Teaching students the art of “exam technique”

This year I have approached revision in a slightly different way with my Year 10 students. I am teaching two Triple Award Chemistry groups and have a number of students who are expected to achieve A or A* grades.

I read a blog post by Tom Sherrington @headguruteacher back in October titled “Teaching for A*’s”. I was struck by the following three points that Tom made in his post:

  • Only a certain proportion of students in a national cohort will be awarded A* grades.
  • Students need to get as close to full marks as possible.
  • We need to relate learning to exam requirements and practise, practise, practise.

This really made me think. The points were obvious ones but this had never really crossed my mind until then. I had never knowingly considered the glaringly obvious fact that students need to get close to full marks to ensure a better chance at an A*.

After reading Tom’s post I started to think about what I could do for my students. I decided to set up an after-school group focused on exam technique aimed at those students who were aiming for A or A* grades.

I want to be very clear that this was not an exclusive group and students were not cherry-picked to attend. The invitation was made to all of my Triple Award students. I also want to reassure you that my focus on exam technique was not saved solely for this after-school group. The strategies I will share in this post are used in lessons too. The difference was that the after-school group gave those students who were determined and really aiming for the highest grades, an outlet in which to push themselves without judgement or interference from other peers.

So the group started straight after October half term and has been running quite successfully since then. I regularly have 12 students attending, which may not seem like a lot but I feel this is a good size group to work with on very specific exam technique activities.

Last week I shared the strategies I’ve been using with my department colleagues and so I felt it was time to share them with you too.


This activity was developed by @Dr_Arbon. It provides a clearly structured approach to answering an exam question, specifically the 6 mark question on the AQA Science papers. This strategy encourages students to do the following four things:

B – Box the command words

U – Underline the scientific vocabulary

S – Structure the answer

K – Identify the keywords

Completing this four step process forces students to read the question carefully before launching into their answer.  Using @Dr_Arbon’s original format, I provide the students with a crib sheet to start with. Through continued practice students start to do this as second nature and the quality of their answers is improving.

6 mark Rocks and Building Materials

Graphic Organisers

Another resource I found via Twitter was the site www.brainpop.com and their range of graphic organisers. @martin_clee tweeted the fishbone organiser and explained it had helped his students double the amount they wrote for the 6 mark questions.

So I introduced this to my students and found the same. Some students just needed a supportive structure to help them get started with their answer.

Write the Markscheme

For this strategy, my focus was on understanding the markscheme. I was conscious of the fact that some students get very hung up on how many points they need to make in their answers. For example, in a question asking them to give the advantages and disadvantages of an issue or process they were convinced they should have three advantages and three disadvantages.

Through this activity we explored the idea of level 1, 2 and 3 answers and the fact that they didn’t necessarily need an even balance of advantages and disadvantages.

I was really impressed with the way the students tackled this activity and after a few attempts they became much more skilled at interpreting the question and what the markscheme may actually contain.

Exam Question Analysis

Another strategy I picked up from @martin_clee was the exam question analysis. He tweeted an image of students from his school unpicking an exam question and identifying all the key content and instructions on the question that would help them to answer it.

I tried this with my students and was impressed with their attempt. They completed this on a carousel, moving round to different questions so that after four rotations it became more challenging as other students had already picked out much of the key content, command words and instructions.

To finish this activity, I asked the students to answer a different question which they had not been involved in analysing. They were able to use the notes and comments made by other students to answer the question which helped them to understand the purpose of this activity.

Since starting the after-school group, I have noticed an improvement in the answers produced by the students who attend regularly. They are much more specific in their answers and consistently hit 5 and 6 marks on their attempts. I suppose the real test will be whether they can pull all of this work together in the real exam. With a mock exam approaching, I am looking forward to analysing the results and assessing the impact of this work.

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