Since the new A-levels have gone linear, it’s taken students and teachers some adjustment to start adapting their teaching to fit into this new format. I think it’s fair to say, it’s been quite a learning curve for myself and others especially with the removal of the January exam window.
With the linear format, students sit all their A-level exams at the end of the second year across all their subjects. Previously you had students learning everything in a more digestible modular format with the option of retakes. The problem with this is they have now not only lost the opportunity to re-sit their exams if they do poorly at college, they are faced with the task of recalling two years worth of learning across at least three different subjects all at once. These new changes place a huge amount of pressure on learners as well as teachers to get it right first time.
I’ve spoken to a number of other teachers who also feel the pressure. Take A-level psychology: students have to sit three exam papers, which are really heavily essay-based. The paper 3 exam, for example, can have up to 30 essays students need to know inside-out just to guarantee they go in fully prepared. That’s not even factoring in the other two exam papers or their other subjects (which can have up to four exam papers each)!
So what can we do? Here are some tips that can be applied across all the different subjects, which myself and other teachers have started to implement.
Show Students the Specification
Every subject has a specification that can be downloaded from the exam board website. The specifications outline exactly what students need to know for their subjects and they are relied on heavily to plan sessions. I consider them a map that shows literally step by step what students need to know for each exam paper.
Students are not always aware they exist or what they are or where to find them, having come from GCSEs. Showing this right from the offset will help them have a point of reference for their subject going forward. This also helps encourage independent learning, so they can simply refer to the spec should they want to learn outside of the classroom.
Make the most of free resources
I’m currently working with colleagues to create Psychology, Science, English, French and Maths resources at LearnDojo. The site was popular with the old spec but we've wiped all the content as the new 9-1 GCSEs and linear A-levels came in. It's completely free for everyone and the aim is to make it so parents and students don't have to buy expensive textbooks so all can benefit. Keep an eye out for resources coming soon!
Plan and get started early
With the huge amount of content you need to learn and it all coming down to the exams after two years of study, it's incredibly important to plan and start early so you can begin to fit everything in. Students are required to learn a number of topics over 24 months and are then tested on them… which might include something learnt right at the beginning of their studies almost two years ago. By planning and starting early, this means students don't need to be overloaded trying to cram everything in at the tail end as they approach their exams.
One really good method is to leave contingency sessions free to revisit tricky topics. I'll ask students every quarter to identify what they are finding difficult from the topics we've covered so far and then dedicate a session to go over them again.
For example, in the new Psycology A-Level my students have been a little fearful of the newly introduced Maths and Biology content, so we’ve spent the contingency time going over that. This way, you can revisit older topics within those gaps to keep the content fresh in their minds with refreshers.
Offer revision classes
Sometimes an hour or so isn’t quite enough to cover everything you need for your subject and revision classes for students always prove popular. Every subject will have topics which are quite frankly difficult, and you will know which ones these are because as a teacher because you probably find yourself getting confused with them too.
For example, teaching psychology, I know essay writing is something students really struggle with and I’ve run classes where we break down a good essay structure and how assessment objectives work (e.g. AO1, AO2/AO3). The jump from GCSE essay writing to A-level is fairly significant and students often find this a struggle.
Similar issues will apply for other subjects with problem areas and it’s always a good idea to identify and invest some time to tackle them outside of the classroom. This should help students become more confident and raise their grade levels as naturally they would have shy away from things they feel unconfident with.
Practice with Past Papers
A really good way of preparing for a future exam paper is to practice using past ones. What I like to do is:
You’ve now created practice booklets you can hand out for all the different topics and students can use them get more confident with the exam style questions too.
Doing this encourages good exam technique from students as it gives them the opportunity to practice answering the questions as they will come up in the exams, but also refer to the answers and correct them using the answer booklets. This will enable them to get into the mindset of examiners and help them understand what they answer incorrectly and how they can fix this going forward.
Want to receive cutting-edge insights from leading educators each week? Sign up to our Community Update and be part of the action!
Most schools use formative assessment throughout the year, and then have some sort of test at the end as practice for SATs. This data-handling may be done via a commercial system, a tracking system they have created in-house, or through one of the paper-based approaches that many schools are still using. It doesn’t matter which method you choose, but it does matter how the data is being used.
Proposing the idea that more testing may be the answer to improving pupil outcomes would undoubtedly result in heads in the staffroom turning in absurdity - or the cause of a full riot on social media. It is the belief of many that pupils are being over-assessed already, so why introduce more? It is felt that too much assessment is affecting the mental health of children, or squeezing the joy out of learning, and may be a direct cause of underachievement. Therefore, to introduce more would be outlandish. Each concern is valid - especially in the case of high-stakes testing - however, we should not discount the role that low-stakes testing may have in enhancing pupil learning.
I’m teaching the new GCSE English specification for the first time this year and I’m not going to lie, I’m pretty nervous about it. The rest of my department have had a year to get to grips with it all and fine tune it, so while I’m getting what I can from them, I also need to make it work for the students in front of me, and not someone else’s class. With four hours of lessons per week, and three years before their final exams, there’s a lot of time to embed good working habits with my class - no matter how resistant they’re currently being!
Over 50% of Secondary schools across England and Wales are planning on using SISRA Analytics to support their analysis of KS4 and KS5 exam results data this year. The service has been developed to help ease workload giving staff time to put additional support in place when appropriate. SISRA Analytics provides staff, on results days and throughout the year, with a whole range of user friendly reports at the click of a button including headline figures, trend analysis as well as faculty and qualification-level analysis.
The C-Pen Exam Reader has been approved by The Joint Council for Qualifications (JCQ) for use in exams. With this development, students who have reading difficulties such as dyslexia or English as a second language (ESL) can independently take exams knowing that they can read and understand the questions. The Exam Reader is major technological breakthrough for anyone wanting assistance in reading exam questions. The pen is a totally portable, pocket-sized device that reads text out aloud with an English human-like digital voice, with headphones meaning that students can still sit their exams in the main exam hall.
As a PE teacher of many years, one area that I have traditionally struggled with was supporting students to be able to write high-quality extended essays for the A2 exam paper. I always seemed to struggle with the ability to help students write concisely, using technical language and actually answer the question that was posed rather than the question they wish had been posed!
Too often, students see the grade that they receive and do not take enough notice into the written feedback that is given during marking. Dylan Wiliam's suggestion of not giving the grade to the students works but I've been wanting the students to engage with the success criteria when it comes to their exams and they really are incredibly motivated by seeing the grades, or even a number.
Something suggested by a colleague, which I've started to implement with exam classes, is 'predictive grids'. These are success criteria grids (usually using the exam board language as much as possible) which the students highlight according to what they think they achieved in the piece of work. This can either be done directly after the piece of work is finished or the lesson after which is what I usually prefer to do. When the work is marked, the teacher can then see where specifically the students are not achieving, but also see if the students know if they are not achieving in that particular area.