English re-sits at post-16 – Less of the same

I had the pleasure of delivering a workshop for AoC Create in London in April on the subject of teaching English re-sits at post-16.

To whet your appetite, here are some of my thoughts on ensuring that the year of resit is not simply a year of revision…


When is revision not revision?

The words ‘Today, we’re going to revise for an exam’ strike fear into students’ hearts.

Revision lessons have become synonymous with dull, repetitious labour.  Revisiting by rote what students have already studied.  Sitting past paper after past paper in silent rows, receiving nothing in return but a miserly missive in blood-red ink.

As such, I’ve learnt over the years that it’s better to talk not of ‘revision’ but of ‘exam preparation’, and preferable to think of ‘exam preparation lessons’ not as repeating what’s gone before but rather as a form of deliberate practice.

‘Revision’ implies going over old ground without seeking to learn from it and make improvements, and without seeking to introduce new concepts and spark fresh ideas.

‘Practice’, however, implies doing something new, incrementally improving your performance through a process of trial and error.  And so doing by receiving feedback, learning from your mistakes and making tweaks in order to achieve marginal gains.

In short, exam preparation lessons should avoid learning by rote, reading and re-reading class notes.  They should, instead, make use of two teaching strategies which have been proven to be amongst the most effective forms of pedagogy in any lesson, be it exam preparation or not, namely:

  1. Practice testing, and
  2. Distributed practice.

Let’s take a look at each…


Practice testing

The use of practice tests can improve learning in direct and indirect ways…

For example, if a student read a chapter in a textbook and then wanted to review the most important information in that chapter, they could do one of two things…

They could simply read the information again.

Or they could cover up the answers and attempt to recall the information ‘blind’, i.e. from memory.

The second method – testing herself – is by far the most effective because the student is boosting her long-term memory.  Every correct retrieval improves the speed and ease of all subsequent attempts at retrieval.

Practice tests can also have an indirect effect on student learning because when a student fails to retrieve a correct answer during a practice test, their failure informs them that they need to revisit and re-learn this topic.

As such, practice tests help students determine and reinforce what has been mastered as well as what needs further practice.


Distributed practice

The second teaching strategy which is a highly effective form of exam preparation is distributed practice.

So how can we help students to distribute their practice?

Firstly, we should help students to map out how many study sessions they will need before an exam, when those sessions should take place (which evenings of the week and between what times), and what they should practice during each session.  Two short study blocks per week should be sufficient to begin studying new material as well as to restudy previously learned material.  Students should be able to retrieve previous material more easily after just a few study sessions which leaves more time for studying new material.

Secondly, we should use distributed practice in the classroom by repeatedly going back over the most important knowledge and concepts.  For example, we could use weekly quizzes that repeat content several times so that students re-learn some concepts in a distributed manner.  Repeating key points in several quizzes not only highlights the importance of that content but also affords students the opportunity to engage in distributed practice.

Thirdly, we should set a cumulative exam that forces students to review the most important information they’ve studied this year.

I hope to see you at the workshop in Birmingham. In the meantime, you can find out more on this topic by reading Matilda Rose’s book, ‘How to Teach GCSE English to Disaffected Students at Post-16‘.

Written by Matt Bromley


Matt Bromley is an education journalist and author with over eighteen years’ experience in teaching and leadership. He also works as a consultant, speaker, and trainer. Matt is speaking at the Leading English and Maths in FE Workshop on 18 October in Birmingham.

You can also visit Matt’s blog at www.bromleyeducation.co.uk and follow him on Twitter @mj_bromley.