How can we help prepare students for their exams?
As exam season approaches and we near the end of the business of teaching the ‘course’, thoughts turn to how to best prepare students for the upcoming exams. We all have our own strongly-held views based on our own experiences and biases. We like to go our own way but what does the evidence say?
Exam preparation is a topic where advice is seldom welcomed by students but always needed. This is such a contentious and nuanced debate that it is maybe best to look at the evidence behind strategies employed by schools and judge which way you would like to go.
Play catch up
There is evidence that pupils (particularly disadvantaged ones) benefit from extended school time. The benefit is greatest where sessions are structured and staffed by specialists. This, of course, puts extra workload on teachers to deliver these sessions outside their other lessons. Anecdotally, this can cause reliance on the revision classes at the expense of the ‘normal’ lesson.
It may be worth looking at providing CPD for teachers on more evidence-based programmes or practices first before relying on extra lessons. Particularly beneficial maybe work on metacognition and memory.
Timetabled collapsed ‘mastery sessions’
This is an intervention done in the last few weeks or maybe days before the exam. The idea is to immerse students, cram knowledge into them and improve their fluency. The naming of these sessions can be unhelpful as mastery is quite different from a few collapsed lessons in the run-up to exams. Mastery learning breaks subject matter and learning content into units with clearly specified objectives which are pursued until they are achieved.
This is unlikely to be achieved in one day.
The evidence most relevant to this block schedule would suggest that timetabling changes by themselves are not sufficient to improve learning. Teachers will need to alter the way they teach, organise different kinds of learning activities and increase the amount of feedback they give.
This can typically involve ‘at risk’ pupil premium pupils being mentored by a member of the senior leadership team (SLT). This can help to focus the minds of the SLT on the individual pupils requiring support. It can be designed to build character and raise aspiration and improve the motivation of both pupils and staff.
This is unlikely to be academic due to the subject specialism of the mentor. Mentoring can also be difficult because of the time taken and the variable nature of a senior leader’s day. The evidence on mentoring varies but it is likely to have very little impact on attainment, which in a way is ironic as this is often the reason for these interventions.
Intuitively this sounds like a no brainer. Traditionally, we have relied on the knowledge that both pupils and parents know how to revise and that they will support them. A revision evening is a useful opportunity to provide practical strategies to support learning at home. Parents can be supported to create a regular routine and encourage good revision habits discussed in the evening.
The act of ‘giving out’ planners and stationery can help parents support children to set goals, plan and manage their time. Support can also be provided for parents on how best to involve themselves in the process. Often this is best done indirectly supporting the regulation of learning rather than direct supervision. Schools can maintain communication after the session by promoting further support available and celebrating success along the way.
Only you know what is best for your students in your school in your context. It is helpful sometimes to consider the ‘best bets’ for any strategy. There is a limited amount of time and limited reservoirs of energy available, so direct them carefully before you go your own way!