Beyond the very general notion that we should teach as well as we possibly can, are there approaches we can use that help to secure the highest grades at GCSE? I don’t want to suggest that there are any simple tricks or quick wins or that it is possible or wise for us to expect ever more A* grades. However, getting A*s is something we often discuss at KEGS.
Perhaps it is better to think of it differently, working on the assumption that only a certain proportion of students will be awarded A*s across a national exam cohort. The question then becomes: how can we prepare our students so that they have the best chance of being in that number? This leads us to the brutally simple answer: They need to get as close to full marks as possible – which isn’t as obvious as it sounds.
From conversations with colleagues and my experience as a teacher (and more recently as a parent) I do think that there are some common features of successful approaches to securing the highest grades at GCSEs; to getting close to full marks. These can be described under the following headings:
- Expectations and Drive
- Timing and sequencing of the course
- Acceleration through depth, not speed
- Relating the learning to the exam requirements
- Facilitating independent study
There is also a sting in the tail.
Let’s look at each of these in turn.
1. Expectations and Drive
Students and teachers need to be clear that securing an A* is an explicit goal; this is the target, not just a wild dream or vague hope. This can all be part of a no-holds-barred, ‘teach to the top’ culture, where, because of the need for full marks, mediocre, incomplete work or poorly expressed answers aren’t ever good enough. Aiming for A*s give you a reason to set ferociously high expectations for every piece of work you set.
There is the risk that emphasising A*s diminishes the success of gaining an A but it pays to take that risk. In doing so, a narrowly missed A* falls to an A which is a pretty soft landing – an A is a really good grade; far better than missing an A altogether by aiming too low or too half-heartedly. The drive is needed to fire students up with this goal continually throughout the course; it’s no good just turning it on towards the end.
2. Timing and sequencing of the course
The best chance of success comes from securing knowledge and understanding across the entire specification. It’s vital for long term planning to ensure that the course content can be taught in plenty of time to allow for consolidation and revision before the exam. It’s then also vital that medium and short term planning picks up all the micro details of the specification, so no stone is left unturned and no student risks being faced with a question that they only touched on fleetingly, many months ago. Any coursework elements should only be give time in proportion to their value… no more. We’ve see big gains in practical subjects through tightening deadline management with coursework and portfolios
3. Acceleration through depth, not speed
Generally, early entry is not going to give students the best chance of success at A*. If your students need a motivating effect through acceleration, go beyond the syllabus, dip into A Level and bring in other ideas and texts. But take the exam at the last possible opportunity, when they have maximum maturity. Of course, there are plenty of exceptions to this.. but too often, early entry pulls down the top end. There is also the issue of confidence-building. My daugther just took Maths at the end of Year 10. She got an A*. Yippee! But, she never once felt confident about it… but would have next year. Was it worth it? Even though I’m delighted that she managed it, I don’t think so.
4. Relating the learning to the exam requirements: Practise, practise, practise.
This is the key pedagogical task. At every opportunity, however far you go off piste with the inspiration and engagement on full-blast, you also need to tie down the learning to what is required for the exam. So, this means talking about full marks in every context:
Full marks on a two mark question; you can’t just write down one word or idea…demand full sentence answers with explanations, hitting the number of marks for each question.
Full marks on five or six mark question: what is the structure of good answers; what do exemplars look like? So, in physics, we’ve learned about transformers, now write a six mark answer that explains how one works. In Geography, we’ve got a six mark answer to produce explaining the pros and cons of a particular flood defense system. Model it, rehearse it, give feedback, practise it. Over and over again for every topic.
Full marks on essays. This is much harder but again, there should be exemplars ready to use continually. Break it down into a structure that can be practised and get students to be familiar with A* examples. Great discussion about Act II, Scene1, now..give me an A* paragraph: what distinguishes that from an A paragraph? Make that seem clear and predictable and reproducible.
In Maths, it is about making sure surds, algebraic fractions, solving quadratics by completing the square and the sine and cosine rule are fully rehearsed with tons of practice. ie all the A* topics: the harder material is familiar and students have plenty of experience of doing perfect answers.
Feedback is vital in this process. Time pressure often means that students need to know how to self assess wherever possible but you must also focus on giving sharp feedback on the A* threshold issues ..throughout the course, as well as on past papers.
5. Facilitating independent study
A* students are likely to be reasonably keen to study in their own time. And if they’re not, they should be and this needs to be made easy for them. For this to be productive, they need to know the plan for the course, have access to resources that explain what is needed for an A*, access to exemplars and access to notes or information that they can refer to beyond the classroom. It is very hard to get a lot of A*s from students who rely on their teacher for everything; it should almost be possible for them to get the A* by reading and practising without any help from you at all. My daughter spent hours on maths leading up to her exam: it worked because the teacher had provided her with the tools to do it.
In summary, it is a combination of factors. In the end, getting A*s is chiefly about full coverage of the course in detail and tons of practice.
Now, here comes the sting in the tail:
A*s at GCSE are no guarantee of success at A level. Statistically, there may be a strong general trend linking outcomes, but it is quite possible for a student to get a stack of A*s at GCSE then to find A levels incredibly hard. At KEGS we see this a lot. One reason worth considering is that the very skills that lead to success at GCSE do not work at A level; the focus on coverage and rehearsing and practicing answers to reasonably predictable questions doesn’t carry through. Students need to be able to be much more responsive, be better at solving unfamiliar problems and be able to use their knowledge in ways they’ve never met previously.
It can come as a shock and disappointment to a student who has slogged and swotted their way to A*s at GCSE to find that A levels don’t come so easy. Not many students can swot their way to As at A level..it takes a different level of intellectual commitment and endeavour.
So.. this raises another question. Should teaching for success at A level be in our minds when we’re teaching at GCSE? Are we content to grind out the repetition and practice, knowing that an A level approach needs to be more dynamic and unpredictable? In my view, if we are aiming beyond GCSE, we need to give 3 and 5 above maximum emphasis during the GCSE years…so that spoon-dependency isn’t something we’re building-in in the process.