GCSEs and A levels 2021: how to model exam technique

If students don't understand exam technique, they will never make the grade, says this curriculum lead, so here is a step-by-step guide to showing them how it's done
11th November 2020, 12:00pm

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GCSEs and A levels 2021: how to model exam technique

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All teachers know that there is more to preparing for an exam than simply going over the facts.

However much our students revise the material we have taught them, they won't get the marks unless they can also decode the exam questions and communicate their knowledge in writing.  

That means that we need to explicitly teach exam technique. But what does that look like?

Firstly, we need to teach them the key words and phrases that they need to look out for and to clearly model this process. In his article "Principles of Instruction", Barak Rosenshine recommends using "worked examples", which he defines as "a step-by-step demonstration of how to perform a task or how to solve a problem".

Exam technique: how to get it right 

Here is a step-by-step guide for how to apply this principle to teaching exam technique. 

1. Choose your questions 

You need to think carefully about which type of exam question you want to model. Do examiner's reports or centre-level analysis give an indication of types of questions that students regularly answer badly, or of command words that they commonly struggle with? 

Always check that your exam question content is relevant to the students you are working with, as they value intervention that directly supports their next exam.


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2. Consider your teaching environment

A visualiser is vital, as you will need to write on the same exam question that the students have. But where should your modelling take place? A classroom environment is fine, but it can help to model in the environment where students will actually sit their exam in: in the school hall, for example. If you are combining classes to do this, it also provides a CPD opportunity for newer teachers.

3. Talk through the question 

The Education Endowment Foundation's "Metacognition and Self-regulated Learning" toolkit states that "teachers should verbalise their metacognitive thinking as they approach and work through a task". 

Applied to exam questions, this involves starting to read from the beginning of the question as this contains so many clues that are often missed by the students. You should point out why you are considering certain words and phrases and what knowledge this links to. Circle the command word and explain what this is asking you to do. Point out and circle or underline other clues that the question may hold, such as "other than the example in the question". Circle the number of marks, and explain how this will affect the answer. If it is a longer answer question you should break this number down so students can understand where they will be getting the marks from.

4. Write the answer

Your response to the question should obviously be in the style that the exam board wants to see. Different subjects have different expectations here, so be clear if it is bullet points or paragraphs. Use your points from talking through the question to construct your answer. It is essential that the students participate in copying down this "perfect" answer as well as the points from stage three.

5. Evaluation and practice

Evaluation is vital for the student's metacognitive development. Students need to reflect on how many of your thought processes they currently use, what have they learned from listening to you, and what they need to change about their own technique next time they are attempting a question. 

Ideally practice should be done soon after the modelling, even as a part of the same session. Every time an exam question is attempted in class thereafter, the students should be reminded to think of the strategies they have learned.

Janina Stromfield is curriculum leader of science at Sackville School in Sussex. She tweets @Janinascience 

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