Starter for 10: Helping students ace exams

Tim Matthews

Tim Matthews is currently Deputy Headteacher at Oriel High School in Crawley, and is responsible for Teaching & Learning. He took up the post as Deputy in September 2014 having been an Assistant Headteacher at Oriel since 2011. Once, a long time ago, he was a PE teacher but age has caught up with him; he now mainly teaches Humanities combined with the occasional shuffle in the fresh air!

Tim really enjoys trying to support teachers to talk about teaching, improving their practice along the way! He’s keen to engage with other teachers to help develop his own and other’s practice.

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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!

When I moved to my most recent school, I was asked to support the writing of the extended essay element of the exam paper as part of an intervention process, in the run-up to the final exam. They had covered the content but lacked the skills to be able to use this content to produce high-quality, high-scoring essays. While in the past I had been able to support students in grinding out essays until they reached an appropriate standard, this time I didn’t have time on my hands and I was forced to look elsewhere for a strategy…

I can’t actually remember how I came upon this idea (if it was yours, then thanks!) but I ended up giving the students an exemplar essay from a past paper that I had carefully crafted to meet the lowest grading band. When writing it I made sure that I made points using language that could be easily extended and developed to allow access to the higher grade bandings. I then gave the students the model answer, asked them to peer-assess it using the mark scheme (first working out the band and then the position in the band) and then use it as the basis (or starter) of their own work. After the essay was written I then marked the work with both a summative grade and a formative comment.

This was all we did, week in week out for six weeks. Over time, they knew the drill and grew to love it (again, my memory is hazy, but I’m sure it was groans of joy when I introduced the new essay topic each week!). What I noticed was that very quickly the students developed a strong understanding of the requirements of essays in particular bands and then were able to construct an answer that met this criteria, irrespective of the content requirement of the question. I am pleased to say that all the students were able to achieve at least a band 2 mark in each essay that they wrote that year.

Upon reflection I decided that it would be a better strategy to deploy to use this at various points throughout the year rather than using it intensively at the end of the course. As such I have continued to use this method to achieve success consistently with different groups of students at different points in their individual learning journey. The feedback that I have received from the students is overwhelmingly positive, with students at all levels saying it helps them to decode the requirements of essay writing and makes it easier for them to structure their written responses ensuring they meet the demands of the question.

This was all working so well until this year, when I became aware via Twitter of the work of Kev Lister and his #RAG123 Marking. I thought about the concept and (as I have done the decent thing and, as all ageing PE teachers should, have hung up my boots, donned elbow patches and started teaching some Humanities) trialled RAG marking with my Year 7 group with promising results. This led me to wonder about the possibility of combining RAG marking with my Starter for 10 idea.

The refined model looks something like this:

  • Provide a very basic answer (Starter for 10 style); the student then gives a band using an appropriate set of banding descriptors (taken from the mark-scheme).
  • The student uses RAG marking to identify strengths and areas for development in the provided work.
  • Students then describe why the RAG marking has been applied, making appropriate improvement suggestions.
  • The teacher questions students to help refresh relevant knowledge and understanding.
  • Students annotate detail around the exemplar to build their essay based on the outcome of the discussion.
  • Students then attempt the essay under timed conditions.
  • Students peer assess against exemplars of different levels placing their initial attempts in relation to exemplars to give a band.
  • Students self-mark essay.
  • Teacher completes RAG marking and returns work to students.
  • Students highlight key phrases to be used from exemplars and respond to teacher RAG marking.
  • DIRT: Write timed response using RAG responses & highlighted phrases.
  • Teacher completes final summative mark.

So far this year I have been pleased with the responses that I have received. Students seem to quickly develop complexity in their answers and a transferrable essay structure. Although on the face of it this process seems time consuming, the benefits across the duration of the course seem worth it as the students become efficient at working within this process. The need to revisit topics seems to be less as students have a deeper understanding of the requirements of the questions so they often just need a quick recap of the content which can be easily achieved with regular, distributed practice.

An important element to this is the removal of the Starter for 10 prompt. A danger is that students become reliant on the initial prompt from the teacher, and when this is unavailable struggle to produce a quality response. To counter this, over the course of the year I have been working on gradually removing the starter prompt. The best way that I have found so far is to reduce the model answer to key sentences and then reduce it to key words and then reduce it again to just an essay title once students have a clear idea of the required structure and that they are comfortable with the content knowledge.

All-in-all it seems to work! It isn’t anything revolutionary but the students seem to respond well and find it useful. I hope that if you use it you can make it work for you also! Please do get in touch and let me know how it goes, or if you have got any suggestions or improvements!

Have you used similar methods in your work? Let us know in the comments.

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