Lessons Learned From The 2018 Exam Season

Thursday, 30th August 2018

Jo Coles

students in exam hall

“Pupils are facing the toughest ever GCSEs, as education leaders warn that new grades risk becoming a ‘lottery’”

“All aboard the Titanic catastrophe of the new GCSEs”

“Our first year teaching the new GCSEs was a facade”

These were the typical headlines that greeted teachers throughout the 2018 academic year – certainly not something to fill you with optimism during that final push of exam season when both teachers and students are worn out, anxious, and feeling the stress. As teachers we feel the stress of exam morning even more keenly – biting our nails on behalf of the entire cohort of children for whom we have cared and toiled. Seeing those exam papers for the first time after the exam is often a moment of professional satisfaction, of knowing you really did do all you could have done and all you should have done (even though there is almost always the inevitable student that picks the wrong question, or that feeling of ‘could have spent more time on this’).

Then there is results day with the apprehension, nausea, gratitude, and relief and the turbulent emotions of the teenagers themselves. The feeling of ‘this is why we do this’ (not to mention the likely desire for a glass of wine!) and seeing those students off to their next adventure. But, in true teacher style, no sooner have we had that final closure for one set of students we are immediately into the academic post-mortem, pulling apart what went well and what we need to improve in order to help the next cohort. It is inevitable I suppose, after all being a reflective teacher is good practice!

So, What Have We Learned From The First Exam Series Of The New GCSEs?

Don’t panic

There was no need for hysteria. There is still plenty of crossover in terms of content and assessment style that means we do not need to throw everything out. There is no need for dozens of lessons per case study! There is also no need for dozens of case studies – think smart and apply multipurpose examples instead.

The Content

It was always going to be difficult to assess all the content of the new more demanding specifications. With a larger number of topics it is always going to be pot luck that not everything will be assessed, but then this has been the case for subjects like Maths and Science for years! Or for English where students must learn and understand entire novels and plays of which only a few sentences will be assessed. The point? It is supposed to be hard to predict what will come up, and we are supposed to teach more than just what we think will come up in assessment. Otherwise we become exam factories.

students in classrooml

Lack Of Balanced Viewpoints

As an examiner, I was disappointed to see far too much stereotyping and discrimination in many answers pertaining to migration, population, demographics, culture, etc. Why is the Daily Mail attitude not being challenged in the classroom?

Similarly, numerous colleagues nation-wide commented that one of their students’ weaknesses was in-depth evaluation and the ability to consider multiple viewpoints. This was also true at A Level, with teachers and examiners noting that evaluations were often superficial.

Using Exam Resources

As an examiner, it was clear that those students who succeeded were also students who had been taught well to analyse the resources given in the exam paper. This is a crucial skill. The ability to extrapolate information from any resource, no matter the topic. If well trained, students can at least access some marks even if they don’t know the content or have knowledge of the topic they are looking at. Resource-based marks accounted to 45% of the total exam paper marks in one example. A huge proportion! And if students have the transferable skills, then this gives access to a huge range of marks even if they can only attempt the first parts of the question.

Teacher and students white board

Skills And Knowledge Go Hand-In-Hand

It is often popular at present to see practitioners pitch skills vs knowledge against one another, as if one could exist without the other. Teaching skills is as fundamental as teaching knowledge. If students do not have the skills to interpret that a map is showing the distribution of a population then they will lose marks, even if they have all the knowledge in the world about China’s population strategy. Numerical and graphical skills are essential. But, students will achieve better on skills-based questions if they have prior knowledge about the topic since this will give them the depth required to reach higher marks.

There is no getting out (nor should there be) of learning your case studies. The number of case study questions that I marked that were vague, blank, not place-specific, etc. It was depressing when you can see what students are getting at, but they just couldn’t get the facts in. This does not mean students need to recite and be able to recall thousands of facts, again it is about planning smart when choosing case studies.

The Language Is Complex

The new style exams do raise expectations for language, and this is reflected in the pitch of the textbooks and textbooks at KS3 as well. Students need to be exposed to a wide range of vocabulary from early on, and must be confidence and competent with all command words. It should never be a surprise for a teacher or student to see the term ‘mitigate’ on a GCSE Geography exam paper, or for students to be unsure how to approach a ‘to what extent’ question. Expectations are high, and it will differentiate out and exclude some students from top marks, but this is the point of the new style. Learning is supposed to be hard, and not everyone can do everything. Lower ability students will be better able to approach the exams if they have been exposed to technical language from early on, and through regular low-stakes testing. But there will always be a ceiling.

teacher with map 400

Tips From The #geographyteacher Community

  • Think smart for your case studies. Try to pick multipurpose examples that can suit multiple topics, therefore allowing students to learn fewer case studies but in more depth (particularly useful for lower ability students) e. g. the impact of El Niño/La Niña on creating both drought and flash flooding in Australia (such as the 2011 Brisbane floods) links both to weather hazards and water/food security; or the rapid population growth and urbanisation of Beijing and coastal Chinese cities creating the need for the North-South water transfer scheme links to urban futures, population management, and water security, etc.
  • The additional content is useful. It overlaps and interleaves. It allows us to create better geographers who can more wholly understand their world and more fully interact with it. Rather than having a narrow curriculum where they think the only that is ‘geography’ is a meander!
  • Challenge the Daily Mail attitudes in the classroom. Part of out job as teachers it to open students’ minds to be more empathetic, more balanced, and less monosyllabic. Make it a clear part of learning in your lessons to encourage students to appreciate other viewpoints, to appreciate diversity.
  • Develop student evaluative skills to be able to consider varied views from multiple stakeholders, weigh them up, and form decisions. Practise the decision-making exercise from KS3 and build these skills in early. Have students read and evaluate academic papers. Utilise well-structured debates. Train students to make complex interlinkages between different factors, perhaps through structures such as SOLO or the IDEAL template (see https://jennnnnnnnn.wordpress.com/2018/03/08/ideal-analysis/ ) or point/develop/link, etc. Ensure students learn to apply evidence in their evaluation, keep reminding them to ‘prove it’. Use consequence chains to encourage students to always keep thinking ‘so what’, ‘therefore this leads to’, ‘this could cause’, etc.
  • Train your students to extrapolate from resources and go mark-hunting. Even if the student comes across an exam question that they have never even studied, they should still be able to attempt the resource analysis/interpretation style questions. From day 1 in KS3 ensure students are comfortable with analysing a range of different forms of maps, GIS, graphs, statistics, and graphical information. Ensure students consider different scales. For example, train students to analyse map distribution patterns by looking at global -> regional (e.g. continental/region) -> national -> local scale, whether they are looking at patterns of wealth distribution or which nations have the most pets.
  • Core knowledge of case studies with three or four key facts is essential. If students are also well trained to be able to then extrapolate, explain and analyse from these few facts then that will achieve the top marks. It is not a case of learning thousands of facts, or tons or different case studies. Keep it simple, and teach the skills to be able to turn simple into sublime.
  • Work with your maths department to ensure students are confident with the statistical component, and that you are all using the same common language. For example, did you know that how Science and Maths teams describe a line of best fit is completely different? That one department accepts only straight lines, while the other accepts curves? How confusing this must be for students! So, work with the maths team to ensure you are using the same specific vocab and explaining through the same techniques. Why not set it up so that the Geography department collects raw data on field trips, which students then learn how to present data and perform statistical calculations with the maths department, and then return to Geography to complete the final data analysis and extrapolation? Be aware that in some questions, 2 out of 3 marks were for showing your working out not just the correct answer. Students are drilled to do this in maths, so ensure they also do this in geography. And we as teachers need to know what the working out should look like, so check this with your maths teams!
  • Ensure students’ map skills are spot on. There is more rigour and less leniency on map skills questions. Get back to the old habit of learning how to estimate distance and area using an edge of a piece of paper even! Keep hammering grid references and basic map key identification.
  • Raise expectations, especially for language. Ensure student vocabulary is being developed at every opportunity. Provide example key word walls, examples of connectives, literacy displays, etc. Expose students to the full range of command words from early on. It should never be a surprise to see ‘assess’ or ‘to what extent’ in an exam paper. Students should not be thrown by the examiner terminology. Play command word bingo, provide model answers, etc.
  • Work on student timings through regular routine extended writing 6/8/12 etc mark questions. Use a timer and draw a line underneath all work completed within the time limit. Then allow students to go back over their work and add any other information they had missed, in a different colour. This way they will produce a model answer to refer back to and revise from, but also see what the time limit looks like.

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