English A-Level and meta-cognition

Problem: With a few weeks to go, 12 language struggle with timing of the categorising texts question.
It’s a huge question – eight texts to understand, group, and write about. Over the year, we’ve learned to explore the language of texts through annotation to formulate a response. Unfortunately, this tends to lead to students wanting to annotate every text in detail before they get to the groupings decision. With just 1 hour for the whole question, this is unfeasible.

Potential solution: John Tomsett’s post on exam technique modelling has been floating around the twittersphere lately so I decided to give it a go.

What happened:

Using a visualiser, I went through the exam paper, verbalising my thoughts – whether this is a true reflection of Tomsett’s post or not, I’m not quite sure but I think the basic elements were there. By modelling my thinking process, students could see how I was attempting it and how to use their time appropriately.

I started on the question page, underlining key words – something students rarely do, but I find it helps me to focus. Then, worked through each text’s context, making a few brief notes. By explaining my thoughts as I did it, I was able to help them to see that they can get a wealth of information about the texts just from the contexts – an instructive text is likely to use imperatives, for example – and for the one or two where there wasn’t enough detail, a superficial skim would give me enough to make a starting point at a grouping. Working through each one, then I moved onto how to choose a groups and here, I think, was especially useful because I also let them see that the groups can change or shift during the planning. I’d stated to make some links but left out a text – so reviewed the choices, and then came up with a brief plan.

It raised some interesting questions that I hadn’t considered as being issues, such as where to plan – on the answer book! – and why I wasn’t annotating every text,

What I learned

To make clearer the link between annotation for learning and exam technique – that annotation is very detailed, useful to interrogate and mine texts for data, but I should make clearer from the outset that this is a learning strategy and that eventually, less annotation is required.

To question my assumptions about students’ knowledge. Even having done their GCSEs, students aren’t necessarily aware of good planning in exam techniques or of concepts that I might think evident such as planning in the exam booklet – and how would they be if they’re not told!? Making the implicit (to me) explicit is essential.

Perhaps to do this much earlier on – I hate the concept of teaching to the exam, but sometimes that makes me shy away from things which might be better explored earlier, such as developing effective planning techniques.


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