Exams are looming, some have already taken place. It feels like the beginning of the end and I am suddenly painfully aware of the gravity of the next few weeks for my GCSE and A level pupils.
Their aptitude in answering a booklet of questions over the space of an hour or so will determine the colleges, universities and jobs that they can apply for; their future success hangs in a balance.
I like to think that I did not become a teacher solely to push pupils through examinations. I have (perhaps naïve) aspirations of being a positive role-model, encouraging young people to engage with wider issues and develop into responsible members of society. Nevertheless, the inescapable truth is that the outcome of the forthcoming examinations will have a massive impact on my pupils’ future.
Have I done enough? Have I given my pupils all the tools they need to succeed? I think back to the final few A level psychology lessons – did we spend too much time outlining and not enough time evaluating? Would they be able to answer a 12-mark question on attachment relationships and day care if it arose?
Are my year 11 maths pupils clear on Pythagoras’ theorem? Did we spend enough time trying out past paper questions? Could we have spent more time investigating trigonometry?
Worrying aside, there are of course some plus points to exam season; my timetable feels a little lighter. However, alongside this is the assumption that pupils will be revising for their upcoming assessments, which begs the question: do pupils even know how to revise?
During one revision session I came across a pair of pupils sat silently, copying from the text book. This, in my opinion, is the worst way possible to revise, and I told them why.
First, their subject was psychology, a subject where you need to cram a whole load of information into your brain ready to reproduce in a sophisticated and intelligent way. Psychology requires a brain for remembering names – this is a stark contrast to mathematics, where providing you have conceptual understanding of how numbers work and a recognition of key signs and symbols you can work through a problem methodically.
To remember vast quantities of information in a way that makes it easy for us to retrieve, we need to use our memories efficiently. Our memories are organised in such a way that one particular memory can be accessed through many different paths, due to the fact that our memory is a complex network, a web of interconnected information. These paths and connections are laid down through making meaning out of information and linking it to prior experiences.
To copy out of the text book, a mere rehearsal exercise at best requiring no active processing, will not store information in a way that it is easily accessed via multiple paths. To make revision useful, it is necessary to engage in tasks which require active sorting and organising of information, visually, sometimes acoustically, but for an A grade always semantically, in your brain. Tasks which facilitate the above include mind-mapping, drawing diagrams to represent processes or theories, restructuring text into your own words, and trying to relate it to other knowledge by applying it to new contexts.
Trying to emphasise to some pupils the value of such activities can be a struggle. It is human nature to seek to exert the least possible brain effort, hence the desire to copy large chunks of the text book and call it “note-making”. I only hope these pupils take my advice.
Our NQT diarist this year writes anonymously and is a teacher of maths from a south London secondary.