An examination nightmare...


Michael Gove’s obsession with exam-based, terminal assessment will seriously disadvantage many students, says teacher Simon Pearson. He argues why and looks at overcoming some of the barriers that students have to this style of learning.

Do you have a recurring nightmare that wakes you in the small hours from time to time? Mine is being forced to resit the exams I took at school and college.

I was an SEN learner with physical disabilities and dyslexia (which wasn’t formally diagnosed until I was 42). Sitting an exam felt like I was taking part in a group skydive where everyone had a functioning parachute except me. I believed that the rest were off on an exhilarating experience while I was plummeting down to earth without a lifeline.

Others probably felt like me, but I did not realise it at the time. My ability to perform in exams was hampered by poor memory skills, slow handwriting and a lack of understanding of how to study effectively, all exacerbated by fear.

Now I am a qualified teacher and a business entrepreneur, but from birth my disability led to a late start in education and I missed much formative early schooling. As a result I was considered to be less “academic” than my peers and I had to battle at the age of 15 to be allowed to sit O level qualifications. 

I did not realise that I could enjoy learning, and that I was good at it, until I was in my 30s. Since then, I have worked to devise ways of studying and learning that will help the significant number of young people and adults who learn more effectively using non-linear methods.

My personal experience of mainstream education as a disabled pupil has caused me to watch the government’s proposed changes to the GCSE system with great interest. 

Although Michael Gove has “u-turned” his proposals to replace GCSEs with the English Baccalaureate Certificate, his other reform plans, including making GCSEs linear qualifications, with modules kept to a minimum and students tested at the end, will present current and future generations with similar unnecessary nightmares to mine.

Mr Gove, in his speech to the Independent Academies Association in November, argued that “exams help those who need support to do better to know what support they need. Exams show those who have not mastered certain skills or absorbed specific knowledge what more they need to practise and which areas they need to work on”. 

I’m sorry Mr Gove, but that is the view of someone who has not been disadvantaged by the examination system. If a learner who struggles with traditional methods fails at the point of exam it can be too late to do anything about it. They will have been told they have failed and that label of failure will affect their life opportunities in their own eyes and in the eyes of others.

I agree with the Confederation of British Industry and its recent report, First Steps, which urged that we must replace the notion that it is acceptable for a third of children to fail to achieve expected levels of core knowledge and skills and instead judge success for schools on how they deliver for every child.

What can be done to prevent examination failure, and the consequent spiral of diminishing self-belief? The process of getting information into and out of memory effectively is not the same for everyone.

Clearly, traditional ways of learning do not always work, so we need to be much more proactive in teaching learners a range of techniques that they can choose from to organise their work, to review their learning, and to memorise the facts and information that are so crucial to exam success. I call it closing the gap, because it narrows the divide between those who succeed or fail because of a rigid examination system. 

Providing additional methods of study gives learners the skills to be successful and independent. Giving someone with dyslexia or poor motor skills a scribe to take notes or write down answers for them does not make them a more successful learner in my view; it creates a dependency that cannot be sustained outside of the classroom. 

Provide them with tools and skills that enable them to organise their own learning, however, and you give them access to lifelong opportunities to learn and develop.

One solution is to harness a combination of technologies to lower or remove the barriers to learning that combine to result in failure. Technology can provide adaptive multi-sensory approaches to aid memory for many people with learning barriers. Voice recorders are great enablers, allowing learners to listen to information over and over. Most mobile phones have voice recorders built-in, so students often have the means in their bags or their pockets. 

Mind-mapping software also helps those learners who struggle with linear approaches to organise information, to make connections, and to manipulate data – in ways that they simply could not do if they were presented with a page of bullet points.

Audio and video files can be added to mind-maps to explain points in more detail. Images can be associated to information, which for some learners is far more effective than rote learning. Text-to-speech software or screen readers help those who find reading large quantities of text difficult. Digital pens offer exciting opportunities to record and reproduce visual information. I have suggested some more methods for using technologies later on. 

The First Steps report raises another important question. It asks whether we are clear about what we ask schools to develop in students and for what purpose. Which of these skills, highly sought after by employers, would be tested by the government’s reformed GCSEs?

  • Communication (written and verbal) skills.

  • Interpersonal and team-work skills.

  • Leadership qualities.

  • Organisational skills.

  • Analytical and problem-solving abilities.

  • Maturity.

  • Poise.

What was your answer? Was there more than one answer to the question? Odd, isn’t it, that in life and in business answers are more complex and open to discussion and argument than can ever be found or replicated in a three-hour exam?

My point is simple; learning is for life, not just to pass academic exams in school, college or university. 

Sir Ken Robinson (one of my educational heroes) helpfully pointed out that university professors should not be held up as “the high water mark of all human achievement”. Why? Because our examination system only tests for one facet of human ability. Intelligence is diverse and dynamic.

With its reliance on traditional subjects, study methods and exams as the only permissible assessment method, the government is in danger of labelling as failures a whole group of young people who need to learn differently, yet will not been given the equivalent opportunities to succeed as their academic peers.

Advice for removing learning barriers

During my schooling there were five key barriers that held me back and prevented me from learning. These same barriers continue to frustrate and disengage learners today:

Note-taking and making 

Slow or illegible handwriting combined with a fear of missing the details means that learners expend all their time and energy taking notes only to find that they are almost worthless when it comes to revision. Possible solutions:

  • Suggest that your learners try a voice recorder, digital pen or even recording audio alongside note-taking. Try using mind-mapping on paper or with software (eg iMindMap or XMind) to capture key words and concepts.

  • Try combining the mind-map method with audio recording by teaching learners to map the start time of the recording, as well as noting each key point and recording the time the point was made. 

  • If writing is a severe problem for some learners then try the keyboard as well as the pen. If typing is slow or physically painful then try voice-to-text software, which allows the learner to dictate via a headset directly into a word processor.

Structuring written work 

Many learners end up with better learning outcomes with written work if they can plan out the structure prior to starting their actual written work. Possible solutions:

  • Try mind-mapping. This will allow learners to plan their content and key points before writing. 

  • Try mind-mapping software to help students map out their thinking. Some software allows learners to expand their key points into written text and export this to a word processor.


Slow reading and visual stress can make reading from a PC screen difficult for many. Possible solutions: 

  • Try using text-to-speech converters (eg SaySo or Balabolka) to convert your written content to audio files that can then be played back by your learners or aid those who may have visual impairments.

  • Try screen magnifiers or screen readers (eg SuperNova or JAWS) to help learners with visual impairments.

Consolidating learning 

Consolidating learning – connecting concepts, organising information and reviewing learning – can be the most difficult skill of all for learners who struggle with traditional learning methods. Possible solutions:

  • Try mind-mapping software to help learners build their own learning “scaffolds”. These can contain video, audio, and links to websites and any form of electronic learning material. 

  • Try mapping your subject as a one-page overview. This will give learners “the big picture” before they begin their study.

Presenting information

One of the most common issues in today’s classrooms is that learners are bored with delivery techniques such as text-laden humdrum, PowerPoint presentations. Possible solutions:

  • Instead of filling your slide with text and overloading learners, try using a simple title with a strong image and key words that will provide your learners with visual association for your verbal delivery.


  • Simon Pearson was an ICT teacher before setting up Puzzlebox Potential, a learning and training skills business. Visit



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