The Summer Exam Season

This post was written by David Fawcett @davidfawcett27.

Exam Season Frenzy

It’s that time of year again when teachers and students make that last dash towards final exams. Over the years, with new accountability towards results, the summer term can become a frenzy of revision sessions, exam advice and last ditch interventions. Obviously revision is an essential component of exam success. It is important that we pass on the message that students should be undertaking it at some level in order to ensure knowledge, information and relevant examples are stored in their memory. There is however the worry from teachers wondering whether they’ve done enough for the students. There’s also the frantic ideas swaps between colleagues about what is actually a good revision session. Then there’s the creation of the 800 page in-house revision guides full of glossaries, definitions, exam questions and numerous teacher hours, sweat and tears.

If we’re not careful the summer term for teachers of Year 11’s can resemble a 1980’s Hollywood action blockbuster which results in one liners, a whirlwind of chaos and multiple casualties. Like many of these films, the storyline is predictable to the onlookers but the main characters make the same decisions over and over again. And worst of all, when you think all is calm, there comes the killer catchphrase at the end where the exam season stares at you straight in the eyes and says “I’ll be back”.

But when it’s over we breathe a huge sigh of relief. It’s then though that we really need to sit down, reflect on the period that has just passed and decide whether we want to put staff and colleagues through that again a year later? Is it actually sustainable, or even healthy, for teachers (and students) to work incredibly hard all year, only to go into overdrive for the last term? Is it possible to spread the frantic exam period over the entire year and lighten the load imposed on teachers and students at the end? I think it is. And I think that this is the perfect time of year to start putting plans into action to ensure that “Exam Frenzy 2 – The Sequel” doesn’t get put into production.

Build in retrieval practice

A key message that has come through numerous cognitive scientists/psychologists is that frequent low stakes testing that takes place consistently over time helps retain information in the long term memory. Planning to implement a programme of these within a scheme or curriculum is actually easy to do and simply needs a careful eye on planning. Over the duration of the course you teach, map out a section in every lesson/other lesson where students undertake a quick five minute test that forces them to retrieve old information. These tests should be quick for the teacher to mark and create very little extra workload. It is essential that you rotate the topics so that each is retrieved at different times over the year. By doing this you create gaps between the retrieval of each topic and ensure they are recovered multiple times.

Build in skills practice

Answering exam questions and refining technique is a great skill. Students don’t become masters of this independently and will require lots of teacher direction. Again don’t leave this to chance but instead identify key times in a topic, a scheme, or a unit where there will be a great opportunity to build in exam technique practice. Build it into a curriculum overview so every teacher knows.

Cumulative tests

Many subjects and departments across the country run regular end of unit assessments of tests. Many of these focus on questions from that specific unit which allow you to gauge the level of understanding that students have developed. This type of block practice can be detrimental though. If we continue like this (only testing students on the unit that was just taught) then what happens to Unit 1 when we reach Unit 7? Is it right to be surprised that students may not remember anything because it was taught a long time ago and hasn’t been tested since? Making every unit test/assessment cumulative in nature means that parts of every topic are retrieved regularly. This regular retrieval helps keep students familiar with previous topics and strengthen memory retention.

Forgetting curve homework

This idea is taken directly from Will Emeny – @Maths_Master a Head of Maths in Hampshire. Will explains how he maps out homework for the whole year. Each homework is a set of questions from previously taught topics which students go away and complete. As the year progresses, these homework’s build and cover all of the topics numerous times. Students are therefore continuously retrieving prior knowledge throughout the year.

Involve the parents

At a Year 11 parents evening earlier in the year, I informed the parents that I would be sending home a large cumulative test resource for their child to complete at their leisure over the year. The resource had numerous questions randomly ordered and covering every topic we teach in the subject. It also included the full mark scheme. A parent suggested that these could be sent to all parents with the suggestion that they keep them and at sporadic times, test their child by firing a question at them. In the subsequent appointments I suggested this to every other parent who embraced the idea. With many parents wanting to play an active role in revision but not feeling comfortable to do so, this type of resource allowed them to help. It allowed them to pick one or two questions a night which they could confidently quiz their child on.

Don’t just say “You need to work on exam technique”

Because lots of students have no idea what that means.

Help them form good habits

Answering exam questions well is as much an important part of the revision process as remembering content. Marks can be easily lost if a student fails to communicate an answer well. Students can also be guilty of giving amazingly accurate answers, but fail to realise that it wasn’t what the question was asking. There are many ways to do that ranging from incorporating system processes like B.U.G (Box, Underline, Glance) or even focusing each unit on a particular good habit forming skill. This could range from Unit 1 focusing on identifying key words, all of the way to Unit 6 looking at planning and proofreading answers. Build it into your curriculum so that all students know.

Model good answers

Have a bank of ex-students answers from which you can model what full marks looks like. Have these both in paper and digital format. Showing what a great answer looks like which students can annotate, pull apart and learn from is such a fantastic resource. If you don’t have any to hand, write some yourself. The process is not only good for creating resources, but also helps you understand what students are required to do. Alternatively, using mark schemes as a basic example of an answer can be good for seeing what examiners are looking for. Begin to collect these examples from this year’s departing cohort and use it with future groups.

Show them what you would do

If you haven’t read John Tomsett’s blog post on metacognition and exam practice, I would urge you to do so. A link can be found here. Once you do, invest some time annotating a number of past papers with your thought process so that students can see why you’ve tackled a question a certain way. Look to purchase a visualiser for your department so that you can get students, or yourself, modelling the process of their answers for all of the class to see. Do this regularly throughout the year and at key times so that students understand process as well as content.

Don’t just say “You need to revise”

Because lots of students have no idea what that means.

Build in revision activities where they are relevant

Revision techniques are dished out thick and fast when it gets closer to exam season. The thing is, shouldn’t these have been shared throughout the year? Better still, being aware that not every revision technique fits everything you’re trying to revise is also important. Map out times over the course where using the chunking method might helpful in remembering the classification of bones in the body. Plan out the time when using acronyms to remember the various banned drugs in sport might be a better way of remembering them. Identify a topic where using flash cards might be a useful resource. Look through the year and see when revision techniques can be matched and introduced through topics.

Do something with your data

What do you do after students have sat an exam and then received their papers back? There is a huge difference between reading through an exam and actually trying to close the gap. Can you implement DIRT time as a review lesson after every assessment? Could you place ‘Closing the Gap’ lessons after unit tests? Can you use curriculum time to try and get students up to speed on topics there and then rather than leaving it until the end of Year 11 when panic sets in? A simple change can help minimise the frenzy that could take place when exam season approaches.
And talking about data, do you use the data to help your department improve their teaching and learning? If not then all of the misconceptions and gaps that crop up in the final summer term could have been avoided a long time ago. It may have needed a change in the way we teach. For more information on using data to improve the practice of teachers, see here.

Learn from previous years and talk to your students and department

As a final note, after the exams are done, sit down with a selection of willing students and ask them for their honest opinion about revision. Talk to your department and try to see what could be done differently. Reflect, review and begin to put together a better plan for next year.

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