By David Fawcett, PE teacher, for Subject Support
As a teacher, we spend the majority of our time transferring knowledge to students in the hope that it sticks. As we teach new content we do all we can to ensure that students grasp this new information and hopefully learn it. We provide challenge, differentiate where needed, provide feedback to close gaps and question until we finally become confident that students ‘get it’.
Unfortunately there comes a time during assessments and exams where this confidence that they ‘got it’ begins to disappear. On numerous occasions I could have put my money on all the students in my class doing well in a test, only for the answers I mark to be nothing like what I expected. Students who can usually verbalise answers with key terminology and structure suddenly write answers that lack all of this. A* style answers in class become mere waffle or vagueness under exam conditions. What we had hoped and expected, clearly did not end up that way. The biggest surprise comes in the exam follow up. When questioned again in class about their answers, students who had failed to write a coherent answer, suddenly provide exemplary ones when questioned. There seems to be something not quite right going on.
So what is it? Is it the pressure? Is it the exam conditions? Is it the exam? The technique? The use PEED, IDEA or whatever? Did we learn it well enough in lessons? Did I teach it the best I could? Did I ask them the right questions? What was it that students struggle to do in exams that they seem to do well in lessons? Part of the problem may be how they tackle the question. In a lesson we prompt, explain, question and give feedback. We focus on the content and hold out until we get the perfect answer. But do we focus on how to tackle exam questions? I know most teachers do. Many have writing structures or have a focus on command words (and rightly so). But I wonder if we really look at the thinking behind tackling them. Do we go into detail showing them the thought process of answering a question really well?
Following in the footsteps of Ron Berger, sharing excellent examples of work with students is an essential part of the process. Students need to see what is truly meant by ‘high quality’ work. By building up a bank of exemplar material, teachers can carefully select a piece that will help steer students towards the highest possible academic standards. Exemplar work can come from many avenues as well. I have been privileged to share work from ex-students whose writing, clarity and structure can highlight the requirements of great writing. Having a wealth of published articles with a variety of writing styles can also be distributed among students and provide real examples of professional work. The most effective pieces I have seen used are models from teachers own work. As teachers we sometimes devalue our own contributions but actually finding time to write an essay, exam question or report, which students themselves will have to do, can provide so much clarity when shared in class.
A model can only go so far though. For some the model may appear to be out of their reach. For others, understanding how to get to work of that standard may be confusing. There may also be students who can’t clearly identify what it is that makes that piece of work so good. As a teacher it is therefore our duty to unpick it with students.
What is it that this work has that makes it high quality? How has the writer used key terminology, structure or tone in their work? How has the writer used evidence or concrete examples to support their thoughts? All of these types of questions can begin to unpick the thinking behind work, and therefore begin to help develop the thinking of our students in creating better work themselves.
We can teach students how to structure sentences. We can show them how to use PEED to construct paragraphs. We can model many techniques within the classroom but do we really model how to think? Do we spend time showing students what our thought process is when detailing an answer? Is there time to really go into depth about how to unpick a question and really plan it well? In the rush of a school day and the pressures of a curriculum, probably not as much (or in as much depth) as we might like.
There are a number of methods being deployed in schools which do such things. Take for example the new phenomenon of a ‘Walking Talking Mock’. The process itself brings together a cohort who are guided through an exam, with a teacher explaining what they would do for each question. The process models the thought process of an expert and provides clarity on how to produce high quality answers. The mock exam itself does have its pitfalls for the everyday teacher though. Bringing a large number of students together within a facility big enough to house them is a big logistical task and can’t be done regularly. The exam itself is also usually led by one teacher who is not able to answer the questions of every single student during the process so personal feedback isn’t readily available. How then can we transfer the same principles into a format that can be used in any lesson?
A while back I read a superb piece by John Tomsett who wrote about Metacognition and Self-regulation as a means to help students with their thinking in exams. Instead of organising a large scale walking talking mock, John annotated a past paper with notes only on what he thinks when tackling each question.
Such a simple idea can have amazing benefits with students. Taking the time to complete a paper which in turn can be copied and shared with a class is an effective and efficient method. The process of modelling this can be done in many ways. Pick a question which you can demonstrate the thought process to the class. What did you pick out from the question? What command words did you focus on first? What did you interpret by state/describe/analyse/assess/compare? What parts of a topic come to mind? Are there any specific definitions that we should be mindful of? What should I be starting my answer with? What evidence would support it? Showing students how you got to your worked answer is a great way to show them how to think when answering questions.
This process can then evolve, allowing time for students to analyse the rest of the annotated paper before attempting to answer the questions (or similar ones) but having themselves showing their thought process first. And that is the important point – insisting that students show their thought process before writing down any academic answer. Being able to see what they think and not just what they know allows us to tackle another element of the learning process.
In lessons we spend a lot of time asking students to practice exam questions. The process itself helps us check understanding and we can work on structure as we go. It’s a vital element in any exam preparation. With most of this time focusing on content checking, it is important we continually find time to get students practicing, and demonstrating, their thinking behind answers as well.
A simple approach is that of a metacognition workbook. The book itself includes many elements and supports each unit or topic. Within it is a section purely on exam questions. With a split page format, students are required to write down what they are thinking about the question before they actually tackle it. What things are they focusing on? What do the various subject specific words mean? What examples might they need? What do they think they need to include if it’s a three marker? Getting this form of thinking and approach to questions in early is key. Having the time embedded into the curriculum (via homework, in lessons, in post exam lessons) over the key stage gets students thinking about how to think. It also gives us as teachers an insight into their process and allows us time to correct it if needed.
Students sharing their thinking with students
I don’t feel that there is an end point with this, but, somewhere towards that is the ability of students to share their own thought process correctly with others. This element of students leading the learning of others can be powerful. There are many simple and time effective ways to do this in lessons.
Projecting a question onto a whiteboard where a student annotates it to the class, either independently or collaboratively, allows them to model the process to others. Under a teacher’s careful guidance, the process can be navigated towards the right outcome.
The use of a visualiser like an IPEVO camera allows a real time account of how a student is thinking about an answer. Simply ask them to work through a question under the lens and it projects across the whole class. As a group you can challenge, support, agree or pick out parts of the thought process. Working collaboratively and scrutinising what to think about an answer before actually putting pen to paper is something we probably don’t do enough of, but can easily be rectified.
So next time you spend time looking over exam questions or practicing technique, ask yourself are you giving any time for students to understand the thinking behind it first? Building in metacognition is a cheap but potentially effective strategy and models exactly what it is that students should be doing with their answers.