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Teaching Issues

The problem with exam questions and teaching to the test

Exam desks

Over the last year I have been working hard creating resources for the new GCSEs. This has led me to look really carefully at many things: different topics, the details of the content, and the assessment approaches of the new GCSEs on offer.

These exam questions can be predictable. Fact.

Predictable exam questions and teaching to the test

Setting predictable exam questions is a double edged sword. It creates a problem as it can lead to teachers simply planning to teach to the test. To create exam monkeys. To make learning reductive.

I remember talking to a head of history about 8 years ago ( this teacher is now a Head of School).  He told me that the two things that matter more than anything  were / are how many students take history at GCSE and what grades they get.  

Although well meaning, this statement worried me and still does. Such a mentality can lead teachers to just teaching to the test.

SLT are happy with this because they are ultimately obsessed with results. When they come around with their clip boards they can see the learning objectives and the success criteria.  They can see the objective:  the exam question. They can see the success criteria:  the mark-scheme. Good data equals a good school. Less pressure from Ofsted, happy parents etc.

But I get so fed up with simply teaching to the test, with lessons that end up with another exam practice question.

It used to annoy me when I was an LA adviser. Unfortunately, this year, in my own classroom I have taught to the test more than I ever have before. Working is a school under pressure to improve does this to us.

I am determined to change this approach with the new 2016 GCSEs.

The need to create lessons that have engaging end products is huge.

Teachers at GCSE should aim to ensure that kids know how to answer different exam questions over the length of the course. So, by the end of the two years kids are armed with the skills they need to succeed.

But we should also ensure that our students have opportunities to be assessed in different ways, to be creative, to have fun. So each lesson isn’t just leading to answering yet another exam question.

Here at history resource cupboard we do not advocate simply teaching to the test. We aim to make history enjoyable. We want kids to be fascinated by the past. That is why the principles underlying our approach advocate enquiry based teaching. We stress the importance of fun and rigour.

Michael Fordham has blogged about the fact that exam questions shouldn’t be predictable.

I don’t disagree in theory. But in practice this kind of thinking led to the awful ‘Are you surprised by this source?’ style question. Here is clearly a question set by an examiner who was fed up with the predictable answers to the predictable questions they were setting. The question was designed to shake things up.

But when we open the Pandora’s box of unpredictable exam questions we can  end with a ‘guess what is in the head of the examiner’ style question.   If you cannot guess what is in the head of the examiner (but you can think  in a different and equally valid way) you won’t get rewarded and this could cost you in the end.  This was clearly the case with the ‘Are you surprised…?’ nonsense.

New GCSE’s and exam questions

With the new GCSEs coming over the hill, one of the major factors in choosing a course is deciding on which one provides questions that are accessible and challenging. Essentially, can my students understand the question and does it allow them to show off their knowledge?

When you look at some of the new questions from some exam boards they are quite confused. Others are too hard for some students. Looking at the assessment approaches for the New GCSEs is a real consideration for teachers  choosing new courses. Those weaker students will flounder if the questions are too inaccessible.

Neil and I made our decision of which new spec to go with, partly based on the assessment approaches.

Questions to shape learning

In any case, questions that shape learning in history are quite predictable aren’t they?

When we shape our enquiry questions we use certain question stems to drive the approach.

Essentially we ask students to make a judgement, explain why something has happened, why change takes place,  how and why interpretations of the past are constructed, how interpretations differ, to write a narrative account,  how historians have used the sources available to them…

And, having worked across the spectrum in primary and secondary schools, this is what we want kids to do from year 1 to year 13. This is because we know what second order concepts we are aiming to develop and we know how to structure questions to drive the learning and to focus on certain second order concepts.

A ‘why question’ will generally focus on causation, are ‘why is it so difficult to find out about X’ will look at the availability of the evidence.  A’why do historians disagree about why an event happened’ will look at causation and interpretations.

I would therefore expect to see questions in an exam that test students understanding of the second order concepts:

  • ‘Policing changed more in the 20th Century than in any period before it.’ To what extent do you agree with this statement?
  • Why did X happen?
  • How far do you agree with the interpretation given by this historian?
  • Why do these two constructs differ?
  • Why did change take place..?
  • And so on

I would want the questions to be predictable. This is because I want my students to be tested on what good history is.

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About the author
Richard McFahn
Founder of History Resource Cupboard, Richard has worked for 20 years as a history teacher, subject and senior leader, Advanced Skills Teacher, local authority adviser and history ITE tutor.

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