The exam season is fast approaching and this can often be a time of stress, anxiety and pressure for students and teachers alike. I have taught GCSE and A Level throughout my career and whilst some aspects have become much easier, for example in the first few years of teaching I would have fears that I wouldn’t teach all of the required content in time … but I always managed to with time to spare. Careful planning, confidence and experience can help teachers with these worries but I like many other experienced teachers are teaching new exam specifications for the first time. This has brought new challenges such as being the first year to sit the new exams, meaning limited examples of past papers and a lack of clear grade boundaries.
As we approach the exam period I have had several conversations with my students, colleagues and parents as to how we can manage this time with reduced stress for all involved. We know that exam pressure and anxiety vary with different individuals and whilst we cannot remove this stress completely there are things we can do to minimise this and create conditions for success.
The recipe for effective revision and successful results image I have created is based on some of the key areas that can impact the process and outcome when it comes to exams. There are other factors that can be included and as always context is key. I am going to discuss and explain the factors below as to why they are crucial to attainment and achievement.
The image shows that if all of the strategies and factors are firmly in place success is likely. However, if one or more of the factors are missing then this can lead to serious barriers and issues preventing success in addition to having a negative impact on wellbeing.
Attendance is a very difficult area for teachers, middle and senior leaders as it is often out of their control. Poor/low attendance can be very problematic. Low attendance can lead to lower results. During post-exam analysis attendance can be a contributing factor for explaining disappointing results but it is always important to illustrate that interventions were put in place too. Another issue with poor attendance is confusion for students as (depending on how many lessons/days/weeks missed) there can be gaps in knowledge and misconceptions and misunderstanding can arise.
Previously, I have taught students that have missed school due to illness or for other reasons but they have been able to cope well and catch up on missed work – not a problem. I have also taught students that find catching up on missed work extremely difficult and therefore require a lot of additional support, guidance and time from their teachers. I know some students that can cope well with catching up on subject content, if well resourced with textbooks and other materials, but they can struggle with grasping the skills and required examination technique or vice versa. There is an interesting article entitled Attendance: impact on attainment with research from the DfE about the link between attendance and attainment.
What can we do about this issue of attendance? Unfortunately, as with everything in education, there is no magic solution. There are some attendance issues that can be avoided such as holidays and trips but other cases such as illness, injury or even a bereavement do require everyone involved to be as supportive as possible.
It’s important that SLT publish an academic calendar with any interruptions to timetable as soon as possible so that teachers can factor this into their planning. Unexpected events happen such as a snow day, strike or the recent example in the UAE where all schools were closed due to the visit of Pope Francis in the UAE and this announcement was made the same week as the closure. It is imperative that both students and parents fully understand the importance of attendance at school. Every lesson really does count.
Students need our support, obviously not just during the exam period but the build-up and sitting of examinations can be very difficult and even traumatic. In recent years there has been a growing awareness, discussion and media coverage about the negative impact of examinations on student mental and physical health. There have even been recent proposals and debates about scrapping GCSE exams in the UK.
Support is vital. Students often have a great support network around them in schools, from subject teachers to middle and senior leaders and pastoral provision that is in place. Parental support is also very important too, there is a brief article about parental engagement on the Education Endowment Foundation site but it does state there isn’t much robust research in regards to what approaches are effective.
If students are equipped with strong subject knowledge in addition to a good understanding of effective revision strategies then this can provide support and increased confidence too. These factors are more important than wellbeing bags with chocolates, tea bags and post-it notes (whilst those ideas are very well-intentioned and appreciated by students) and our support has to be on-going and long term.
I have used the term mindset but in the context of having a positive and growth mindset instead of a fixed one. This word could be replaced with effort, behaviour, attitude and general work ethic basically a genuine to desire to learn and do well. A teacher can ensure effective strategies are in place with lots of support and attendance could also be excellent but if the student doesn’t try or has a fixed mindset then it is unlikely they will achieve their full potential. This can lead to serious underperforming with disappointing results.
This can be very frustrating for teachers and parents. Discussions on parents evening can involve a conversation about how the student has a lot of potential in the subject but he/she is refusing to engage either in the lessons or with external revision. This lack of effort and negative approach to learning can be a source of frustration at a later date, once students have completed their exams, because on reflection they know that they could have done better if they applied themselves and tried harder.
I have blogged previously about retrieval practice (you can read that here) and for more information about this powerful strategy I can highly recommend visiting Retrievalpractice.org and the Learningscientists.org Retrieval practice isn’t a technique only to be used before the exams. Instead, it should be embedded in lessons throughout a course and become a regular routine in your classroom.
I honestly believe this strategy has transformed my classroom practice and led to greater exam success. In my recently published book Love To Teach: Research and Resources for every classroom, I have included a case study with two of my students reflecting on their experiences of revision and sitting exams. My student Lauren commented that:
“Not only was retrieval useful, but the repetition of using it in our lessons generally at the beginning of every lesson we would answer retrieval questions, helped keep previous lessons in memory so that key information would not be forgotten. Regular retrieval meant it didn’t actually feel as though I was doing as much work as I was. I didn’t need to revisit everything again at the end of the course because I had been doing that throughout the two years”.
What if retrieval practice is missing? Many teachers and older students have said to me that they have been successful in the past without using retrieval practice and instead used techniques such as re-reading and highlighting. I then ask how long did it take them to feel confident revising use those strategies? I know from experience, because that is how I revised when I was younger, and it was incredibly time-consuming, demanding and stressful. Retrieval Practice is a research-informed and evidence-based learning strategy that teachers, students and parents need to be aware of.
A useful document with more information about study strategies to boost learning can be read here, written by Professor John Dunlosky. I have also created a study guide that was shared with all Upper-School students and staff at my school. It was digitally distributed to parents too. You can download it for FREE here from the TES website (I have removed my school branding and logo so that others can use and share it widely).
The team of Learning Scientists offer this advice in regards to spaced practice “that studying five hours spread out across two weeks is actually better than studying that same five hours right before the exam.” This is spaced practice & it is regarded as one of the most effective revision strategies for students. Students need to start planning early for exams and set aside a little bit of time every day (or most days) and we can support them with this but ultimately they have to demonstrate self-motivation and organisation too. The Learning Scientists also have a useful short video explanation on YouTube as to how this can help improve performance, memory and outcome.
Basically, if students don’t space out their revision and consolidation then it’s likely they will resort to last-minute mass practice and cramming which is intense, stressful and not effective for long term learning and retention.
Thank you to Mark Anderson (aka @ICTEvangelist) for allowing me to adapt his Recipe for success slide, as shown below. I was at the Festival of Education at Wellington College in 2017 where I attended a presentation delivered by Mark. Mark spoke about creating conditions for success when implementing technology across the curriculum. During his presentation, Mark shared his slide and explained how all key factors need to be in place in order to achieve success. Mark also discussed the consequences if each of the factors were absent – it was a brilliant presentation for teachers, middle and senior leaders alike.
This recipe for success slide can be applied to various aspects of school leadership and with different contexts. To read more how Mark uses this approach I recommend visiting his site.
Thanks for taking the time to read my post. If you would like to send me any feedback or if you have any questions please do not hesitate to contact me. You can get in touch with me via the contact page on this site or send me a message via my Twitter or Instagram. My book Love To Teach: Research and Resources for every classroom is available to order now on Amazon here.