'In our current system, exams are about the outcome, rather than the learning that gets to them'

8th April 2017 at 18:03
Exams prioritised over learning
With all manner of after school, before school and holiday revision sessions being run, do we send the message that pupils' aggregated effort over two years is more important than in the last two weeks?

It's a few months until the GCSE exams start. You’re teaching Year 11. You ask them how they are feeling about their exams and the first answer you get is: “Well, I’ve got plenty of time to revise”.

In fact, said students are spending more time thinking about the time when they will revise than what they are currently doing. Perhaps the teacher is, too.

There seems to be a reliance on this vague conflation of revision and learning.

Having one eye on the exam timetable is part and parcel of teaching. But, owing to the high stakes pressure, it brings out – at best – some cold sweats or – at worst – some unnatural and unhelpful pedagogical changes, ranging from rushed teaching to “I'm going to let them get on with some revision in this lesson while I review our departmental revision resources”.

The problem is that while students seem to have dangerous misconceptions about what revision actually is, for teachers, their own students' obsession with the term has perhaps led some to forget that cramming, after-school revision sessions and all those interventions with Year 11 in the last few months are not as impactful as a whole range of other things, even in the closing weeks of the GCSE course.

I’ve been as guilty of this as anyone.

In the past, I have introduced an intensive timetable of additional lessons and revision sessions in the lead up to the exams for Year 11. The aim of which was to go over the bits that I felt students didn’t have the best handle on.

When planning these sessions, I realised in my heart of hearts that some of it I simply hadn’t taught that well. Granted, in some cases this was due to intense time constraints – trying to power through reams of content. Instead of saying “I’m going to teach this one topic extremely well even if it means I don’t cover the other two in time”, I went for the “I’m going to skim teach all three of these topics”.

“Whirlwind teaching”, as I would describe it, isn’t about learning. It’s about ticking necessary boxes and did little for my students.

I knew some of them were lost, but I persisted because I believed they needed to cover that content in some way, any way, just as I believed that all manner of after-school, before-school and holiday revision sessions were necessary and effective. The reality of the last being that there was little differential in the final results between those who had attended all the revision sessions and those that hadn’t.

In fact, there may have even been a negative differential one year.

This whole thing with revision sessions reminds me of my Spanish lessons here in Spain. I turned up for the first few months religiously every week at 5pm, but because of a combination of tiredness and my lack of language-learning ability, I switched off for part of each session.

Better than nothing? Maybe. But a tick in the box of language learning? Probably not.

And this is the same for some students, who, for the sake of appeasing mummy and daddy, turn up to every revision session but are more interested in chatting to their mates or daydreaming.

Meanwhile, poor Mrs Muggins has spent an hour or so planning the session, resourcing it and delivering it at the end of an already tiring day. She drives home with the sincere but misguided notion that Johnny will get a better result because of his attendance.

Meanwhile, she gets back too tired and too late to mark the Year 11 books and to plan adequately for the following day's lesson.

And so, the cycle of tickbox revision goes on, perhaps to the detriment of quality teaching or quality assessment.

For the students, the message is clear: revision sessions will save you, as long as you attend.

So, for those students of a lazy disposition, their default position is sometimes to do nothing until the revision sessions start and then attend every one of them.

If schools say they aren’t running them, from the outset, how would that impact Year 11 pupils' attitude towards the exam season?

Do we send the message that learning is a process that happens over the course of two years, not two months?

Do we send the message that their aggregated effort over two years is more important than in the last two weeks? Sometimes, I'm not sure we do.  

I sometimes worry that in our current system, exams are about the outcome rather than the learning. Funnily enough, this has ended up being to the detriment of both.

From my personal experience, these are the things I feel have been successful in ensuring that students pass exams:

1. Quality teaching

Ensuring that when content is first introduced, it's done so in the best way possible. The lesson or series of lessons digs deeper into the topic and doesn’t skim. Assessment within the lesson is given time and priority.

2. Spacing

Returning to the same content in the form of a mini-quiz or short test every second or third lesson, then moving to every fifth or sixth lesson. Making sure that provision for knowledge consolidation is definite.

3. Active revision

Ensuring that students know how to revise. It’s no good just reading notes. It’s important that students understand methods that give the best possible chance at knowledge retention in the shortest possible time.

These are often active methods that force students to do more. Games, quizzing and using flashcards fall into that bracket. It’s also worth noting, that when students teach each other, they retain the most amount of the information.

4. Exam skill practice

Students need to be ultra-familiar with the exam paper. Dawn Cox writes that her students would know how to answer questions on the exam way before learning the content for it, owing to concerted efforts to familiarise students with mark schemes and model answers. This needs to happen through the course, not as a “tag on” at the end.

Don't forget to check out Tesrevision tips hub for a wealth or revision ideas, techniques and advice.

Thomas Rogers is a teacher who runs rogershistory.com and tweets @RogersHistory

For more columns by Tom, view his back catalogue

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