Ten strategies for exam success

Written by: Mehul Shah | Published:
Image: MA Education/Lucie Carlier
Would love to use the revision timetable generator for my daughter. Is it available to download?

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In light of the new GCSEs, Mehul Shah set about skilling up teachers and students on how we learn and how to plan revision effectively

The new GCSEs, with their increased reliance on knowledge retention and synoptic assessment have meant a new focus for teaching and learning leaders on strategies which encourage long-term recall.

As an assistant headteacher in an already outstanding school where we have a dedicated and skilled team of teachers I have been faced with the challenge of how we can improve our teaching and learning so that it directly impacts on results.

The answer I quickly came to was spending less time on strategies to improve teaching methods (although we still do this) and spending a lot more time on skilling up teachers and students on how we learn and how to plan revision effectively to do well in examinations.

Here I have summarised the approaches that have had the most impact on improving our results (our Progress 8 score improved from 0.03 to 0.57 last year with the highest positive residuals seen in the new GCSEs which focused on linear assessment and increased content). Many of these ideas have come out of action research projects that staff participated in last year as part of our twilight CPD programme. This year we have used our CPD programme to share these ideas school-wide.

Learning how the brain works

We have used the ideas summarised in the book How We Learn by Benedict Carey to dispel some of the myths about how the brain retains information. Things like always studying in a quiet place and learning one topic at a time are not as effective as we think they are. We have encouraged teachers to mix up how and where students learn to make it memorable. One teacher even taught a lesson in the exam hall to help build up memory queues ready for the real thing.

Removing the terror of tests

Studies have shown that one of the most effective ways to learn is with frequent low-stakes testing. However this only works if the student does not feel exposed or worried about the outcome of the test. Teachers have introduced routines of mini-quizzes and self-assessed tests where scores aren’t recorded to encourage students to use tests as a learning tool rather than an assessment tool.

Knowledge organisers

One of our English teachers has created one-page summaries of all the knowledge required for particular topics/texts and given these to students. She has found that this frees up teaching time for actually exploring what the students understand and can do with the information. It has also created a level playing field for students who feel that some have access to better resources than others. This has been particularly beneficial for our disadvantaged cohort. She regularly quizzes students on the content of the knowledge organisers (see the last point) and this has also led to better outcomes.

The Revision Generator

It has been proven that interleaving revision is more effective than revising one topic at a time. Research has been done into the best time intervals to revisit information – after one day, two weeks and one month is effective in encouraging long-term memory retrieval. One of our maths teachers has designed a revision timetable generator which takes this into account. Students input the topics that they need to revise and it generates a timetable which ensures topics are revisited at the correct intervals.

Sharing revision techniques

We have done this in two ways. First through a “speed-dating” CPD event where staff from different departments swapped quick ideas for revision with each other. Staff learnt a great deal from venturing outside of their specialism. For example, the MFL staff are specialists at vocab retention while the chemistry teachers were experts at showing processes through symbols and diagrams. Second, we have a shared revision resources PowerPoint that summarises the great ideas contributed during the CPD and is shared with all staff.

Mark what matters

An analysis of the best performing teachers in terms of value added identified one maths teacher who admitted to only marking pupil tests and assessments rather than exercise books. We have taken this into account when devising our whole-school marking policy. We allow all departments to mark the things that make a difference and have an impact on the pupils rather than marking for the sake of it. A key learning point for secondary schools is that a one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t work as the ways of giving feedback and the ease of peer/self assessment vary from subject-to-subject.

Working with students and parents

Whether this is through assemblies, reports, newsletters, form time activities, enrichment sessions or small group tutorials we have slowly and surely spread the message to students that revision is only effective if it is active (rather than passive) and that answering questions is far more effective than making notes. We have utilised an online platform that allows students to access hundreds of questions for every subject to reinforce this rather than just investing in resources which summarise content.

Individual class revision plans

After the December mock each teacher in the English department did a thorough analysis of strengths and weaknesses by topic and student and came up with their own lesson-by-lesson scheme of work for the spring term focused solely on skills and topics that were less well understood. This was individual to each class and made the class teacher really take ownership of their pupils’ progress. The results were outstanding – English Progress 8 scores were in the top six per cent nationally.

Finish the course early

This sounds simple but it is increasingly hard to do with more content at key stage 4. By finishing the course by the December of year 11 and allowing time for plenty of past papers in class, teachers can make sure that students go into the exam having mastered the skill of answering exam questions. This is an approach that contributed to our maths Progress 8 scores being in the top three per cent nationally. Ways to achieve this include starting the course in year 9 or the use of flipped learning for more accessible topics at GCSE.

The future

Looking forward we are keen to translate many of these processes to A level where we want to eliminate the idea of year 12 content and year 13 content (a hangover from the AS/A2 system). Synoptic learning is never finished and is skills-based rather than topic-based. 

  • Mehul Shah is an assistant headteacher responsible for teaching and learning and CPD at the Claremont High School Academy Trust in Harrow.


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Would love to use the revision timetable generator for my daughter. Is it available to download?
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