Using multiple choice questions to practise GCSE skills

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It’s easy to see how using multiple choice questions can test knowledge. Ask a question on a topic with viable answers and if a student selects the correct answer/s then they probably ‘know’ that piece of information (assuming they don’t guess).

We use multiple choice questions in key stage 3 and key stage 4 in different ways but mainly for recall to aid long term learning, not always as diagnosis of what they do/don’t know. Part of all key stage 4 homework is to write their own multiple choice questions. This is a brilliant way to find any misconceptions. In fact, when sitting with our trainee this week to explain how to mark this homework, the first student had done exactly this. She had misunderstood a concept. We immediately cross referenced this with the class notes and could see a general misconception that can be addressed in feedback next lesson.

However, up until now, we have only expected the students to create questions that are content based. Now we are moving on to making the skills more explicit.

For GCSE RS this will be two main new features in the multiple choice questions; use of quotations and evaluating arguments by their strengths and weaknesses.

Quotations

In a question 4, students need to explain two aspects of religion and then add a quotation somewhere in their answer. So far, when students have answered these questions without prompting, some forget the quotation, which limits them to 4 marks. This is for two reasons: they genuinely forget or they can’t think of a quotation to support either point. Our aim is to rectify the second so the first is less likely. On Monday we have an INSET day and we are going to agree as a department quotations for each topic that we will use and learn. There are so many that could be used, we will aim to narrow it down as much as possible and start to promote, repeat and plan for recall of the selected quotations regularly over the GCSE.

These can be put into multiple questions in several ways:

  • To help them remember the wording of quotations

  • To help them select an appropriate quote

  • To link a quotation to a particular view

  • To link to a particular teaching

Evaluating arguments

In question 5, students have to write an argument based on a given statement. The skills here are about analysing and evaluating arguments along the way. Some teachers are allowing students to give their own opinions however I am trying to stop students from doing this as I don’t think it helps them understand the concept of evaluation; unpicking the relative strengths and weaknesses of an argument. Giving an opinion can move away from dealing with the objective, logical analysis to personal opinion and potentially, inappropriate criticism of religion.

To help them learn some common evaluations of the issues we study, we are starting to add multiple choice questions on the relative strengths and weaknesses of arguments studied. These will have been taught and discussed in class and so the quiz will be a form of recall and hopefully will help with long term retention of the critiques.

We have gone with the terms ‘strengths’ and ‘weaknesses’ to create consistency and ultimately so an examiner can see the clear analysis and evaluation throughout their answer.

These new types of MC question are actually testing knowledge and understanding of appropriate quotations and arguments but their knowledge of these will help with answering questions that require more than just recall of content. I think they’re the best way to practise these important aspects of the skills without getting them to write full answers and requiring me to spend hours marking.

From now on we will require students to include at least one quotation and one evaluation type question in their homework multiple choice questions which will hopefully start to embed these skills. We hope to see their application when they answer questions 4 and 5 and will try to evaluate the impact of this next step in the next year.

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The invisible practices in teaching: watching a teacher teach

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Watching teachers teach is a good thing for trainees (and anyone), to do but I am dubious of the value of just watching a teacher and then walking away from the classroom. So much of what we do is ‘invisible’; there are unseen practices with rationales that may not be obvious. If we want to use observing teachers as part of training it needs to give time to unpick these practices and give time for discussion. A trainee may then decide whether they want to do similar, think about how they would do them or not do them at all.

I’m keen that teachers engage with research and so have thought about how this might be utilised when watching a teacher teach. Experienced teachers may (or may not) be able to ‘see’ these practices and will only need a blank sheet of paper to take ideas from watching someone else teach; they’re experts. Novices however may pick up on some superficial practices but not some of the subtleties or long term strategies that teachers use. These proformas are designed to help a trainee explore an aspect of teaching and discuss it with the teacher. Please feel free to share and use but please do credit them. I will add as I go along.

Links to proformas

Retrieval

Cognitive load

I may also blog further about the discussions that I have, in order to unpick the hidden practices in my classroom.

Why bother with mocks? How to make them useful without taking hours of your life away

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It’s mock exam season. The time when teachers spend longer marking test papers than the total time that the students spent revising and sitting the exam itself. Is the time cost worth it?

I believe that teaching a subject that results in a terminal exam comes down to a careful balance of teaching content, how to apply the content to questions and how to complete the exam. In terms of timing, I’d probably go for a 50/40/10% split of curriculum time on these.

Mock exams are one of the only chances where all three of these parts of the exam puzzle come together. I am in no doubt that students need to do mock exams but possibly not in a way that many teachers do them.

What is your mock for?

Teachers need to decide what their mock is for. This will then determine what they will do with it. Alternatives include:

  • Practising timing
  • Practising sitting in a room, in silence, with peers, for a long period of time
  • Seeing the paper as it will look in the real exam
  • Reducing nerves associated with something different and important
  • Recalling all previously taught material
  • Practising exam questions
  • To motivate students
  • To give students a needed ‘wake up’ call
  • To generate a predicted grade (for school data, for college/sixth form application)

Once you decide what it is for, you may not need to mark them all in the same way.

Do mocks from the start

Practice questions should be completed from early on, not left until the end of year 11. Once students have covered some content I choose the easiest way to introduce one type of question. I use a set of rubrics for a successful answer to that question. They have as long as they need (well beyond what they’ll have in the exam). I let them use their notes. It’s a gradual experience that builds confidence. Over the 3 years I then gradually take away the scaffolding. Giving them a set time. Not using notes.

I’m experimenting where possible get students to move from the place they learnt the material when they do the test. See here for why.

At the start it’s about confidence and ‘I can do this’ not throwing them into a full GCSE paper. By the end, it has all come together to a glorious full mock paper.

Don’t leave recall to the end of the year

Some teachers leave recalling content to the end of year exam. Their end of year exam covers ‘everything’ that has been taught that year but has not been recalled or tested until that point. Most students will have limited recall, even with some revision before the test. I get students to recall prior knowledge on an almost lesson by lesson basis either through a quick quiz starter or linking current content or an exam question from previous topics.

If you don’t want to get depressed from their lack of knowledge, don’t leave their first test until the end of the year.

Hours and hours of marking?

As shown in this tweet, fully marking mock papers is seriously time consuming. Unless your school gives you the time to mark them it can be your Christmas holidays gone.

Depending on the reason, teachers do not have to sit and mark every answer of every paper.

What could be done with the mock? Alternatives to teachers marking the whole paper*

  1. The student nominates which answer/s they want the teacher to mark (within guidelines)
  2. The teacher identifies the type of question that the student has been specifically working on previously and only marks that
  3. The teacher only marks part of an answer e.g the introduction,
  4. Give the paper back to the student at a later date. In silence, by themselves, with a mark scheme, they mark it themselves (or parts of it). They can then nominate a set amount to be checked by the teacher
  5. As above, peer marked.
  6. Teacher copies one answer (different questions) from each student. An anonymous copy is then shared around the class alongside a mark scheme and students mark it, identifying what they think has been done well and what is missing.
  7. Teacher copies the same answer from all the students. Students then rank them from ‘best’ to ‘worst’
  8. As above but with staff only. (Commonly known as ‘comparative judgment’)
  9. The teacher gives a ‘perfect’ answer to a question. The students then compare with their own and unpick the similarities and differences.
  10. Make some careful pairings/trios of students based on answers. Get students to work together on one answer.

If your school insists on full paper marking….

  1. Use stampers that highlight common errors/improvements. Expensive but can be used throughout the year and hopefully for a few years with current specs.
  1. Use tick sheets/rubrics to highlight what has been included and what hasn’t
  2. Only write marks not comments. Use whole class feedback when giving back papers

And if you’re going to spend your life marking….*

You must get the students to do something with the marking. Giving them a paper back and then doing nothing about it has to be the biggest waste of your time. Suggestions:

  1. Students improve (add to) one answer (variations – using notes, using a ‘perfect’ exemplar, using a text book, their worst answer, teaching highlights on individual papers which answer to improve)
  2. Students start improvements with the easiest marks to gain
  3. The teacher goes through the most common errors and then the student chooses one of these to implement
  4. Student rewrites a whole answer
  5. Get students to explain what they’ve done to improve their work
  6. Sit students on a table based on what they need to improve. You can then sit with each table and go through the common error/s. Or if you’re tech savvy make a quick screencast for them to watch and then improve their work. Example
  7. Get students to record (I use a quick & easy googleform) how they got on with each question. I can then look at which topics were weakest for students and focus ‘revision’ on those.
  8. Use the above data generated to target which content they need to learn or which questions they need to practise. This will vary from student to student. Set as individual homework.

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*these may not be appropriate for your students/context

Closing the gap? No, that’s just leaving some behind.

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I’ve written several times about my issues with focusing on groups of students in schools in terms of intervention and raising attainment. This is of particular concern when talking about how we ‘teach’. I don’t have an issue with funding extra equipment or trips (treating a child as an individual case). I do have an issue where people are somehow claiming that there are specific pedagogical strategies that a teacher can use in their classroom or in their planning or marking that can somehow resolve an underachieving student’s issue, due to the group they’re in, for example they are Pupil Premium,

I do understand why colleagues do it. The data shows that Pupil Premium students are not doing as well so it seems logical to focus on them as a group. However some of the groupings and the following interventions are highly questionable. Marking PP students books first is nonsense. Planning lessons to suit boy’s learning is bizarre. Checking on ‘more able’ students first in class is odd. However good our intentions are these interventions not only are dubious in their nature but also fail to ‘close the gap’

The ‘gap’

The issue is that:

Classroom strategies shown to be effective for one ethnic or socio-economic group tend also to be effective for others.”

You could argue that if you do something that ‘works’ for all children, it will sustain the gap. This is why leaders and teachers try to do something different for those with a gap.

Each time you do something for an underachieving/PP child if you don’t do it for a higher achieving/PP child, then obviously that will close a gap. If I teach the first child how to solve quadratic equations and don’t teach the other, then obviously that will create a gap with quadratics but overall might close a gap in maths. But that is no way to behave. However teachers are still promoting teaching strategies that essentially do the above; put one child at a disadvantage in the hope that the gap will close.

Key stage 4 ready 

All students need to be in the same place to start with to ensure that there is no gap at key stage 4. At secondary it could be argued that key stage 3 is about making students key stage 4 ‘ready’. I don’t mean doing GCSE at key stage 3 (which sadly some colleagues seem to be doing). I mean getting them to the stage where their literacy, knowledge, understanding and subject specific skills are to a standard which means they can access key stage 4 with the best possible chance of excelling.

None of this should be decided by any category or group a student may be in; it should be decided on a student by student basis.

The ethics

One of the biggest issues I have with some of these interventions is the ethical issue of doing something for one child and either not for another or to the detriment of another. For example, marking PP student books first. If you believe that the books you mark first are marked best (which is dubious in itself and not backed by any evidence I’m aware of) and you put particular books at the top of the pile you are knowingly saying that those that the bottom are not as valuable.

You cannot morally justify this kind of behaviour. Either you need to question the marking itself (if it is such a biased process) or give every student the same marking treatment.

It seems some colleagues are trying to close the gap by limiting some and helping others. You cannot justify one child making progress but stopping another having a chance to make progress.

Teachers are still being asked by school leaders to identify what they are doing for the groups of students in their classes, ignoring the rest of the students that haven’t got the label. This practice is highly questionable. Imagine if it was shared with non-group students/parents and there were gaps next to their names.

What’s happening isn’t working

At the current rate of progress it would take a full 50 years to reach an equitable education system where disadvantaged pupils did not fall behind their peers during formal education to age 16.

https://epi.org.uk/report/closing-the-gap/

Despite all the money and initiatives by the government and schools and teachers coming up with new ideas, overall things aren’t getting better. Yet I still see people sharing lists of ideas on ‘closing the gap’. Teachers asking for interventions that make a difference. It’s almost like they want a tick list of things they can say they are doing without any real thought about the reality of each thing making a difference; as long as it’s in the website for Ofsted to see, we’re doing what we need to.

What gets results?

If I am about to sit my Geography GCSE, I have free school meals and the data says that if I get a 4* then I’ve underachieved, but if I get a 7 I’ve made exceptional progress surely there’s one thing I need to get the latter result. I need to know everything that I could be tested on and know how to answer all the different questions. That is the only thing that gets me a 7.

A teacher and school’s responsibility is to teach students to get the best possible grade, for most in mainstream schooling thats a 9. There may be some barriers to this. One of them is not that they cannot afford a lunch. Getting a free lunch does not mean I will get a 4. Not knowing what to do in the exam will get me a 4.

So, it seems obvious how to close the gap; get every student to the position where they know, and can do, everything needed.

Differentiation by task

I still see this awful practice being shared on social media. Teachers are still being told by leaders that differentiation means giving different levelled tasks to different students. Which sheet would I be given? If I have been underachieving then you might give me the level 4/5 task. It might seem appropriate as I’m clearly struggling. But giving me something where I can’t possibly reach higher levels is one of biggest educational errors a teacher can commit. It is the pinnacle of low expectations and logically means I cannot achieve higher than a 5. Why do people still think this is a good idea?

Give all students a level 9 task. Structure it and support them, whether they are currently a 1 or 4 or 7.

Choosing homework tasks is another example of this. I’ve seen menu style homework that allows students to choose what they complete. Giving the easy option is a classic way for the gap to start to widen. Give everyone the same homework and expect them to attempt it  to the best of their ability, with support if necessary. Allowing a child to access a more ‘fun’ or easier task won’t get them a 9.

Expectations; a level playing field?

All schools can do for certain, happens within the school day and school hours. If we work in trying to make all opportunities for students out them in an equal playing field then they might have some chance of succeeding. This doesn’t mean treating them the same. If a student cannot read exam questions to get a 9, they need extra support with their reading. That then means the 9 becomes available to them. If they don’t have a pen to write with, we need to ensure they have a pen. They can then write their grade 9 answers.

Expectations should be the same for all. Creating a homework club at lunch/after school gives all students the opportunity to complete their work. Not expecting homework in from some students or not doing anything about failed submissions, is where the gap starts to widen.

Who is it working for?

There has been research on what schools are doing and ‘what works’. It mostly indicates that alongside attendance the biggest factors that make a difference are high quality teaching and learning e.g feedback, 1-2-1 work. But what is it that these effective teachers do with feedback? Who does the 1-2-1? How? What works?

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An interesting study for research would be analyse those teachers for whom there is no gap in their class results. What is it that they have done for 2/3/5 years that is making a difference? It’s great teachers that make the difference so sharing lists of how to close the gap seems a waste of time unless it focuses on creating equality of opportunity so that students can access the great teaching.

Is it too late at secondary?

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This research as tweeted by Dylan above seems to suggest that the quality of teaching earlier on can significantly affect their achievement at GCSE. If this is the case, shouldn’t most money got into primary schools? Again, the problem remains, if this is true for all students and there is a gap, the gap will remain (unless the definition of outstanding teaching means there are no gaps).

The Sutton Trust sum it up perfectly:

In other words, for poor pupils the difference between a good teacher and a bad teacher is a whole year’s learning.

http://www.suttontrust.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/09/2teachers-impact-report-final.pdf

And I’m willing to bet those teachers don’t mark PP student books first, give optional homework or differentiated GCSE worksheets.

 

 

 

Further reading

Effective classroom strategies for closing the gap in educational achievement for children and young people living in poverty, including white working-class boys

https://epi.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2017/08/Closing-the-Gap_EPI.pdf

https://www.nationalcollege.org.uk/transfer/open/2015/leadership-development-resources-for-headteachers-open-access/ldro-s6/ldro-s6-t3.html 

https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/473974/DFE-RR411_Supporting_the_attainment_of_disadvantaged_pupils.pdf

http://www.suttontrust.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/09/2teachers-impact-report-final.pdf

* the way I’m using numbers and data in this post is generalised. It’s more complex but for the sake of argument I’ve kept it simple.

The same homework for 3 years – how and why

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We have a 3 year key stage 4. Students that opt for GCSE Religious Studies have 3 different homeworks that carry through every year. I have blogged previously about some of these (see links in headers) but not as our key stage 4 homework programme as a whole.

  1. Learning keywords

Students are given mini booklets of keywords that they need to know to understand the key beliefs and teachings of the religions studied. They are given these before they have studied their context. The idea is that they learn these ‘off by heart’ and then when we cover them in lesson their meaning and application to the religion becomes clear.

All keyword sheets are available in our classrooms and are always attached on ShowMyHomework when set.

We also have made Quizlet quizzes on all the words here. We also give students index cards to create their own testing set.

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The students then have weekly keyword tests. One week they are the ‘current’ keywords that they are learning (one of the pages of words) and the other week are ‘random’ from all previous pages learnt. They complete the test in class and then they peer mark using the correct answers. They get very good at this. In fact from when I give out the sheets for them to write on, they run this part of the lesson themselves.

The basis for these are that retrieval practice is good for long term memory. The second random test allows for spacing of retrieval as they don’t know which words will come up and how often. I am currently editing Dave Paterson’s random generator so I can automatically generate and monitor the frequency of these repetitions.

Scores are recorded out of 20 marks each time. On the current keywords they have to make progress every fortnight. They chose a focus word that they will focus on getting correct next time to slowly increase their score.

2. Writing multiple choice questions

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Student feedback on this system is overall positive with the caveat that they’re boring. I don’t care as long as they remember them.

After a few lessons of a new topic I set this homework. Students have to write a minimum of 6 multiple choice questions on the topic.

SMHW MCs

The rules are clear (see above).

The rationale for this homework is two-fold. Firstly it is really easy to see their misconceptions. If they indicate a correct answer that is in fact incorrect then I can see what they’ve misunderstood. Depending on the frequency and seriousness of the error I will give whole class feedback or individual feedback on that issue. Students then need to rectify their error.

I use their questions for the next homework.

MC template

3. Quizzes

The third type of homework uses the questions they previously wrote. I type them up onto a google form and then set them as a multiple choice quiz. There may be one or many correct answers. They must achieve full marks. Google forms records their scores.

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They can actually cheat by doing the quiz once and then keeping the answer tab open. I’ve told them how they can do this! However I don’t care. The point is that the answers are shuffled so they still have to fully engage with the correct/incorrect answers. This exposure is important.

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My screencasts on how to create these quizzes is here.

Once we have covered several topics, I can then start to repeat, space and interleave the quizzes. So year 10 currently have  quiz from a couple of weeks ago and one from January or year 9. This repetition supports the idea of retrieving information at spaced gaps of time during the time needed to learn them long term.

We have a class website and I also put a copy of these quizzes on there so any motivated student can go and complete these independently at any time. I’ve put a notification onto those sheets that email me when they’re completed so I can see straight away who has been doing some independent study.

The benefits of only 3 homeworks

  • Students always know what they need to do; it doesn’t change
  • All of these support research from cognitive science on long term memory
  • Parents know what to expect
  • Students can’t ‘get stuck’. There’s no new concepts (the keywords are initially just a memory task)
  • They need few resources: keyword list and a piece of paper to write the MC questions
  • It’s very little work for the teacher. I just check their MC questions which takes max. 15 minutes for a class. The online quizzes mark themselves. I just put the results on the screen. They mark their own keyword tests.
  • All homework set is of the same quality; no last minute rubbish made up by the teacher just because they have to set homework
  • All 3 homeworks feed into important knowledge and skills they need for their exam

The only issues have been if a student cannot access the internet for the online quizzes however, with plenty of time to complete these I always offer break/lunch access using our devices at school. In an extreme case you can print the quizzes but of course they won’t self mark.

I have been doing this for a couple of years now. I think our results show that this is significant in long term memory and consequently performance in their exam. To me, these are so important, I can’t imagine setting any other form of homework at key stage 4 that would make a bigger impact on learning.

In defence of marking

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It seems that marking has become the enemy of the teacher. It takes hours, teachers spend their evenings and weekends lugging home huge bags of books and for little or no benefit when compared to other teacher feedback.

I know this may be an unpopular view but I think that a certain form of marking is useful but not for the reason other feedback may be.

To put this in context, last year I taught 19 different classes. Two were year 11 GCSE and one year 9 GCSE. The rest was ks3 and core RE at ks4. This ranges from seeing them 5 times a fortnight to once a fortnight.

My school policy is based around assessment pieces (orange stickers) at least once a half term (ks4 core doesn’t have these). It doesn’t specify other forms of marking except how SPAG marking should be presented. Subject areas fill in the gaps between orange stickers, how they see fit.

This is ONE of many ways I assess, mark, give feedback; whatever you want to call it. I still regularly use a visualiser, give exemplars, do criteria based work, give whole class feedback but I do this as well.

What I do

I read or scan their work. I check they’ve done the basics: title, date, underlined. I then check whatever it is they’ve done; always for SPAG errors, in pink, using squiggle and code.. If they’ve not done anything they should have (except SPAG errors) they come the next day and do it. Even tiny things.

Next lesson they are given 10 minutes at the start to do any SPAG corrections and respond to anything in pink.

Why I do this

It keeps high standards

If I am checking their work I am ensuring they are doing the things they have been told to do. Underline the title. Write what they need to write. If I don’t check that and allow them to get away with it, over a period of time their attitude towards their work/the subject/my class may follow.

It gives individual SPAG feedback

Whilst reading I do a general scan for spellings. Usually all capital letters and subject specific words. Then classic errors. It values literacy. It makes it clear that it’s not just for English lessons.

You’ve got to read it anyway

If I’m reading their work, I can’t imagine it adds much time putting sp/cp/gr/p on their work. I rarely write anything extra. All other methods of ‘not marking’ involve reading the student work. Why not pick up literacy errors?

It gives a message

I am bothered what they do and how they do it. If a teacher doesn’t check work it can give the impression it’s not important.

It values effort

We have an attitude to learning scale. One of the criteria is ‘goes beyond teacher expectations’. This means if they do ‘more than’ I’ve told them, they show an attitude to learning of 1. It shows me they are prepared to go beyond. This is a step towards more independence.

I can check understanding

They don’t have to write loads for this. I keep things minimal. Something that will show if they’ve understood.

It helps build a picture of the student

I have to write a very simple report on every child: their attitude to learning, attitude to homework and progress. (Using codes) Every time I do these checks it helps to build up a mental picture of that student, their understanding, their literacy and importantly their ability to follow instructions.

But who is this all for?

I was asked at #TLT17 if I’d still do what I do if no-one else was to look at it (other than students). I’m not sure you can honestly say what you would/wouldn’t do if there were no policies or people looking at it.

I saw a comment on twitter that marking is for parents. None of our students take their books/folders home and I’ve never had a parent ask. I’m guessing it’s context. The point is, this isn’t for parents.

This also isn’t for school leaders or ‘visitors’ to the classroom. Why would I dictate my marking for a person that might visit my classroom every four years?

If I don’t read student work regularly, how do I know how they are doing in my subject? It’s for me and it’s for them.

How to manage this system

Finally it’s important to share how I manage the workload. It’s a combination of things:

  • My school doesn’t have unrealistic expectations or make us spend time doing things with no/little impact
  • We don’t set work we won’t mark. There are times where in a whole lesson students don’t write anything. Plan these at heavy times.
  • Many lessons are note taking; the marking is checking for quality notes and inclusion of content
  • Core is kept simple. No books. Most lessons have minimal writing e.g two key words
  • Don’t get them regularly writing long long pieces or work. And when they do a long piece either use preprinted criteria or stick to one piece of feedback. Why overload with a whole paragraph of nonsense and expect them to change?
  • Stampers and stickers. I make my own stampers with common issues. I also use a ‘work checked’ so I can keep track what I’ve checked.
  • Do checks in class. A lot of my lessons include a video clip. Whilst watching I check their work and get them to change/add there and then.
  • Repeat expectations over and over. Including the end where I do a verbal checklist “when I check your work I expect to see…..”. This limits the things that will need to be addressed.
  • Do it regularly. I try to do this every lesson that they’ve written at KS3 and for core KS4 RE. On average it takes 10 minutes a set. If I do a set at break that still gives me 15 minutes and at lunch I still have 30minutes.
  • Wherever there is pink pen (mine) there must ALWAYS be a correction/addition/response by the student. I’m not wasting my time doing something if they don’t act upon it. Any uncorrected pink after the lesson is done at a break time.

The important part of this system is it fits our school model. I don’t bring marking home. I don’t mark in the evenings or weekends. I choose to take some break/lunch for it because I value being at home without marking. Others may value chatting with others at break more.

Whatever you want to call this, checking, marking, feedback, I personally think it’s an important part of what I do. It may not fit your model or curriculum. It’s important that people don’t think that we should do anything possible to avoid marking. However it must be valuable at least to the students, and be manageable for the teacher. I believe this model is for us.

Images:https://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/public/files/Publications/EEF_Marking_Review_April_2016.pdf

There’s only one way to improve exam results…..

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…get students to get more marks in exams.

There you go. Simple isn’t it? So why do so many schools that have students that are underachieving do everything but focus on this?

Getting marks in an exam relies on two main things: knowing the subject content needed and having the skill to understand what the question demands*.

(And that they have a teacher that knows both of these and can teach them.)

So if you want to improve exam results, you need to look at what each subject is doing, from day one of GCSE to ensure both of these happen. Everything else is a red herring; lesson plenaries, marking policies, group work, homework, working groups, growth mindset…..

But all of this just sounds like an exam factory. What a horrible place to work.  The kids must be like robots. The interesting thing is, it isn’t. My students and their parents regularly tell me they love my lessons. Whenever someone comes to see my classes and asks them about their learning, it’s positive. We still mess around and have a joke. We discuss real life. I still do things that aren’t on the specification. But it all links to these 2 things. I don’t harp on and on about exams. I rarely use the word ‘test’ but we’re doing it all the time. I’m no robot and neither are they.

There is plenty of school time that isn’t focussed on these things: Tutor time, assemblies, PSHE lessons, core PE, non-examined core RE, lunch clubs, after school clubs, school shows, sports fixtures. With a broad and balanced curriculum and extra-curricular offer, a student has lots of time not focussing on exams.

Isn’t this just teaching to the exam? Of course it is. And? Some leaders seem to do crazy other things to get exam results up such as entering students for random qualifications to add to whole school results, book scrutinies, lesson observations, making staff sit in whole school undifferentiated training and other unmentionable practices that would make you shudder. So why not get your teachers to teach these things? There could be much worse things they might do…..like not teach them how to do the exam. That would be really foolish.

Of course the conditions for this to happen have to be there and this is where it becomes complicated. There are some things that can jeopardise these 2 simple things happening:

  • Student attendance
  • Lack of teachers/subject specialists
  • Behaviour
  • Enforced policies that don’t support these e.g lesson observations that require teachers to jump through hoops that meet a set of criteria that aren’t based on these

But in my opinion these are the responsibility of leaders. They need to work on these so that teachers can teach.

Teacher development should focus on how an individual teacher needs to develop in these two areas. It might involve how they feedback to a student, their routines for embedding knowledge or teacher exposition of how to answer exam questions. Sitting in a hall telling them when/how to mark books is missing the point. The correct answer may be ‘never’ if all their systems and practices in the class support the 2 main ways to improve grades.

So next time you initiate or are initiated into a whole school system designed for classroom practice ask you yourself two questions:

  1. How does this contribute to students knowing what they need to know?
  2. How does this contribute to students being able to apply this knowledge in an exam question?

If it doesn’t answer these, it’s probably not worth the time spent for students or teachers.

 

*I am well aware of issues surrounding exam board marking but have put these to one side in this blog.