Question Level Analysis and Reflection to improve exam success

Most of us teach material that will be assessed in an examination of some form or another, but upcoming changes to GCSEs mean that for all of us the focus on teaching exam technique will become more and more important.

One of the major issues that I’ve found to be holding learners back from excelling at exams is the problem with retention of information after their in-class tests: whilst they may revise and practice for the actual test, their effort in keeping that knowledge fresh or making use of the exam result after it has happened is often disappointing.

The research into how we make memories indicates that it is the process of repeating the learning that causes information to be stored in long term memory, and the practical application of this that feeds those skills into working memory. What we need to be doing then is making the grade scored for each assessment less important that what we learned about the students’ recall and use of those facts to inform both the teaching and the revision strategies.

The first thing to tackle is the initial response of students to your exam marking: for most students the only thing that really matters is seeing that grade. They instantly decide if they’re happy with it or not then completely forget about the exam content, marking it up as a success or failure and moving on. In both cases the act of reducing all that learning down to a simple binary state can mean that students simply repeat the exact process of revision for future assessments without making changes.

One method of doing this is an exam reflection activity. Still go through the questions, still hand out grades, but force the students to actually reflect on what they’ve achieved. One strategy for this is Question Level Analysis: traditionally this involves keeping a record of every mark on every question for every student and using it to inform your teaching of which subject to cover again. This tool is too detailed to be much use with students directly, what works a little better is to group the results of the questions into topics and present percentage grades for each of the topics.

Showing this data directly to the student really allows them to get an understanding for which areas of learning they succeeded in and which areas that they need to improve.

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This is reasonably straightforward to set up in a spreadsheet, demonstrating a simple percentage for each of the areas of learning that the exam covered. It simply allows an overview that works particularly well when used with the following sheet.

Once each exam has been sat, the results returned and you’ve gone through the questions with your group; then going through something like the sheet above will force the students to engage with that so-difficult reflection on how the exam actually went. Please don’t feel that you have to replicate the questions on this sheet by they’re a reasonable attempt (and a fourth iteration) to get students to think about how they could do better from a variety of places.

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Firstly, the WWW and EBI are swapped for What Went Well? And What Went Badly? – the language here is specifically chosen to have more emotional resonance with the student so that they are more likely to value the list of problems. All of this can be informed from the QLA that you have performed and allows the students to not only identify which sections they performed poorly on, but using the remainder of the questions on the page it allows them to identify why and how they can improve.

What we’re basically doing is holding the students’ hands as they move themselves through a process of self evaluation and planning the next stage of their learning.

We’re asking questions about the time they need to use, what techniques they could try, even who amongst their friends and family could help them and how – all of these are techniques that can have impact and are often not used by the weakest students.

One of the most important things at this stage is to set a date for another test on the same topics, so that students can work to a deadline with the improvements they claim to want to make. When the next test happens you can perform the same QLA and reflection activity but the important thing on the second run is to compare this achievement to their previous attempt and make the students accountable for the changes they wanted to make. Celebrate success as much as possible.

By walking the student through the model for self evaluation, self reflection and planning for improvement then students are more likely to start to internalise this process and see the benefits of it. In looking at comparison data between two groups of similar ability over two years, class A that used the traditional methods and class B who used QLA and Reflection you can see that class B had more consistent and refined improvements in their unit-to-unit scores, compared to class B who were more variable and actually seemed to get worse in their exam technique for the first three topics.

This leads me to believe that the techniques of reflection and QLA do work, they’re not quite the be-all and end-all but they do have a noticeable impact on the long term and lead to more consistent results.

This is just the data from two groups though, why not give this a try yourself and report back your findings?

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