Best Practice

Aiming for the top: Teaching high-performing students

Supporting and challenging more able students and students with high prior attainment is essential. With a focus on science – but with some ideas that all subjects can adapt – Helen Webb offers a range of strategies

One of our current whole-school priorities is to support and challenge our more able students and students with high prior attainment (HPA). As such, this became a focus for our recent science faculty review.

However, many staff were unclear what the school’s expectations were regarding appropriate strategies and support for this particular group of students and consequently were anxious about the upcoming learning walks and lesson observations.

In response to this I created and shared a written document with a variety of strategies and ideas that many staff were currently using in the faculty to support and challenge students with HPA.

Providing staff with written documentation such as this aimed to:

  • Provide clarity to all staff about appropriate strategies to support and challenge more able students.
  • Signpost to staff good practice that they are already doing.
  • Help staff inform their planning.
  • Enable staff to better articulate to students, parents and school leaders about strategies they are using.
  • Reduce staff anxiety and improve wellbeing in the faculty.

This list of ideas is not exhaustive and many of them can be adapted for use in your own subject, faculty or school:

Know your students

Highlight and/or annotate the following information in your teacher file:

  • Students with HPA.
  • Students who are targeted GCSE grades 7 to 9.
  • Other students with a personal desire or ability to achieve the top grades.
  • Any other information that is relevant to these students making progress (e.g. SEND, Pupil Premium, relevant personal and social information).

Seating plans

What is the rationale behind your seating plan? In mixed ability classes grouping students by ability can enable you to provide differentiated tasks more easily, direct support and allow more able students to support and collaborate with each other. Conversely, seating students in mixed ability groups can allow more able students to support and model work to students that are less able. The ability to explain or teach concepts to others can improve students’ own learning.

Seating plans can improve the dynamic and behaviour in the classroom. Good behaviour is a pre-requisite for learning, therefore organising students to minimise disruptive behaviour that can distract other pupils is essential to counter any negative impact on learning.

Know the specification

To ensure that our most able students are prepared for their examinations:

  • Carefully plan schemes of work and lessons so that every aspect of the specification is taught.
  • Cross-check the level of detail and examples students need to know against what is detailed in the specification.
  • Identify the higher tier only topics for your chosen specification. It is likely that students sitting the higher tier paper will be assessed on this content.
  • Ensure higher tier only topics are taught well by providing extended writing opportunities, assessment for learning and revision opportunities for these topics.

Revision materials

Ensure students are aware of, have access to, or have bought the appropriate revision materials. Track this information in your student file and share this information with parents.

Some useful resources for science

  • CGP Books has the following materials for GCSE 9-1 science courses: course-specific text books and revision guides, tiered exam practice workbooks, practice papers, maths skills books and 10-minute tests:
  • Share links to BBC Bitesize science revision to assist with homework tasks and topic test revision:
  • Legacy AQA past exam papers and mark schemes:


For schools that subscribe, there are some excellent exam board-specific revision resources available on PiXL and Huddle.

In particular, PiXL’s “GetITs” and “KnowITs” are great revision resources to get you started. “Know Its” are a more suitable starting point for higher ability students:

  • GetIT: Cross-board resources to support the lower attaining student aiming for GCSE grades 1 and 2.
  • KnowIT: Knowledge PowerPoints and recall questions (with answers).
  • GraspIT: Application-style exam questions.
  • ThinkIT: Challenge questions to support higher attainers.

Online science videos

Direct students to online science videos to support their understanding of the subject. The website Free Science Lessons has a large collection of excellent GCSE science videos organised by science paper and topic. These concise videos explain concepts tailored specifically to the 9-1 GCSE science courses. These are particularly useful for cover lessons or for when students have been absent from lessons:

Effective learning strategies

Teach students effective study strategies to ensure they are able to learn their work more effectively at home. Show students the videos from the Learning Scientists website explaining how to use each of the following study strategies:

  • Retrieval practice & spaced practice.
  • Interleaving.
  • Dual coding.
  • Elaboration.
  • Concrete examples.

The videos, further information and links to research can be found via the Learning Scientists website:

Teaching strategies

  • Give more able GCSE students access to generic A level textbooks so that they can deepen their knowledge and write more in-depth and detailed class notes.
  • Aim all explanations of complex ideas and concepts at the most able students in each class.
  • Use legacy examiner reports and your own marking to identify common misconceptions and errors to inform lesson planning.
  • Provide tiered past exam questions regularly in class.
  • Encourage HPA students to explain concepts in their own words in class (verbally to the teacher or to each other and in writing).
  • High expectations – encourage HPA students to repeat quizzes or tests until they achieve an expected level to ensure a secure knowledge foundation.


  • Provide regular targeted questions to HPA students. This may be in front of the rest of the class or when you are circulating while the rest of the class is working.
  • “Springboard” questions around the room. Start with less able students and allow more able students to add to, amend or make further connections to the initial responses.

Extended writing activities

Higher tier papers will have an emphasis on four and six-mark extended writing questions. Less scaffolding information will also be available to students in the question stem. As such:

  • Provide regular opportunities for extended writing activities in class.
  • Teach exam technique by encouraging students to circle command words and key words in the question stem and discuss what these mean prior to answering the question.
  • As a class, identify and brainstorm key words or phrases that could be used in responses.
  • Encourage students to draw and refer to labelled diagrams in their answers.
  • Differentiate for foundation or less able students, e.g. cloze passages, spot the mistake, sentence starters, mix and match.
  • Use model answers (either to aid with marking, to share success criteria, or for students to amend and improve).

Effective feedback to extended writing

  • Use comment banks written from previous or similar tasks to speed up teacher marking or improve the quality of self or peer-marking.
  • Share model grade 9 answers rather than relying on complicated mark schemes that students find difficult to interpret.
  • Use legacy examiner reports to identify common misconceptions and errors to provide more effective feedback to students.

Live marking

  • Circulate in class (with a red pen) and provide as much individual verbal or written (if appropriate) feedback for the duration of the task as is possible.
  • In large classes, if it is not possible during the lesson time to give individual feedback to everyone, either target key students, or aim to mark a third of the class with a cross-section of students, and give generic feedback to the whole class at the end of the task.
  • Use red dot or highlighting strategies while you circulate to quickly give feedback to students on work that is either incorrect or needs looking at again.

Verbal feedback

Use individual verbal feedback in front of the whole class:

  1. Ask a selection of students (this could be a cross-section of the class or targeted to your HPA students) to read out their written answers or explanations to the rest of the class.
  2. You provide very specific verbal feedback to those students to improve their work in front of the whole group.
  3. Provide DIRT afterwards to allow all students to improve their own answers or explanations in response to the feedback that they have just heard.

Numeracy in science

  • Numeracy questions will have the same level of demand in the higher and foundation tier paper, so it essential that numeracy skills are taught to all students.
  • Ensure that all mathematical requirements have been taught by cross-checking schemes of work and lesson plans with the specification.
  • Refer to the numeracy pages in the textbook/revision guide to help explain concepts to students.
  • Encourage students to buy maths skills text books, such as the one published by CGP Books.

Practical science skills

  • Ensure all required practical activities are completed in class and are clearly flagged to students.
  • Provide specific feedback on all required practical activities. This could be done using success criteria labels stuck in books for each skill being assessed in each activity.
  • Provide tiered past exam questions to students based on all practical activities.
  • Helen Webb is an experienced science and biology teacher and lead practitioner with a professional interest in developing CPD for teachers. Her CPD packages are available on TES. Helen works at Lutterworth College in Leicestershire. Visit or follow her @helenfwebb. To read Helen’s previous articles for SecEd, visit