25 March 2024

The Monday Briefing 25th March 2024: Keep it Together

The Monday Briefing 25th March 2024: Keep it Together

At the start of the mock exam period last week, I was sent a link by James Garside, Assistant Principal at the College, and Head of GCSE, which brought me to an interesting article by Dominic Salles, written at the start of the month, about the importance of spaced learning and retrieval practice.

In it, he describes the fact that the natural propensity for the brain is to forget information other than that which is used on a regular basis. The brain optimises the information which it views as important, and then converts that information to memory.

According to Salles: ‘A strong memory means your brain has developed a strong neural pathway. If the memory is recent, it will be easy to recall, so no strong neural pathway will be built. The further away it is, the longer ago you last retrieved it, the stronger that neural pathway will be. Until it isn’t. If the gap is too long, you will forget it. The neural pathway will have shrunk. And you’ll have to start over again, near the beginning.’

The ‘forgetting curve’ can be seen below:

Ideally, after learning something for the first time, it should be revisited within 1-3 days so that it can be embedded. Then revisited a week later to establish it, then around two weeks after that, and then again a month later.

Crucially however, according to Salles: ‘the gap should never be more than 20% of the time between learning it and the exam.’

For GCSE students, Salles highlights a clear routine of how something should be learned to be used in the final exams below:

It is day one of year 10. There are 20 months to the exam – call it 600 days. 20% of that is 60 days.

1.       You learn something on day 1. You retrieve it on day 3.
2.       You double the gap to retrieve it again on day 6.
3.       You double again to retrieve it 12 days later, on day 18.
4.       You double it again to retrieve it 24 days later, on day 42.
5.       You double it again to retrieve it 48 days later, on day 90.
6.       You double it again to retrieve it 96 days later, on day 186.
7.       You double it again to retrieve it 192 days later, on day 378.
8.       You can’t double it, as that takes us beyond our 600 days. So you test 60 days before the exam, day 540.
9.       You must also factor in what students learned in year 7, 8 and 9. Some of that may well be knowledge needed for year 11 exams. Still more is knowledge that you would like students to have for life. So, that too will need to be retrieved, probably at gaps between 6 months and 12 months, depending on how long ago it was learned.

This is why students have to understand that revision is a ‘little and often’ process, which has to start from the beginning of the course, not when the content has been finished.

This is also why arranging one set of mock exams, which usually take place midway through Year 11, is insufficient to help best prepare students for their exams. At the College, we have a different approach.

Mock examinations in December, which help to share the burden with the more important mock examinations now, in March. To those who may point out that Mocks now are too late, or take away from teaching time at too crucial a point in the year, the scientific research disagrees with the perspective entirely:

‘The optimum time to have your mocks is 60 days before the exam – two months before, as the gap can’t be greater than 20%. March, or April for May and June exams.

For knowledge learned in year 11, the optimum time is the same. September to April is 8 months, roughly 242 days. So new learning can’t have a gap greater than 20% of this, 48 days before the exam. So, again, for an exam on the 10th June, you need a mock in the last week of March.

A massive advantage of this is that students would only need to revise what they don’t know. Everything else will be in long term memory – at least from the point at which it will need to be retrieved – in May and June.’

So having Mock exams where they are is fundamental to success, but that assumes that students approach them in the right way. And there are several reasons why mocks should be taken seriously, and why hard work brings huge dividends here. Half hearted effort, half hearted gains.

Firstly, students get a chance to put themselves through the sort of experiences they’ll have on the exam day itself. Mocks really are beneficial in that they allow you to become comfortable with the exam conditions. Professional sports players recognise visualisation as one of the best techniques at their disposal when mentally preparing for a competition. Exams are no different, if you can visualise that exam hall and succeed on the paper, then confidence levels will rise and students will feel more prepared.

Mocks will provide you with a reality check on your "real-world" performance. There are many students who struggle in a classroom setting but thrive in an exam hall and vice versa. Participating in a mock exam can help you know your current strengths, weaknesses and areas that you should target for revision. Mocks can also be used as a way of evaluating how well you are currently doing as a student by asking the teacher to give you their opinion on your performance, or by referring to past papers for some constructive feedback, you can gain an insight into what areas of the subject you find difficult and need some more work on. That critical feedback for our students happens on Thursday. 

Mocks provide a realistic view of your strengths and weaknesses on topics, which is invaluable information to help focus future revision on areas of weakness. 

Mock exams also help students learn how to manage their time efficiently by giving them a taste of what will happen on exam day and getting them to work out the logistics of managing the time they have effectively. Sitting one is useful, but two allows the student to address issues which emerged in the first set of mocks. 

By taking a mock exam, students can feel more confident in their abilities and experience a real-world scenario that prepares them for the pressure of an exam hall. This is especially important when it comes to letting go of "imposter syndrome" where students do not believe they have done enough work to succeed in their exams.

These feelings can become crippling leading to poor performance and anxiety surrounding exam day, and only through addressing them can they be overcome.

Mock exams help students get into the right frame of mind for exam success. They are a great way to motivate students as they give the chance to compare scores, both with previous sittings and with peers, and to practise the skills required in an exam setting without overloading oneself with revision.

Testing is an effective way to see how much knowledge has been retained over the course of the syllabus. It also gives a clear idea of what areas a student is struggling in and allows teachers to pinpoint other skills that need improving outside beyond the covering of the syllabus content.

Feedback from staff helps students to identify where your strengths and weaknesses lie, and what can be done to remedy these issues.

All the student needs to do is to have faith in the system, and keep things together, in order to reap the benefits.


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