Results Day Insomnia

As a former Head of Department of a very large Humanities team, then as a Head of Sixth Form, I rarely got much sleep the night before results day. I would joke about wanting to go back into retail and have a strong whiskey. The pressure upon middle management to produce outstanding results is immense and the more subjects you have under your wing, the greater the opportunity for a curve ball. I was told, early in my career by a rather cynical (but much loved) colleague – ‘you are only as good as your last set of results’ and it was a phrase that was always imprinted on my mind. I will readily admit that over the many years there were some sets of departmental results that I wished were better. We had the odd disaster.  On some occasions, there was a rather bullish response from the senior team. They would rush to dish out ‘supportive’ plans (often counterproductive and should be only used where there is a trend of poor data). There would be continual lesson observations, data scrutiny and student surveys. Frequent ‘Progress’ meetings with the leadership and being grilled and questioned like a member of the French resistance. But, as the phrase goes, weighing the pig wont make it fatter.

Turning Things Around

So what can we do to turn around a set of results? Firstly, make sure you are not caught on the back foot. Have a clear plan of what you will do before you have any conversations with your leadership team. You will want to appear to be in charge of the situation (even if your panicking inside). This will happen to everyone in their career at some point. Be kind to yourself. If it was a team member rather than your own results, meet early and discuss what happened. Ask the team member what steps they have taken already and how you can support them. What then? Well, you could try some of these ideas:

1. Check the marks. Look at this by question and recall a range of scripts. It may well be that you have an issue with a particular question stem or component that needs addressing in your scheme of work. Some years back, my team and I took the brave decision to devote more time to the British political unit and its essay questions rather than the source paper. Students found the content more difficult to grapple with and they wanted more practice on the essays. It paid off! Note, I am not advising though that you opt for, what we used to call a ‘remark’ (now ‘review’). Unless there has been a serious clerical error, a misapplication of the mark scheme or an error in judgement (which is more unlikely with the use of seeds etc.), the marks are unlikely to change. The new JCQ guidelines on this are quite specific. I know there will be examples where marks have changed but these are few. Focus instead on where the weaknesses are.

2. Get some exam training and advice.  This is quite a big point so I shall break it down into actions.

  • Each exam board offers their equivalent of ‘feedback’ sessions which can be very useful. There are other providers out there too such as Hodder Educational, Keynote and if your centre offers AQA A level History and you want something more bespoke (but competitive), then contact me on (Apologies for the shameless plug!) Indeed, if you follow the History Rocks podcasts, your students will also get to hear some useful tips to help prepare them.
  • Ideally, you will want to get involved in some exam marking. There is no point marking the same exam for the third year in a row, choose the unit that the students (and yourself) struggle with most. One year, I choose to mark a breadth paper which frightened me (It was huge and involved lots of topics on one paper!) – it was the best decision I made. I altered my schemes of work, lesson resources and assessments around the experience.
  • Whilst you are waiting to join the exam marking, can you cross-mark your essays with an examiner? Reach out on social media (there are quite a number that follow Twitter) and see if they can help. Be careful however, as there is a lot of well meaning but duff advice on social media generally.
  • Finally, read the examiner reports. They are packed with lots of good tips but despite this, each year I see some responses that are contrary to the advice given.

3. Do you know other centres that you can share resources with? Some centres belong to a consortium but this is only helpful if you share the same exam board and someone has outstanding value added. If your centre is a member of ALPs for instance, you can always contact their customer helpline and see if they can put you in touch with another centre who has recorded excellent value added. I did this one year for one subject and it proved pretty fruitful. ALPs will not know the exam board but this can be looked up on most Sixth Form websites. For both GCSE and A level, you can use a tool published on the website to look at value added by subject in schools across the country. Use this as guide as to who to contact. Create a peer support group, especially if you are in a small team.

4. Focus more upon application than delivering content. It is quite common to worry more about getting ‘through’ the content than the application to exam questions but this is really critical. Build up a portfolio of short (15-20 minute) exam-based exercises that you can incorporate in every lesson. Take a gradual approach to building the student exam skills and confidence. I know I have been guilty of trying to teach all of the needed skills at the same time but this just overloads them. As a consequence, students can disengage, thinking they will never achieve the end goal. Sources can also serve as a great way to develop content knowledge too, so you can kill two birds with one stone here. If you are looking for some short exam based exercises, then you will love the new ‘online extras’ that compliment the new Access to History series. You can get further examples of effective activities using the History Rocks T&L booklet for AQA A level centres.

5. Improve the quality of revision. It will not matter how proficient the student is at the exam skills if they don’t know the content. The pressure is often to hold an ever increasing number of revision sessions, but I don’t think this is the answer. Frequently, student revision practices go little beyond rewriting notes in different forms (posters, mind-maps etc.). Research has shown that this is one of the least effective revision practices. Instead focus upon getting the students to self-test and use distributive practice. The latter meaning, as I understand it, giving themselves time and testing themselves again. Encourage them to split their time between content revision, application of skills and receiving feedback. With content revision, always get them to recall what they know and test themselves. You can test them too, I used to hold ‘gulag’ tests every other lesson wherein some questions repeated and new ones were introduced. For skills, exercises like creating exam questions or indicative content for mark schemes can work well. Feedback is literally that, exercises to get more feedback on how to improve from yourself or their peers. I have produced a free revision menu that you can use with the students here.

Finally, it is important that you remain calm but determined. Look after yourself during stressful periods and take time out. It is often when you are not thinking about work, you have the greatest flashes on inspiration.