Exam technique

Putting students in control

For Tamara Budhan Caldwell, cramming for exams only adds to the pressure on students. There are far better ways to empower them.

Students under pressure

We all know Aesop’s fable, The Hare and the Tortoise, in which the hare made fun of the tortoise for being so slow. By using his ingenuity and skill, the tortoise was able to overcome his outwardly stronger opponent and win the race.

In this era of high-stakes exam results, schools and teachers feel under pressure to work with their students to cram the facts over the last few months. The pressure to do well comes from all directions, families, teachers and of course themselves. Things are especially tense during the weeks leading up to their GCSE, IGCSE or IBACC/EBACC exams.

Historically, while the IGCSEs were mainly assessed through final exams, GCSE qualification included a greater amount of coursework.

However, today GCSE exam coursework is reduced to the absolute minimum. Whether students are studying for GCSE, IGCSE or IB/EB qualifications, the students’ performance in their exam is decisive.

The examiner’s perspective

Exam success is not about cramming or teaching to the test but about demystifying the exam process; challenging the students to understand the exam structure and requirements. Ideally our teaching and methodology should be used throughout the school year, rather than only in the last few weeks before the exams.

Let me give you an example.

Taking AQA GCSE English Literature exam paper one, question five as an example (Explorations in Creative Reading and Writing). The students are asked to write “a story or part of a story…”, either based on a given photograph or if they’d prefer, from their own idea.

The first thing that students need to understand, of course, is that this question carries the potential of 40 marks, which is half the marks for the entire paper. By being aware of the marks, students should know how much time to spend on each question, including checking and proofing. This is an important part of examination preparation that most, if not all schools, will want to get across to their students.

But what about seeing things from an examiner’s perspective?

Rather than formulaic copy, examiners love stories that stand out from the crowd and include varied and inventive use of structured features. Using a framework or checklist enables students to best apply the skills and techniques that they have been taught in school when they are under pressure.

Using the DFZCR framework during English assessments

Mine is the DFZCR framework. Firstly the ‘D’ reminds them of the dialogue. They will score highly for punctuation that provokes the readers’ curiosity and emotion. We teach students that rather than describe a character it’s more powerful to show how this person feels through what they say. Purely because a story that is compelling can gain four additional marks.

This is their time to show off!

Have they used pathetic fallacy, metaphors and similes and demonstrated their understanding of punctuation by including exclamation and question marks, colons and semi colons? Have they varied the sentence length?

‘F’ prompts students to include flashbacks in their story. Moving backwards in time and switching in and out of dialogue attracts good marks. The ‘Z’ jogs students’ memories to use the creative writing tools of zooming in and out: using their imaginative microscope to zoom into a small detail and then zoom out, to show how that element fits into the bigger story.

C reminds students to include a crisis. The writer should reveal the main character’s inner most thoughts to explain why a crisis has happened, leaving the reader to consider how they’d react in such a situation.  And finally, R stands for resolution. Every good story needs to be drawn to a close with all the threads tied together, possibly with an unexpected twist!

Demystifying mathematical assessment

For Mathematics our techniques are similar: it’s all about making unfamiliar question types feel familiar.

Decoding the exam in maths isn’t just about understanding the marking scheme it’s also about ensuring they know what the question is asking. You cannot remind candidates often enough to Read, Read and Read Again. Sadly, teachers all too often hear the comment “I was rushing and misread the question.”

A frequently used non-calculator question is to ask for a percentage of an amount. An example question asked: ‘Work out 20% of 14,000.’ A number of students misread ‘of’, so instead, worked out a percentage ‘off’ 14,000; unnecessarily wasting a mark.

Most teachers stress the importance of writing the formulae for each answer, but there are better ways of laying out these workings to show proficiency and in turn, obtain more marks.

Gaining control of the process

Years of teaching experience doesn’t always prepare you for being an examiner. If it can be challenging for teachers to understand exam requirements it’s even more so for students. Teaching students how to use everything they have learned and apply this effectively to the exam questions they will encounter, removes their fear of exams and leads to a significant increase in their marks.

By focusing less on cramming facts and more on understanding how to effectively interpret the questions, students can impress the examiners, gain the highest marks, and metaphorically, beat the hare to the finish line!


Former IB examiner Tamara Budhan Caldwell, is founder of Impress Education, a company whose trainers are all current or former GCSE & A Level principal and senior examiners.





FEATURE IMAGE: by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Support Image:   by StephenWheeler from Pixabay


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