Why I got my students to write their own GCSE exams

Struggling to engage some of his GCSE resit students in English, Tom Vines hit upon an idea – asking them what was wrong with the exam. Encouraging learners to deconstruct past questions and write their own practice papers has, he says, fired up their interest in the subject and helped to develop their skills
24th July 2020, 12:01am
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Tom Vines


Why I got my students to write their own GCSE exams


Jade finally agrees to put her phone away the third time I ask her - although I suspect that it is actually only on her lap.

"I might have to come to your lesson, but you can't make me learn if I don't want to," she says.

Of course, she is right. Jade has enrolled on a hair and beauty course. She didn't want to do English again - why would she? She's already failed the subject twice and has no interest at all in reading.

Yet somehow I have to figure out a way to get Jade, and other reluctant readers like her, to want to learn in my lessons. If I can't do that, then they are well on their way to failing English for a third time.

But how do you force someone to learn? If, like me, you've trawled through various studies looking for new ways to engage students in maths and English, you'll understand two things: one, there is a lot of advice and guidance out there; and two, not much of it applies to students like mine.

The reality is that we've all got different students, in different colleges, which have different lecturer skill sets. We need something tailored to our unique circumstances. I had an idea that I thought just might work in mine.

I had realised that the most energised lessons I'd had with my students were the ones in which I allowed them to vent their frustrations about having to come to my lessons in the first place. When given a chance to complain about having to do English, suddenly Brian the brickwork student was using full sentences; Michael the media student was actually talking to his peers; and Jade finally put down her phone without being asked (OK, it was still on her lap, but she was engaged).

So, I decided to ask my students to tell me what they thought was wrong with the English exam and ask them to help me fix it. Having been a teacher and an examiner for GCSE English for a long time, I suspected the exam papers were not as student-centric as they could be - but I had not realised the extent of the problem.

I managed to secure funding for the project from the Outstanding Teaching, Learning and Assessment programme, through the Education and Training Foundation. My first step after this was to put a team of lecturers and students together. Their job was to design and interpret a questionnaire, which would start us on phase one: identifying factors that disengaged students from the paper.

The initial meetings between students and lecturers went surprisingly well. I'd expected the teachers to lead the proceedings, but the students had a lot to say.

Once the questionnaire had been drawn up, we got students in GCSE English lessons to fill it out. We included texts from past papers as reference points for the questions.

This first questionnaire was successful, but we soon realised that there was more information to be gathered, so we developed a second questionnaire designed to catch more detailed data. We asked questions such as: where in the text did it get boring? What do you think about the author of this text? What do you think this question is asking you to do?

We only focused on paper two texts (non-fiction writing), as we felt we had more scope to make alternative suggestions here than for paper one (creative writing).

What did we find out? Obviously, we had some less helpful responses, but there was also a wealth of insightful comments. For instance, we discovered that the length of the text wasn't a factor in student disengagement. However, the formatting on the page could assist with maintaining a student's focus. The use of paragraphing was essential, as was the use of an image - no matter how irrelevant.

It also became obvious that students did not understand what some of the questions were asking them to do. I already knew from past experience that some GCSE English questions do not encourage responses that relate to the mark scheme as we are told to apply it. The questionnaire confirmed this.

In addition, we learned that the topic of the text makes a difference. Students were turned off by texts about snow, surfing and sailing. They simply didn't care about these topics and saw the writers as "overprivileged" people whose actions didn't make sense to them. Students had an issue with something that we labelled the "why factor" - they would ask why the person in the text was doing what they were doing. For example: "If there's so much snow, why are you going out in it?" "Why are you cycling if you can drive?" "Why are you rowing across the Atlantic?"

Back in our team, we discussed what this meant and how we could fix the issues. We knew we couldn't change the way that the exams were written, but thought that if we could give the students a paper on a topic they could engage with, using questions that they understood (and could relate to the mark scheme), then they would at least have a chance to practise the skills they would need in the exam.

We began phase two of the project: researching different texts using our questionnaire answers on "hot topics" - a list of topics that the students would like to read about. Unsurprisingly, our list wasn't too highbrow: murder, psychopaths, weird things, crime, outrageous attitudes and beliefs, and the paranormal. We had to find examples of these topics in Victorian texts (luckily, our list was a perfect fit for the era) and then find a contemporary counterpart.

It worked surprisingly well. One of the Victorian texts that went down particularly well was about a Russian sideshow performer known as "Jo-Jo the Dog-Faced Boy" - we knew we were on to a winner when we found out that he appears as a character in the film The Greatest Showman.

We then paired this with a contemporary article about image perception, written by TV presenter Katie Piper.

Once we had our comparative texts, we set about rewording the questions. This began with deconstructing them, to really understand the requirements of the assessment objectives and mark scheme. From there, we rewrote the questions to make it clearer what they were asking for.

Unfortunately, owing to the coronavirus pandemic, we have not been able to formally put our new questions to the test, so I cannot say definitively how well they would have worked. However, I can tell you about the change I have seen in the students who were part of the team, and what we've learned.

The student team became more confident about answering the questions, because they knew what was being asked of them. The English language skills they have displayed in developing and interpreting questionnaires, researching Victorian and contemporary texts and breaking down the complexities of assessment objectives are staggering. Sadly, it's not in the exam.

Still, I have high hopes that they will go on to replicate some of these skills in the future and their involvement in the project will have a lasting positive impact on their English.

As for me, I have learned to listen more and talk less. I have learned that the exam should be testing the English skills of the students, not their interests. If they don't want to read a text because it bores them, how can they engage with it? And if they can't engage with it, how can they be expected to analyse it?

If you were to ask me what an episode of Love Island could tell us about the complexities of relationships, I'm afraid my answer probably wouldn't be up to much. But, if you were to ask Jade, it would be a different story.

The biggest takeaway, then, is that if you are planning on implementing a new strategy, it pays to get your students involved. If you ask them first, you are more likely to get the outcomes you are looking for. We might not be able to rewrite the real exam papers that our students have to sit, but we can rewrite the papers they practise with. And if that means less sailing across the Atlantic and more Jo-Jo the Dog-Faced Boy, then that's fine with me.

Tom Vines is head of functional skills at Brooklands College in Surrey

This article originally appeared in the 24 July 2020 issue under the headline "Why I got my students to write their own exams"

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