Exam students are suddenly hanging on my every word

With exams cancelled this year, GCSE and A-level students are more focused and attentive, says Louise Lewis

Louise Lewis

GCSEs and A levels 2021: Without exams, students are suddenly more focused, says Louise Lewis

The last academic year was different, to say the least. Challenges, questions, downright despair – these all featured heavily in our daily life. But we survived it, our students were awarded their hard-earned grades (eventually), we learned lessons, brushed ourselves off and were ready to fight another day.

In the periphery, this teacher looked on and said, “Hold my beer.”

Like many teachers, I faced a barrage of questions from September to December. “Will we sit exams?” “Do you think we’ll have teacher-assessed grades?” “Miss, what should I do?”

With every caveat I could muster, my general standpoint was: “I think exams will happen, but might look different.” And also: “I’m not sure, but teachers might have some input on grades, and: “Work hard, stay focused, and revise.”

GCSEs and A levels: Keeping your eyes on the prize

In schools up and down the land, educators use a proportion of learning time to instil in our students the virtues of effective study habits, of revising consistently. We try and motivate our students to see the end goal and strive towards it in sustainable increments.

But, with all the motivational talk and cognitive science we provide them with, our students inevitably struggle to see into the future, and to keep their eye on the prize. After all, anyone who has ever made a new year’s resolution knows how hard it can be to follow it through, no matter how much we want to. 

For our students, there is always “later”. May and June exams are always so far in the distance: they have plenty of time, they are going to do it, they are going to revise, definitely. And often they do – albeit with significant stress, long hours and a bit of panic thrown in for good measure. Which goes against every ounce of advice we give them.

Until now. 

Earlier this month, we heard the announcement that we all knew was a possibility, but perhaps never really believed would become a reality. Exams were cancelled. Shockwaves reverberated around every school, classroom and email inbox. 

Exams 2021: The silver lining we all need

But then, suddenly, we found the silver lining we all need. Students who were previously prone to procrastination were suddenly fired into action. Those who were despondent are now driven. And students who had all the time in the world now see value in every minute. 

Lessons are focused, students are, well, studious and class work is thorough. These are positives at a time when they are needed the most.  

Of course, it is our students who benefit the most. Whatever your philosophy of education is, surely we can all agree that students who are attentive to their learning, determined to achieve their best and are owning their progress is massively advantageous. Instead of seeing a date somewhere in the distant future, our learners are firmly planted in the here and now. They’re looking at how they can best use their time to achieve their best possible outcome. 

It’s not all sweetness and light, obviously. There are times when the pure focus and attention of an entire class is a little unnerving for the teacher. Do I have my breakfast smeared on my face? Again? I did change out of my PJs for this lesson, right? 

Then comes the ridiculous arrogance. Wow, I am so interesting, aren’t I? Yes, homeostatic mechanisms are fascinating!

Still, regardless of the second-guessing and self-doubt – and as saccharine as it sounds – this is wonderful for a teacher to see and to be a part of. 

I am not naïve. I’m not oblivious to the doom and gloom of the current situation. And I don’t have rose-tinted glasses for the current educational picture. I’m not advocating for exam abolition or reinstatement. 

But I can see that some students are making the best of this situation. And, for that, I am both grateful and incredibly proud of the resilience of our learners. 

Whatever your point of view on exams – and these arguments will no doubt continue ad infinitum – there are silver linings to the current situation. And it is our responsibility to maximise these. Our students deserve it. 

Louise Lewis is a research lead and deputy head of science in a Yorkshire secondary school. She tweets @MissLLewis 

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