The power of using exam papers for learning


Having seen someone else blog on how they use exam papers in class, I thought I’d share what I do with them. Apologies for those that want scientific evidence based research with multiple testing and effect sizes. I do this kind of thing by instinct and so far it’s ‘worked’.

I teach a subject that is 100% exam so being confident in the exam is part of the way to succeed. It is a skills based exam so may be different to others but I’m sure this could be adapted. It is also a subject for which there are many old papers. I will have to rethink when the new specifications come out.

I have always  given students a past paper within the first few lessons. The quicker they see what they are aiming for, the better. Sounds boring but on the whole they appreciate it. I’ve heard students say in April that they’ve not ever seen a paper for their subject. Professional suicide in my opinion!

This year, I, like many have had to rethink how I teach AS with the abandonment of January exams. I teach a two unit AS. In the past it’s been simple, teach unit 1 do the exam, teach unit 2, do the exam.

How learning was organised with January exams. Notice the dip once the exam was done.'Fine' if no re-sit needed.

How learning(?)was organised with January exams. Notice the dip once the exam was done.’Fine’ if no re-sit needed.


I was very concerned that having to learn two units for the summer would be tough so I changed to this.


Whilst the lesson focus in January turned to unit 2 content the learning continues in unit 1 due to exam paper completion.

Whilst the lesson focus in January turned to unit 2 content the learning continues in unit 1 due to exam paper completion.


I decided to teach the content in the same order and roughly to the some timing however, I believe that I have managed to use exam papers to ensure that the students don’t forget unit 1. Here is how I’ve done it:

  • Virtually every lesson from October to January involves one or more exam question. Early in the term, applying what they’ve learnt in each lesson is important to their understanding of how the content ‘works’.


How lessons are structured over unit 1.

How lessons are structured over unit 1. Not quite the study:test:test:test:test model but my version of it.

  • This builds up to about December where I start giving them whole papers to complete for homework, once a fortnight. (I teach them once a week)
  • They hand them in the next lesson and we swap papers and peer mark (in red pen) all the questions that are the simpler right/wrong answers. I’ve found that my AS group this year have done this very well. There’s plenty of ‘banter’ but I hear them discussing in depth the mark scheme which they must understand to be able to mark the question. If there is a question they’re unsure of how to mark they either leave it or write “*Miss Cox” which indicates to me to double check. Peer marking has worked very well with them. They’ve on the whole seen how to answer a question by looking at someone else’s paper, if they themselves have got it wrong or weren’t sure how to write it.
  • They then get their own paper back and if we have time, we use highlighters on the longer questions which I need to mark. They allocate a colour for each particular aspect they need to include. I often hear ‘oh no’  when they realise what they missed out. This self realisation I think is part of the process.



  • This is then handed in for me to mark. I do this for the next lesson. Then for the first part of the next lesson we ‘green pen’ the work. Our school have green pens for students to write in when they make improvements (DIRT). What they green pen will depend on my feedback and their targets from the last paper (explained below). In this time I can speak with students about any errors send things they’ve improved on.


  • After the green pen time  they then have to create two targets for themselves. Two things that if they’d done them they’d have gained more marks or would have helped the examiner in the marking of their script.


  • I give them their paper for the next homework and they write these two targets on the front of the new paper. These are the things they must remember to do next time.


'Be Matt' is part of the class joke!

‘Be Matt’ is part of the class joke!


  • I then, in front of the class get each student to tell me their two targets. I type them live on my Google sheet for the class. This is deliberate. It ensures the targets are realistic and meaningful as possible, it makes them verbalise them which hopefully means they understand what they’re saying and it also creates an atmosphere in class where they have to be silent and listen.
My Google sheet where I type my notes of what they've set as targets

My Google sheet where I type my notes of what they’ve set as targets

  • They then have until next lesson to complete and the cycle starts again.

I keep a record of their targets and whether they met them.


The tracking of targets

The tracking of targets

There have been occasions where they all have a particular area to practice so alongside the next paper they have to completely re-do one of the longer questions, taking note of what they did wrong the first time.

So far I’ve not had a student repeatedly have the same targets. They tend to ‘master’ something and then move on.

I have also done this with my A2 student and I have seen her skills develop and her marks increase on a paper by paper basis. She can also really clearly see this happening in front of her. If she does what she didn’t do last time then she will improve!

Over the Easter holidays I haven’t told students to ‘revise’, I’ve just given them papers that they must complete. Completing the papers IS revision itself. There are only a few things they can revise discretely in my subject.

As I’ve blogged before I truly believe that if students are taking exams we are doing them a real disservice if we do not fully expose them to exam papers. Success in most GCSEs and A Levels come to being able to complete an exam correctly. My aim is that students are so sick of completing exam papers that the actual exam becomes second nature to them. If you call this teaching to the exam then ‘Yes’ I teach to the test. However I have also evaluated the impact of this method of teaching/learning and it would seem that anecdotally the learning has actually stuck and students have applied their learning in their further studies and work life.

Results are good,they enjoy their learning and they learn for life. I think that’s my job done.


Faith & practice in RE – Are we presenting the reality?


Inspired by an animated talk on this at the #RETeachmeet at the Culham St. Gabriel’s weekend last year and then more recently by Tom Sherrintons blog on homophobia, I’ve been thinking about how the RE key stage 4 curriculum could be developed.  

In the GCSE syllabus I teach we basically have to teach religious views on moral issues and be able to give an opinion on the issues and/or the religious views. Very basic reasoning skills are needed ( developed reason & simple counters) however there isn’t much scope for a coherent extended argument. Whilst the current format makes it easy to mark, I think we’re restricting developing the students reasoning and argument writing skills which is a high level skill that is transferable across the curriculum. 

So I have been thinking about some content that I think today’s children want and need to know and understand; the real life manifestation of religion in the UK, not just the core teachings & practices. They should be studied along side each other. I believe RE has a huge job in preparing children for life and the more they understand the practices of those around them the more chance they have of being able to engage in the UK as a truly multi-ethnic and multi-faith society.

I have posed it as a set of questions that could be turned in to statements. My thoughts are that they allow students to investigate real life examples and use these as kinds of case studies to back up their points. Some are based on common questions that students ask me I.e ‘Miss, I was christened, does that make me a Christian?’This also allows them to focus on their local faith communities as they can use examples from near them as case studies. These are just suggestions and are unrefined and unedited. I hope others can add/amend/delete as they see fit.


  1. Why don’t some believers in a faith follow all the teachings? How do they justify not following their holy book/leaders?
  2. What difficulties might a child face growing up in the UK being a Christian? Why?
  3. What difficulties might a child face growing up in the UK following a religion other than Christianity? Why?
  4. What is a faith school? How does it differ from a non-faith school? Why might a person go to a faith school who is not a follower of that faith?
  5. Where does religious teaching & practice conflict with UK law? What options does a faith member have?
  6. What religious rights does an individual/ group have in the UK? How do these compare to other countries?
  7. Why do people take part in celebrations of a religious nature if they do not believe in that religion? Is this a problem for members of the faith?
  8. In the world of work, how might religion be encountered?
  9. How is culture often confused with religion? Can they be totally separated?
  10. If you are brought up in a religion (and have taken part in religious ceremonies) does that automatically make you a member of a faith?
  11. How does the UK media represent religion? What bias may there be? Why? 
  12. Does the internet accurately reflect the belief and teachings of religions? How and why?
  13. Why might someone claim to be a follower or not be a follower of a religion when the opposite is true? Can it be justified?
  14. Is the UK still a Christian country? Why?
  15. How might living in a particular area of the UK impact your experience of religion? 
  16. How has the presence of religious buildings changed in the UK? What key issues are there regarding religious buildings?


I think that students should have the freedom to create logical, balanced well supported arguments based on everything they have learned. They should be taught basic reasoning skills to construct their arguments. This means any topic can be applied. It requires a good knowledge and understanding for it to be coherent. Here is a suggested format…



Write an argument to either support or challenge this statement. In your answer you must include:

  • A clear conclusion of your point of view
  • at least two reasons that support your view
  • evidence/example/case study/quotes that support the reasoning
  • a counter view with dismissal

Example case studies/evidence/examples:

  • Catholic use of contraception
  • People that celebrate Christmas/Easter yet are not Christian
  • The UK law on polygamy 
  • UK census results
  • The Church of England selling church land and property


I would be interested to hear people views on this, including further ideas of key issues for RE students of today.

RIP whole school CPD


Most teachers have sat in a hall, all together and been talked ‘at’ regarding a whole school priority. The thing that the latest Ofsted report said we should focus on: ‘boys’, ‘differentiation’ or ‘starters’. It may have been presented in a funny, engaging, anecdotal manner, with laughter and nods from the audience.

But what impact does it have? How does it change what we do for the better? How is the impact of this ‘training’ measured? Can it be measured? 

I am fed up with the lack of differentiation with CPD.  Could it be that I am able to teach boys, differentiate effectively and am brilliant with starters*? Could it be that what I need to work on is something that no-one else in my school does? **

If we are saying that students deserve a differentiated lesson, can have different special needs and have individual targets, then why isn’t this carried through to our teachers?

Some schools offer a programme of training sessions throughout the term. At first glance it looks like a nice range of sessions. ‘How to use excel as a mark book’, ‘Questioning’, or ‘Dealing with disengaged, school action plus girls who are FSM’.  However, the small print says ‘You must choose 6 sessions per term’. It’s irrelevant if you don’t need to work on 6 of these. You just have to choose 6. Isn’t this similar to giving students a ‘choice’ of targets but none of them actually meet their need?

And how are these evaluated in terms of impact on practice? Either a register to prove you were there or as David Weston calls them something like a ‘happy’ questionnaire. A small questionnaire completed directly after the session mostly based on how enjoyable the session was rather than whether it was relevant to your practice and the  potential impact it may have on practice. They’re not evaluated a month/3 months/6months /a year after the session to find out the actual difference it made.  

And then there’s the ‘You’re good at it so you can lead the training’.That’s your CPD sorted isn’t it? Well no it isn’t. Whilst I love supporting colleagues and sharing ideas, it isn’t meeting my needs for developing MY teaching. Back to the student analogy, it is my pet hate of putting the most able student as the group leader to help the other students. They already know what they’re doing so they can ‘teach’ the rest of their group. Lovely. But what did they learn? Yes they developed their leadership skills……and?! We should use people’s expertise, especially those who are on the upper pay scale or with leadership posts BUT we must also provide targeted support for their own development.

So what is the way forward and why are schools reluctant to change?

Many schools like to say that their teacher’s PM/appraisal targets inform the CPD programme. However if this were 100% true the job of organising this programme would be immense in some schools. If you have 100+ teaching staff this could be 300+ targets.

I think that leaders are scared to ‘let go’. How can they justify the CPD provision? Isn’t it easier to present a nicely presented programme of sessions ( to anyone who is checking) than to try to evidence 100+ individual ‘programmes’? It’s a leap of faith to trust your colleagues to take control of their own CPD. What about those, who like some students, cannot ‘work independently’? How can SLT ‘prove’ they’re working on whole school priorities if people aren’t being made to engage in whole school training?

Something needs to change across education so that all schools run personalised, truly developmental, accountable CPD. The concept of ‘whole school priorities’ should change.  The idea that 2 hours after school on a Monday night for CPD must change. Attending a session is not enough. Measuring the impact must be an essential part of the CPD.

The future of CPD

  • Twitter has taught me that my CPD is in a teacher’s own hands. I have spent £100s 2013/14 on going to events that meet my needs. But do all teachers know what is out there? In the past year I have taken part in webinars, TeachMeets, network meetings, weekend conferences, Saturday conferences. Shouldn’t it be up to me when I do my CPD? Why does it have to be Monday after school?
  • A professional portfolio– it should be my responsibility, I should be held to account with it. It should have a minimum expectation. It should use a wide range of evidence. Could be based around the teacher standards? Keeping it update is CPD in itself as it requires reflection and identification of areas for development.

Here is mine that I keep personally. It can include space for student work, videos of me teaching and anything else that contributes to my development.


Here are the possible sources of evidence for the professional portfolio.


  • Coaching – if any CPD is to truly focus around my needs in my classroom then coaching in its purest form will help to identify and work areas to develop. I’ve also heard that Lesson Study has the potential to move forwards T&L.
  • Working with others – not just in school but with other schools. Any school. Not just those in an alliance or pyramid. I should be able to work with anyone that can help me move forwards. Getting into another school for a few days a year should be compulsory, for everyone (support staff, LSAs, teachers, SLT and the Headteacher)
  • Subject networks – These are especially important in subjects with traditionally small amounts of staff. I should be able to meet with subject colleagues AND it be recognised as CPD.
  • The role of T&L/CPD coordinator must change – I would argue that this is a huge job to organise and monitor but with effective line management and middle leaders monitoring it should not revolve around this person organising Monday night sessions.
  • CPD funding – I suggest we move to a system where each member of staff is given their own CPD budget. I can then use this how I need. It may include buying relevant books, petrol to visit another school or supply cover for me to go somewhere. It should all link in to my personal priorities. It should be reviewed at the end of the year as part of my professional portfolio.
  • Reading – I admit it. I’ve started to read education stuff this year. It’s since I’ve taken control of my own CPD. I’ve heard people mention books and blogs. These have directly impacted my practice. Should we be encouraging all staff to spend time reading appropriate texts rather than sitting in a room listening to someone?
  • The only ‘whole school’ training should be on the compulsory Health & Safety and safeguarding etc
  • Evaluation and measuring impact – the professional portfolio could cover this in a reflection section or a blog. What CPD have you undertaken and what impact has it had over different periods of time?  It could be supported with images, video clips, student work to show etc to show the subtle evolution of practice. 

I know there are schools that don’t do the whole school sessions any more but I think there are still too many that aren’t treating their teachers in the way that they’re telling staff to treat their students. Learning is learning, it doesn’t matter how old you are.

* I hate the concept of a starter anyway.

** I admit I have special needs. I am the kid who you have to think completely differently for. Most ASTs I’ve met are the same. We’re ASTs for a reason but that doesn’t mean that we don’t need training. Our teaching isn’t perfect. We can all learn.(I am aware this sounds arrogant but it genuinely isn’t meant to be)

EDIT  5/5/2014

Following #NTENRED I would like to add the following to what teachers can do:

Research – Whether alone or in pairs/groups, research has the potential to directly make a difference in the classroom. A teacher should choose the focus based on their own needs and interests.

I believe Mary Myatt used the term ‘micro research’ in her presentation. I think this is the small changes or ‘tweaks’ we make in our teaching. Some teachers do this unconsciously, particularly if they’re reflective on their practice.  This should be encouraged but not made into an onerous task.

Alternatively, if staff feel they have the capacity they could complete a more structured action research project.

David Weston said in his session said that effective CPD should take place over a large amount of hours 30-40? Doing this kind of research would easily take this time and have the potential to make significant individual differences.