With the exam season in full swing, teenagers taking their GCSEs are hoping their teachers covered everything so they can achieve top marks. The methods teachers use in the classroom could also hold the key to improving pupils’ grades, according to a pioneering report published today.

The study, led by the University of Bristol, sheds new light on the fascinating and elusive question: what makes an effective teacher? For the first time in the UK, the researchers have identified which teaching practices drive up exam results and how different class activities work better depending on the subject.

Lead author Simon Burgess, Professor of Economics, said: “Whether or not you have an effective teacher is by far the most important factor influencing pupils’ GCSES, outside of your family background. This unique research unlocks the black box to effective teaching, helping us understand what specific teaching practices are more likely to produce better test scores.

“This is crucial to know as it could also make a dramatic difference to a child’s life chances and their potential future earnings.”

The team of international researchers analysed around 14,000 GCSE results of pupils from 32 secondary schools across the UK, comparing the scores to classroom observation reports spanning two years just before the COVID-19 pandemic on 251 teachers from the same schools. 

The research, funded by the Nuffield Foundation, revealed compelling links between GCSE grades depending on teacher effectiveness ratings and class time usage.

The research showed that how teachers used class time had a significant impact on their pupils’ results. In fact, typical variations in class activities between teachers accounted for around a third of the total influence of teachers on the GCSE marks of their pupils.

Highly-rated teachers were also shown to have a greater impact on lower-achieving pupils than higher achievers, a finding with implications for how schools should deploy their most effective teachers.

There were also notable conclusions highlighting how specific teaching approaches are more beneficial for certain subjects.

For instance, the most important activity for English teachers appears to be facilitating interaction and discussion between classmates; more time spent on this tends to raise English GCSE scores. Conversely, for Maths teachers, the key activity is making time for pupils to practise questions individually in class; again, more time on this increases GCSE marks.

Assessing the long-term impact, the researchers went on to project how such improvements would enhance pupils’ future salaries. The effects are sizeable: the typical change in class time use considered raised GCSEs and later salaries that generated an additional £150k of lifetime income every year for a class of 30 pupils.

The report, in collaboration with the Oxford Partnership for Education Research and Analysis (OPERA) and Harvard University, forms the basis for a cheap and easy tool which teachers and school leaders can use to identify and improve classroom skills.

Professor Burgess said: “The potential of these findings is huge in both educational and economic terms. This greater understanding of the most effective teaching techniques could be used to help teachers learn and improve their own performance.

"Now we know the added importance of effective teaching for lower-achieving pupils, the research could also be used to inform and advance the ‘levelling-up’ agenda, helping underprivileged pupils thrive.”

This week testing season officially begins. Edtech products can play an important role in students’ preparation for exams, as well as supporting extending learning beyond the classroom throughout the year. Here are 11 edtech products helping to ease the pressure on students and teachers at what can be a stressful time of year.

Since the new A-levels have gone linear, it’s taken students and teachers some adjustment to start adapting their teaching to fit into this new format. I think it’s fair to say, it’s been quite a learning curve for myself and others especially with the removal of the January exam window.

With the linear format, students sit all their A-level exams at the end of the second year across all their subjects. Previously you had students learning everything in a more digestible modular format with the option of retakes. The problem with this is they have now not only lost the opportunity to re-sit their exams if they do poorly at college, they are faced with the task of recalling two years worth of learning across at least three different subjects all at once. These new changes place a huge amount of pressure on learners as well as teachers to get it right first time.

I’ve spoken to a number of other teachers who also feel the pressure. Take A-level psychology: students have to sit three exam papers, which are really heavily essay-based. The paper 3 exam, for example, can have up to 30 essays students need to know inside-out just to guarantee they go in fully prepared. That’s not even factoring in the other two exam papers or their other subjects (which can have up to four exam papers each)!

So what can we do? Here are some tips that can be applied across all the different subjects, which myself and other teachers have started to implement.

Show Students the Specification

Every subject has a specification that can be downloaded from the exam board website. The specifications outline exactly what students need to know for their subjects and they are relied on heavily to plan sessions. I consider them a map that shows literally step by step what students need to know for each exam paper.

Students are not always aware they exist or what they are or where to find them, having come from GCSEs. Showing this right from the offset will help them have a point of reference for their subject going forward. This also helps encourage independent learning, so they can simply refer to the spec should they want to learn outside of the classroom.

The four main UK exam boards are AQA, OCR, Edexcel and WJEC. You can find the specifications simply by clicking through and choosing your subjects and qualification, whether that's GCSE or A-level.

Make the most of free resources

I’m currently working with colleagues to create Psychology, Science, English, French and Maths resources at LearnDojo. The site was popular with the old spec but we've wiped all the content as the new 9-1 GCSEs and linear A-levels came in. It's completely free for everyone and the aim is to make it so parents and students don't have to buy expensive textbooks so all can benefit. Keep an eye out for resources coming soon!

Plan and get started early

With the huge amount of content you need to learn and it all coming down to the exams after two years of study, it's incredibly important to plan and start early so you can begin to fit everything in. Students are required to learn a number of topics over 24 months and are then tested on them… which might include something learnt right at the beginning of their studies almost two years ago. By planning and starting early, this means students don't need to be overloaded trying to cram everything in at the tail end as they approach their exams.

One really good method is to leave contingency sessions free to revisit tricky topics. I'll ask students every quarter to identify what they are finding difficult from the topics we've covered so far and then dedicate a session to go over them again.

For example, in the new Psycology A-Level my students have been a little fearful of the newly introduced Maths and Biology content, so we’ve spent the contingency time going over that. This way, you can revisit older topics within those gaps to keep the content fresh in their minds with refreshers.

Offer revision classes

Sometimes an hour or so isn’t quite enough to cover everything you need for your subject and revision classes for students always prove popular. Every subject will have topics which are quite frankly difficult, and you will know which ones these are because as a teacher because you probably find yourself getting confused with them too.

For example, teaching psychology, I know essay writing is something students really struggle with and I’ve run classes where we break down a good essay structure and how assessment objectives work (e.g. AO1, AO2/AO3). The jump from GCSE essay writing to A-level is fairly significant and students often find this a struggle.

Similar issues will apply for other subjects with problem areas and it’s always a good idea to identify and invest some time to tackle them outside of the classroom. This should help students become more confident and raise their grade levels as naturally they would have shy away from things they feel unconfident with.

Practice with Past Papers

A really good way of preparing for a future exam paper is to practice using past ones. What I like to do is:

  • print out all the past papers and break down all the different topics into individual booklets
  • print out all the mark schemes too and separate them into answer booklets

You’ve now created practice booklets you can hand out for all the different topics and students can use them get more confident with the exam style questions too.

Doing this encourages good exam technique from students as it gives them the opportunity to practice answering the questions as they will come up in the exams, but also refer to the answers and correct them using the answer booklets. This will enable them to get into the mindset of examiners and help them understand what they answer incorrectly and how they can fix this going forward.

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Most schools use formative assessment throughout the year, and then have some sort of test at the end as practice for SATs. This data-handling may be done via a commercial system, a tracking system they have created in-house, or through one of the paper-based approaches that many schools are still using. It doesn’t matter which method you choose, but it does matter how the data is being used.

Proposing the idea that more testing may be the answer to improving pupil outcomes would undoubtedly result in heads in the staffroom turning in absurdity - or the cause of a full riot on social media. It is the belief of many that pupils are being over-assessed already, so why introduce more? It is felt that too much assessment is affecting the mental health of children, or squeezing the joy out of learning, and may be a direct cause of underachievement. Therefore, to introduce more would be outlandish. Each concern is valid - especially in the case of high-stakes testing - however, we should not discount the role that low-stakes testing may have in enhancing pupil learning.

I’m teaching the new GCSE English specification for the first time this year and I’m not going to lie, I’m pretty nervous about it. The rest of my department have had a year to get to grips with it all and fine tune it, so while I’m getting what I can from them, I also need to make it work for the students in front of me, and not someone else’s class. With four hours of lessons per week, and three years before their final exams, there’s a lot of time to embed good working habits with my class - no matter how resistant they’re currently being!

Over 50% of Secondary schools across England and Wales are planning on using SISRA Analytics to support their analysis of KS4 and KS5 exam results data this year. The service has been developed to help ease workload giving staff time to put additional support in place when appropriate. SISRA Analytics provides staff, on results days and throughout the year, with a whole range of user friendly reports at the click of a button including headline figures, trend analysis as well as faculty and qualification-level analysis.

GCSE and A Level students are escaping the stress during exam season armed with felt tips, pencils and crayons thanks to a new initiative by Alder Grange School in Lancashire

The C-Pen Exam Reader has been approved by The Joint Council for Qualifications (JCQ) for use in exams. With this development, students who have reading difficulties such as dyslexia or English as a second language (ESL) can independently take exams knowing that they can read and understand the questions. The Exam Reader is major technological breakthrough for anyone wanting assistance in reading exam questions. The pen is a totally portable, pocket-sized device that reads text out aloud with an English human-like digital voice, with headphones meaning that students can still sit their exams in the main exam hall.

As a teacher there is a great deal you can do to help your students through the exam period. Naturally you have taught them the subject area comprehensively, but you should also explain exam technique and give them some practical steps to make the most of their revision time.

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