Teaching to the test doesn’t work. But teaching students about the test is imperative. Not only that, exam performance IS a thing, and you can assist students to get better at that performance. It’s all about mitigating cognitive load.

GAME TIME – Any sports person will tell you that match fitness is everything. Regardless of how much you prepare, you never achieve the same level of fitness and game knowledge compared to actually playing. Why? Because when the real thing happens, not only do nerves and adrenaline consume vast amounts of energy, interfering with the ability you have coming to the surface, but lots of other unexpected occurrences happen, all leading to increased cognitive load, and leading to exhaustion quicker. The cognitive load can be so debilitating that the player has to rely on muscle memory to get them through. When a student sits in an exam hall, adrenaline and anxiety will naturally surge through their veins. Helping them revise the content is a must, but importantly, helping them become more familiar with the game/exam context is climactical, and this can be achieved by training students to automaticity with exam technique.

ABOUT THE TEST

  1. Exam layouts – Show students, and get them used to, the layout of the exams. There’s usually lots of information on the front cover of an exam, and multiple instructions on other pages, which is not really ideal for a stressed student. The more they see the cover and layout of the exam, the less pressure they’ll feel when they see the real thing, and any adjustments or unexpected words in a question will be more easily handled. 
MANAGEABLE Student
cognitive load
 Student A – no trainingStudent B – training
Before entering room20%20%
Exam layout5%0%

2. Question requirements – Ensure students know what each question is demanding of them. To do this, you will have to do your research. Analyse SAMs offered by your board, always get a sample of papers from the exam just gone (sure it costs, but it’s worth it as CPD), and even better, become an examiner; just make sure you’re not one of the 40% (Didau). Students who know how much writing is needed for each question, and what the content of the writing should be for particular questions, won’t get overwhelmed by having to wonder mid question if they should stop or keep going – an anxious look up to the clock.

Manageable student
cognitive load
 Student A – no trainingStudent B – training
Before entering room20%20%
Exam layout5%0%
Exam content 30%0%

3. Exam hall practise – if you are able, this wonderful advice, of literally taking students through each exam question in the actual hall, from Elisabeth Bowling, will hugely assist students being prepared for the actual day.

IN THE TEST

  1. Time training – Training students with timings of questions in Language course exams will significantly propitiate cognitive load. It’s one thing to know what the question demands of you, but another to actually do it in a stressed environment. If a student isn’t used to the pressure of time, the longer the exam goes on, the greater the likelihood of their cognitive load increasing and their performance reducing as they panic with the evaporation of time. 
Manageable student
cognitive load
 Student A – no trainingStudent B – training
Before entering room20%20%
Exam layout5%0%
Exam content 30%0%
Exam timing training20%0%

So how do I train my students? This wonderful idea was suggested to me by my colleague Katie Babbs: I will give students a past paper, non-fiction (Eduqas – 2 texts – 60 mins to complete), and give them loose paper to write on, and set a timer for 17 minutes. This gives them time to read the first text and answer question 1 and 2. Once the timer goes off, I collect the writing they’ve done, reset the timer, and tell students to now tackle question 3 and 4. Whilst they do that, I mark as quickly as I can the collected papers (question 2 only – question 1 can be class marked).  They have another 17 minutes to complete this. Once the timer goes off, I collect again, and students now complete question 5 in 8 minutes. Once again I mark as quickly as I can (question 4 only). Once the timer goes off again, the final question is attempted, with 14 minutes to go. However, i’ve allowed for 4 minutes to proofread (see below).  

Initially, students are always surprised at how quick the time goes. And this is telling, because previously, the final exam would be their first experience of feeling this – and by then of course, it’s too late. What the training does for them is gets them used to what that amount of time actually feels like. If they do this often enough, they will naturally speed themselves up because they train their minds to concentrate sooner, compared to the nonchalant relaxed approach undertaken in class tasks – they sense the timer is about to go off. The timer also creates a competitive game on atmosphere too, and it’s that sharpness you want them to have when the real deal comes.

2. Editing their work– rereading responses is difficult for exhausted students to do at the end of a lengthy exam. It is usually at this point that they have a sense of relief, and the last thing they want to do is reread what they’ve done. Of course, it’s madness not to, to ensure there are no structural, punctuation and/or spelling issues.  So, I have to build that practice into their normal way of working, so it becomes a part of the process, and not an add on. This can be achieved in the above training section: 4 – 5 minutes at the end of the timed training is dedicated to proof reading. I always tell my students they WILL lose more marks with errors (they can fix) than they are able to gain by writing more response in the last 5 minutes. But without it being a normal way of working, exhausted students won’t do it automatically.   

Manageable student
cognitive load
 Student A – no trainingStudent B – training
Before entering room20%20%
Exam layout5%0%
Exam content 30%0%
Exam timing training20%0%
Editing responses5%0%

3. Being professional– not panicking in certain situations is crucial in reducing cognitive load. Taking students through possible scenarios will help to calm them if the situation presents in the exam, scenarios such as:  what to do if you can’t answer a question – do you panic and lose total focus for the rest? Should you move on and come back to questions? Are you aware that the brain will warm up and so coming back later may be easier than it is now? If you’re running out of time what should you focus on to get you the most marks? And a big one: if people around you are writing lots, and you’re not, does it mean you’re failing, and thus should give up? I go into detail about this here.

Manageable student
cognitive load
 Student A – no trainingStudent B – training
Before entering room20%20%
Exam layout5%0%
Exam content 30%0%
Exam timing training20%0%
Editing responses5%0%
Being professional 10%5%

As you can see by the very much made up numbers, the cognitive load experienced by Student A is significantly greater than Student B, and would indubitably affect performance in the exam. The student’s knowledge would have to fight a great deal to break through the pressure. 

BEGIN NOW!

The more you do something the better at it you get, provided of course you’re doing it the right way. Students don’t really get that many opportunities to learn to negotiate the exam environment on their own, and so providing them with such training is critical. 

In the lead up to GCSE exams, I’m sure I’ll think of other strategies that I will want to have my students employ. I will update if I do. 

Of course, the advice given here is applicable for most exams in most subjects, so adapt and use where appropriate.

I’m Paul Moss. Follow me on Twitter @edmerger, and follow this blog for more English resources and educational discussions.  

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