A proper examination

The introduction of exam-centric GCSEs presents teachers and pupils with an opportunity, writes James Righetti of Elevate Education

We don’t subscribe to the line of thought that says that the change to a more rigorous exam system will ‘demoralise students’. Nor should parents lament their child being among the first to be examined under the new system. Quite the opposite.

Pupils who use effective study habits from the start of the year, who work consistently, and who implement the strategies suggested by progressive teachers will be able to cope calmly and confidently with whatever comes their way in public examinations.

Independent school teachers have the flexibility to be able to instigate systems to help students develop these new learning and exam skills that will help them to work more effectively in the two years before they sit these critical exams.

Those that revise their study skills teaching in advance of the 2017 new-style exams will help their students to gain a significant advantage. By contrast, those that fail to respond, sticking with their existing methods of revision honed in junior years, may see their grades fall.

The new system will mean that students aren’t continually preparing for module based exams, which will allow them more time to mature and develop their skills. However, this advantage is counter-balanced by the fact that end-of-year exams will require a far greater and deeper understanding of content taught over a longer period of time.

Students will, of course, worry about revising for such a comprehensive exam. It is down to the teaching team to help them to develop new strategies that will ensure they don’t end up trying to remember everything. Regardless of the system, jurisdiction or exam board, harder exams are a test of skills and not memory.

A progressive approach to teaching and studying could hold the key to improving UK students’ exam achievement, recently highlighted in the Programme for International Student Achievement (Pisa) rankings, without the long hours and stress that has been attributed to league leaders South Korea and Japan.

Students from South Korea, Japan and China are, for want of a better word, ‘highly motivated’, regardless of ability. They are expected to do well and they clearly understand the fruits of doing so.

And yet, extreme hours and over-bearing parental pressure (such as that which is common in many Asian countries, particularly South Korea) is not the answer. Instead, at its foundation we need to help students to see that they are in control of their exam results, and their success or failure has more to do with what they do in preparation than their IQ, innate ability or genetics. This concept is explained extremely well by Carol Dweck in her studies on growth mindset: https://mindsetonline.com/whatisit/about/index.html

Since 2009, when study skills provider Elevate Education expanded to the UK from Australia (which is in large part a ‘terminal exam’ system), we have been working with schools across the state and independent sectors nationwide to fully harness student motivation; showing students how the skills they use will determine the results they get, and thereby helping pupils find their inner motivation for studying. Ultimately, the most motivating thing for a student is knowing that they have the opportunity to affect the outcome of their results if they work at it.

Elevate’s 12 years of on-going research into the techniques of top performing students shows that they unlock motivation by using a four-step goal-setting process: identifying their desired outcome, working out the steps required to achieve it, breaking these steps down into achievable tasks and attaching an emotional connection from the task to the outcome. This is in stark contrast to the ‘take what comes at me’ approach that most students adopt under the modular-based GCSE regime.

Teachers can play a major role in this by helping students to explore what that ultimate desired outcome (or ‘goal’) might be. And research shows teachers should avoid encouraging students to set grades as goals. Instead they should include university, career and vocational study-based goals. These will be standard discussions for some students, but for others they will be completely new conversations.

By thinking longer term, students will begin to see that school and education is not simply about memorising more than the next student for an exam. Rather, many will begin to see that education is an on-going process of setting a goal and working hard at achieving that, and utilising the support networks that teachers provide. In short, we encourage students to treat their teachers like coaches. Seek advice, hunt feedback, and find out what’s needed to achieve their goal.

In today’s crammed syllabus, spending time on items like this would seem to be a luxury, but it’s not. Students with low or no future aspirations need to see the bigger picture and scheduling time into the syllabus to help them do so is important. It’s the internal motivation of students which comes about from conversations like these, rather than 16-hour school days, that the UK should seek to replicate from South Korea.

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The missing piece to the student experience puzzle


10 March 2021, 11am GMT