Take a tip from the marathon runners: swap mocks for a more holistic training regime for exams

Schools need their own version of the research-informed training regime marathon runners use to help children be successful in exam season, argues Daisy Christodoulou

GCSE feedback: how to make it better

If you suggested to a runner that the only way you could measure their progress towards their end goal of completing the London Marathon was to get them to run 26.2 miles in every training session, they’d think you were crazy. Such an approach would lead to injury and demotivation. It would also be a near-impossible task for most novice runners. 

Yet when we measure progress towards exams through grades and mock exams, this is essentially what we are asking of our students: we’re assuming that the only way you can measure progress towards the end goal of examination success is by carrying out activities that look exactly like the end goal. 

We need to stop. 

Exam training

Just as you can become a faster runner by doing activities that don’t involve running, so too there are ways you can get better at taking exams that don’t involve taking exams. 

How? The tactics runners use for monitoring their progress can give us a lot of insight into monitoring progress in the classroom. Of course, most training plans recommend logging a lot of miles running. But that running takes different forms: long slow runs, faster tempo runs, and even faster interval training. And most plans recommend other activities too, such as swimming, yoga and weight training, not to mention advice on nutrition, sleep, and motivation. 

There’s an enormous research literature that has also been translated into practical training plans for the amateur to help them excel. 

A lack of guidance

Do we have similar in education when it comes to supporting academic attainment? Unfortunately, in the case of many school subjects, we are less well served. Even where a large body of research does exist, it often hasn’t been translated into practical plans that teachers can easily use. 

This is where schools, research leads and organisations need to take up the challenge. What does a training plan for exams look like? And will it look different for different groups of children?

Doing this presents us with a huge opportunity. At the marathon in the first Olympic Games in 1896, the fastest man finished in just under three hours. On Sunday, around 1,000 runners will be faster than that, and the winner will probably finish in just over two hours.

As professor Anders Ericsson argues, increases in training and improvements in training methods have led to incredible improvements in performance. 

The reward for coming up with the right type of practice is enormous, and there’s no reason to think that similar gains to those in marathon running aren’t possible in the classroom. 

Daisy Christodoulou is director of education at No More Marking and the author of Making Good Progress? and Seven Myths About Education. She tweets @daisychristo


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