure informs them that they need to revisit and relearn this topic.
For self-quizzing to be most effective, students should be encouraged to leave spaces in their study notes where they can test themselves later. When they test themselves, they should be encouraged to write their answers down, not simply say them aloud or in their heads. The act of writing the answers boosts long-term retrieval and also uncovers false assumptions about what they know and do not know.
Also, we should encourage students to produce flashcards whereby they write a question or key term on one side and the correct answer on the other. They should then test themselves on all the questions and if they do not answer a question right the first time, they should continue testing themselves until they get it right.
Students should also be encouraged to “get it right” on more than one occasion. For example, they could return to the full deck of flashcards on another day and retest themselves.
Students can also benefit from using practice tests in class. For example, teachers could choose the most important ideas from recent lessons and dedicate a couple minutes at the beginning or end of each class to test students on them.
Imagine you are studying for a spelling test. One method is to copy out each spelling several times before moving on to the next word. This is called massed practice because you practise each word several times at once before moving on to the next. Another method is to practise each word only once before moving on to the next one. After you have practised every word on the list once through, you then return to the first word and repeat the exercise. This is called distributed practice because you distribute your practice of each word over time.
So rather than cramming the night before an exam, we might study our notes during the course of several shorter sessions on two or three separate nights leading up to the exam, repeating the same “revision” exercise a number of times on different days. Opting for this approach, we would be able to retain the knowledge for a longer period of time even though, taken together, we dedicated the same amount of time.
Unfortunately, despite this fact, a majority of students still prefer to cram. One reason for this is that learning feels quicker this way. Distributed practice takes more effort, for sure, but it is essential for learning information in a way that will be retained (or more easily relearned) and retrievable over a longer period. In short, massed practice leads to ephemeral and facile learning whereas distributed practice bolsters a student’s storage and retrieval strength, ensuring their learning is both deep and longer-lived.
So how can we help our exam classes to distribute their practice? First, we should help students to map out how many study sessions they will need before an exam, when those sessions should take place (which evenings of the week and between what times), and what they should practise during each session.
Two short study blocks per week should be sufficient to begin studying new material as well as to restudy previously learned material. Students should be able to retrieve previous material more easily after just a few study sessions which leaves more time for studying new material.
Second, and as I say above, we should use distributed practice in the classroom by repeatedly going back over the most important knowledge and concepts.
For example, we could use weekly quizzes that repeat content several times so that students relearn some concepts in a distributed manner. Repeating key points in several quizzes not only highlights the importance of that content but also affords students the opportunity to engage in distributed practice.