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Involving students in the exam preparation process using a number of different methods has paid dividends, research finds.Innovative work on exam preparation with college students has led to dramatic improvements in Higher results.

Small-scale studies by the Scottish Further Education Unit at Angus and Adam Smith colleges have motivated students and driven up pass rates - in some cases, well above national averages.

In Higher English, they increased from 56 per cent in 2005-06 to 73 per cent the following year.

In Higher psychology, first assessment pass rates increased from 61 per cent to 85 per cent; for second assessments, the rise was from 81 per cent to 100 per cent.

Earlier research had identified "deficiencies" in exam preparation, which contributed to lower than expected pass rates - in 2006, the pre-appeal pass rate for Higher maths was 68.8 per cent overall, but only 39.1 per cent in colleges; a similar disparity was evident in Higher English.

But impressive results were recorded after students took part in 10 mini-projects across the two colleges, covering subjects including English, maths, psychology, sociology and biology. Some involved Higher students, but others looked at Intermediate 1 and 2.

Some students had to mark peers' work and assess their own. Others were shown how marks in exams were allocated. Some were exposed to a mixture of exam preparation methods.

Researchers Marie Morrison and Mitch Miller analysed not only exam results, but also what students thought of the various methods.

The improved pass rate in Higher English took place at Angus College, where work with 21 students aimed to help them understand the marking system better.

Students learned, for example, about the rationale behind marking of close-reading passages. Confidence was boosted and students made some "very interesting and enlightening comments" when they were asked to make up questions themselves.

In work with 13 Higher psychology students at Angus College, the "considerable improvement" in results came after a lecturer explained how marks were allocated - although the students may also have been of higher ability than the previous year's cohort.

Students were "very interested" and motivation improved, but "there were limits": they did not volunteer to submit extra essays for marking, even though it was suggested this could be helpful.

The pass rate for Intermediate 2 maths students at Angus College increased from 59 per cent in 2005-06 to a "very high" 82 per cent the next year - well above the national average of 61 per cent.

The 2006-07 students had marked peers' work and assessed themselves as part of homework. They were reluctant to buy into peer-marking, believing this was the work of the lecturer.

No significant changes to attainment were detected among 17 Higher biology students at Adam Smith College, who were studying the subject as part of the Access to Nursing course - a cohort with a persistently low pass rate. But the retention rate was far better, with only one student dropping out from the original class. In two control classes, only 11 out of 18 and 12 out of 18 persevered with their studies.

A number of approaches were used, and a feedback form focusing on where students needed to improve their performance proved particularly successful.

The researchers concluded that the results were "promising", adding that specific focus on exam preparation could be "motivating". Their work also appeared to vindicate the ideas behind Assessment is for Learning.

But they stressed a number of caveats - not least the small scale of the projects - and questions remained over how much specific techniques improved performance. There was also evidence of the Hawthorne effect, whereby a student's performance improves largely because they are getting increased attention.

The findings were presented at the recent annual conference of the Scottish Educational Research Association.

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