Luck favours the prepared

11th March 2005 at 00:00
As pupils gathered at a football club for a masterclass in technique, they were thinking of their big game, the Higher history exam, writes Raymond Ross

A larger crowd than usual - an amazing 300 - gathered at Dumbarton Football Club last Friday for a day devoted to team work.

Unusually, the visiting supporters, representing nine East Dunbartonshire secondary schools, outnumbered the home support drawn from five West Dunbartonshire secondaries.

There was no singing or chanting, but a lot of discussion of tactics, training, angles and approaches to the big game coming up in May. The pupils were there because they wanted to see history being made. And that, indeed, was what they saw.

The Higher History Roadshow was first developed in West Dunbartonshire by Edith Girvan five years ago but her recent transfer to East Dunbartonshire as education development officer has allowed her to bring the two sides together for the first time.

"We deliberately mix the pupils from the different schools and authorities so that they gain new ideas and experiences," she says.

"The day, devoted to looking at the Higher history exam, is really about peer activity, getting the pupils to interact and work together, to encourage each other and talk formally and informally about exam technique, preparation and revision."

The day started with a talk by Eddie Geraghty, former head of the history assessment panel for the Scottish Qualifications Authority, who was a last minute substitute for chief examiner Ian Mathieson. Sticking to the tactics outlined by Mr Mathieson, he began by looking at last year's results: 48 per cent AB passes, 29 per cent C passes and 23 per cent fails across Scotland.

He addressed the dangers of students answering questions with a lack of focus and wandering into irrelevance, failing to read the paper properly and even inventing their own questions.

The excellent pack handed out to the pupils included amusing examples of poor writing, such as: "The national minorites in Russia had it tough. They had their mother tongue ripped from them" and "The medieval church was also important as it helped people to become illiterate."

But Mr Geraghty's approach was positive, emphasising the right tactics: quality not quantity, argue and analyse rather than narrate and describe, use factual material to illustrate, and respond to all aspects of the question.

The pupils were put into mixed groups to analyse some actual answers given last year, looking at their structure and relevance. Each group was asked to give the papers a mark, which was then compared to the examiner's mark.

The results were encouraging: most responses were close.

"Getting in practice at answering questions and seeing other candidates'

answers helps to allay fears," says Mr Geraghty. "It promotes self-motivation and confidence. The aim is to make them secure in their own judgments."

The afternoon session focused on answering source-based questions. This was led by Jim McGonigle, principal teacher of history at Hermitage Academy in Hellensburgh, and vice-president of the Scottish Association of History Teachers. He emphasised that Higher candidates should be able to express themselves within the rules. "The aim is to make the pupils aware of the different types of question and the style the examiner is looking for.

We're looking for the pupils' own informed take on events."

Joanne King, an S6 pupil at Kirkintilloch High, described the roadshow speakers as "smart and helpful" and said she was now approaching the exam with less trepidation.

Her friend Abby Currie said: "It's fun and frightening looking at things from the examiner's perspective, seeing what you should and shouldn't put in answers."

Terese McDade, principal teacher of history at Kirkintilloch High, says:

"It's the active learning that really makes the day for the students. It's well structured and keeps them involved."

"It extends the history community among staff and pupils," says Ms Girvan.

Luck will naturally play its part on the day of the big game in May, but only if you have put in the training, says Mr Geraghty. "Nobody is lucky in a Higher history exam unless they've worked. Luck favours the prepared mind."

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