One thing that I wish had been covered in more depth during my teacher training is teaching exam classes. Some people may argue that teaching exam classes is no different than teaching any other class, however I disagree. You have the pressure of ensuring that a group of students pass an external exam at the end of the course. You have to cover set content. You have to teach specific exam technique.
My timetable consists of six exam classes each doing a different specification, three in KS4 and three in KS5, in two separate subjects. With the changes in specifications, I am planning four of these from scratch this year and as the sole teacher, I have no one to share the work with. As an NQT, and no experience to fall back on, I feel the pressure to ensure that I am covering the correct content, over the correct timeframe. I did teach both GCSE and A Level when I was training, however teaching and planning under the supervision of experienced teachers and teaching and planning solo are very different.
What I have learnt about teaching exam classes:
- Teach exam technique. With my KS5 classes, I dedicate one lesson a week to exam technique. I feel that pupils can learn content to a certain degree independently, however what they tend to struggle with the most is the exam technique. I teach exam technique in a variety of ways – practice papers, practice essays, marking model essays, peer assessment, looking at mark schemes, planning answers. I do not set essays every week for my classes, as I feel that writing full essays isn’t always the most effective way of practising exam technique. For my subjects, the most important part of writing exam answers isn’t always the actual writing of the answer, but rather the selection of material.
- Create a long term plan that is easy to adapt. In July when I received my timetable, I created a very detailed long term plan. Cue missed lessons due to timetable changes, mock exams, pupils not making the progress I had expected and I have had to pretty much change the whole plan. One thing that I would do different for next year is to organise my lessons by week rather than individual lessons – I think that this would work best for me.
- Enforce the importance of out of lesson learning. I feel that the amount of content that needs to be covered, in the new A Level specification in particular, is immense. I have realised that it is essential to enforce out of lesson learning from the start. However, what is even more important is being specific about what the pupils should be doing in their independent study time. I had a conversation with one of my Year 12 classes, and they said that they will do no useful study in their free time unless it has been explicitly stated what they need to be doing. You just cannot assume that sixth formers know how to study or how to revise. I provide task booklets or detailed study tasks to ensure that they are spending the hours a week doing something productive.
- Provide a variety of resources and check folders regularly. All of my exam classes are mixed ability and have a very wide spectrum of abilities and dispositions and therefore I aim to ensure that my lessons reflect this. I am a supporter of teaching KS5 as thoroughly as teaching any other key stage, however I allow them to have folders instead of exercise books. I provide a variety of resources for all classes, including printed mind maps (getrevising.com is great for these), notes, reading extracts, links to YT videos. I just want to ensure that all pupils are able to access the challenging content we cover. Also – check your student’s notes! I assumed that pupils would be able to take useful notes throughout a lesson, however I soon found this not to be the case for all! My Year 13 class are slightly better at taking useful notes, however I create and print worksheets for the Year 12s to fill in as we go through the lesson to structure their thoughts and ensure that the important bits are written down.
- Condense the specification from the exam board and use to inform your planning. I make cover sheets for my pupils, as well as PLCs, for each chapter of the specification. This is part for them to see how what we are learning fits in with the overall picture, but I also find it really useful to tick off each part of the specification as I teach it.