3 Tips For Developing GCSE Exam Technique

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Beth Hartwell

Beth writes for the Teacher Toolkit site from a secondary perspective. She is currently a Lead Practitioner of Teaching and Learning at a school in York with a specialism of teaching secondary Science. She is currently teaching in a iPad school and is interested sharing...
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How can you help your pupils with the new 1-9 GCSE exams?

For some pupils, however hard they work or revise, they can’t seem to ace an exam. They actively engage in class, they complete their homework to a good standard and they revise correctly. How are they not achieving the top grades? In a lot of these cases, it is due to weak exam technique. I am finding that developing exam technique is the key to success in the new 1-9 GCSE. So, to prepare pupils for these assessments, we must develop their exam technique.

Here are 3 ways to help those students who are still struggling with exam technique as the day of their exam creeps ever closer.

1. Teach the meaning of command words

 Do your pupils know the difference between state, describeexplain and suggest?

Taking half an hour out of a term to focus on these words will be time well spent. I recommend getting pupils to create a booklet for younger students explaining what each command word means. Using clear examples of each command word allows pupils to understand what the examiner is looking for in a question. Referring back to these definitions and modelling good practice throughout the course will embed these words even further.

Examples of command words with “pupil friendly” explanations:

  • State – Give a simple answer such as a correct term or name.
  • Describe – Give detail about what happens, where is happens and when is happens. If it is “describe a graph”, give numbers and data from the graph.
  • Explain – Give detail about how and why it happens. Use specific key terminology within the topic/subject.
  • Suggest – Come up with an idea based on what you have learnt (do not panic you may not know the answer – the examiner just wants you to apply your knowledge).

2. Get the pupils to read the question thoroughly

A great strategy suggested by Kate Jones encourages pupils to thoroughly read the exam questions with the acronym of BUG.

  • Box – Firstly, students box the command word. This highlights what type of answer the examiner is looking for.
  • Underline – Then they underline key words, this allows them to jog the pupils memory of the topic.
  • Glance – Finally they glance over the question again to gain any more information thus allowing them to analyse the question thoroughly and depict what they examiner is asking.

Kate shows a really clear example in her blog post on revision strategies and she encourages us to get pupils reading questions thoroughly by “BUGging that question”

3.  Use acronyms to scaffold long-answer questions

Can you tell that I am a fan of acronyms in the classroom? Acronyms like PEE, PEA, PEEL or even PEAL  have been widely used to help pupils structure essay answers.

PETAL is new acronym which is adapted to the 1-9 GCSE. Examiners are now stressing that the use of subject specific vocabulary within answers is important for high marks. PETAL (or PEAL with a T) reminds pupils to include key terminology. It structures pupil’s paragraphs to include the following within their answer:

  • Point – stating the point of the paragraph.
  • Evidence – including key quotes, dates or statistics to strengthen your point.
  • Terminology – including key words about the subject matter.
  • Analysis – explain how your point is proven and link to your knowledge about the subject.
  • Link – Link your ideas back to the original question.

How are you developing your pupils exam technique? Leave your comments below.

6 thoughts on “3 Tips For Developing GCSE Exam Technique

  1. I like the Box Underline Glance idea. I find that students jump straight to the questions and don’t read the stem. If they can’t answer they go into panic state and try and hunt for the answer in the stem.

    I give students just the stem to look at and tease as much info out of it as possible. They can then approach the questions with more confidence.

    Not sure they actually use this strategy in the exam!!

  2. I use “BLT” Because… Leading to… and Therefore for longer response questions I use PAnEL
    Point – Analysis – Evaluation -Link to question followed by AJIM for an overall conclusion – Answer the question, justify, “it depends on…” and Most important point…

    PECAn PIE is another one I use – Point explained/context & Evidence/ Analysis (Models, Theories & Reasoning) PIE – point-included evaluation

  3. As a secondary science teacher, I made up an acronym for students to use for calculation exam questions – ESAU.
    E = Equation (the words or symbols)
    S = Sum (the numbers)
    A = Answer
    U = Unit
    I always introduce it with a quick story of Esau the Hairy Goatherder from the Bible! Whilst I am not religious, it’s an easy-to-tell story that they seem to remember.
    Now that the exam board explicitly give marks for substitution in calculation questions, we’re now veering towards using SESAU, which is even more memorable!

  4. Does anyone know of any resources to practise this type of thing? Maybe short activities to develop the skills?

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