I have seen answers to GCSE mock exam questions similar to the one above for many years. No matter how many times I tell my learners to read the question, a substantial number of them don’t recognise the important words in the question. I’ve used samples, including the one above, to try to persuade learners not to make the same mistake, but it hasn’t had much impact. This is important as it costs learners many marks because they answer a question similar to the one that was actually asked, rather than the one that really was asked.
Thanks to John Tomsett, I think I might have found a technique that will make this more explicit to learners. The idea is to model your approach to an exam, from your first sight of the exam paper, going through the process of understanding what is required in the exam from reading the information on the front cover until just before answering the first question. This technique goes further than just highlighting key words in the question, in the words of my colleague Heidi, “It shows pupils what we are thinking in order to carry out the steps that we teach them in order to approach a question. We tell them to read a question carefully and highlight key words. But this method shows what we are thinking as we read the question and how we decide which are the key words. This is written evidence, that pupils can take time to process visually, of adult metacognition.” You can read more about Heidi’s experiences with this technique here.
I’ve tried this technique with my Year 11 GCSE group, going through a past paper, highlighting key words and instructions, and making notes on the paper to illustrate my thinking. I was really pleased when, a few lessons later I gave them another set of past exam questions to do and the first thing that many students did was to get out their highlighters and mark up the questions showing key words, and making notes to help their thinking. Interestingly, the learners who struggled with the questions were those who had dived into the questions straight away without taking the time to really understand what was required.
I also tried this with my AS Level Computing class. Again, a few lessons later I gave them another past exam paper to do. I asked them if there were any questions that they wanted me to go through with them. With the one that they chose, the first thing I did was turn on my visualiser and pick up my highlighter. Once I had gone through the question itself and explained my thinking to them they were far more confident in answering the question – without me actually going through the answer with them.
My AS Level Applied ICT group have also been victims of this technique! Earlier this week I was in their real AS exam as technical trouble shooter, to sort out any problems that might arise with the computers that they were using. I was really pleased to see that the first thing that the vast majority of them did when they started the exam was get their highlighters out and start marking up the paper.
So perhaps this technique is having some impact. In the future I will introduce this to my learners earlier. For example, I would use it with my Year 11 GCSE class when they are preparing for their mock exams in the autumn. This would give them an opportunity to try out the technique in a real exam situation and it would give them longer to embed the technique before it really mattered in the summer. Certainly, this is a technique that I intend to grow.
[I would like to thank Heidi for her continual support and challenge. Without colleagues who are willing and able to listen to our ideas and experiences it is difficult to grow as a teacher. Heidi certainly offers that for me.]