Exam technique: Seven steps to help students write under timed conditions

29th March 2017 at 15:02
A deputy head of English shares her tips for helping GCSE students to develop the exam technique of writing quickly and accurately under time pressure

I’m well acquainted with the despairing looks from Year 11 as they realise, too late, that they’ve run out of time in an exam. The new English language GCSE requires students to use all kinds of different skills in a short amount of time, and learning to work within the time restrictions is an important exam technique that is crucial to success.

To help my students get up to speed (literally), I’ve tried getting them to change the order of answering questions, write shorter plans and develop a more concise writing style. All of these methods help, but are not quite enough to propel them through the exam at breakneck speed.

My latest approach is to combine the above with my barking motivational instructions in the style of a personal trainer: “Come on, one more! You can do this!” This seems to be doing the trick.

Here are my seven steps for helping students to write at speed:

1. Cover the basics

Make sure that the subject knowledge is there to avoid students wasting time worrying about what a question is asking them to do. Spend a few lessons going over terminology, teaching mnemonics and practising how to find effective quotations in source material.

2. Look at question types

Spend one lesson focusing on each question on the exam paper. Get students to answer a model question of this type, giving them an example answer and sentence starters to support them. Don’t time them; just give them the chance to see what they are capable of with plenty of thinking time and the chance to develop their answer.

3. Responses with timings and support

In the next lesson, repeat the above activity with the same support, but under timed conditions. Most students will manage to write a sufficient amount when they are given one question in isolation, showing them that they can do it. If they struggle, ask them to go back to step two for a few lessons.

4. Responses with timings and no support

The next stage is to remove the support, but keep the timings. Scaffolding can be very helpful but if it isn’t taken away then you run the risk of students floundering in the exam. They need to see that they can do it independently. You might like to play "race the teacher", where you write a response at the same time as the students and let them use your answer for self-assessment purposes.

5. An entire section with no help

As a nice treat, spring a surprise "section A" mock exam on the class. They will need to use all of the skills and timings in one lesson and see how far they get with all four questions. Whilst they are hard at work, patrol the room and give a few quiet pointers to individuals: “Great, you’re doing well”; “Don’t forget effect!” Follow this with some louder reminders for the whole class: “You have had 15 minutes; you should be moving onto Question 3 now.”

6. Failure and recognition

Most likely, students won’t finish all the questions in their mock section exam. They will, however, see which questions they spent too much time on and what went wrong. In essence, they believe you now and don’t think you were making the timings up just to trick them.

7. Improvement

One more go at an entire Section A and you see more success. They know what they did last time, they recognise when enough is enough and they have your barking in their head the entire time just to keep them on track. Repeats steps six to seven as many times as necessary.

Sophie Hederer is a deputy head of English in Nottingham. She tweets @engteachwbs

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