Do exams limit learning

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The stretch and challenge policy. Education and Skills White Paper (DfES, 2005)Problem: A-levels seen as too easy for the most ableLimited challenge, formulaic responses, HE selectionSolution: develop broader skills and knowledgeIntroduction of AEA material at A2, use of different question types (more extended writing, application of knowledge, synthesis of study, fewer opportunities for formulaic responses)Do you think that the English A-level examinations are too easy?.

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1. Do exams limit learning? Students’ and teachers’ perspectives of A-levels QCA-funded Collaboration between AQA, University of Bristol & Queen’s Two strands: 1) Students’ perceptions of stretch and challenge at GCE 2) The impact of stretch and challenge on teachers and teacher training QCA-funded Collaboration between AQA, University of Bristol & Queen’s Two strands: 1) Students’ perceptions of stretch and challenge at GCE 2) The impact of stretch and challenge on teachers and teacher training

2. The stretch and challenge policy Education and Skills White Paper (DfES, 2005) Problem: A-levels seen as too easy for the most able Limited challenge, formulaic responses, HE selection Solution: develop broader skills and knowledge Introduction of AEA material at A2, use of different question types (more extended writing, application of knowledge, synthesis of study, fewer opportunities for formulaic responses) Do you think that the English A-level examinations are too easy? New-style examination papers first teaching 2009, first examination 2010 Give view of the research team when designing the project. Few students score very high marks in A-levels – we have seen thousands of A-level examinations. Distinction between DEMAND and DIFFICULTY. They were intended to be more DEMANDING without being more DIFFICULT. A* grade and extended projects also introduced. Idea is that these exams should motivate students to study more broadly and in more depthNew-style examination papers first teaching 2009, first examination 2010 Give view of the research team when designing the project. Few students score very high marks in A-levels – we have seen thousands of A-level examinations. Distinction between DEMAND and DIFFICULTY. They were intended to be more DEMANDING without being more DIFFICULT. A* grade and extended projects also introduced. Idea is that these exams should motivate students to study more broadly and in more depth

3. Are exams ever motivating? EPPI review Harlen & Deakin-Crick (2003) Only formative assessment is motivating Black et al (2003) Negative impact upon motivation and identity – “I’ll be a nothing” Reay and Wiliam (1999) Students put off by demanding questions Wolf et al. (1995) Harlen & Deakin-Crick – particularly de-motivating when feedback is in the form or grades, marks or scores Popham’s measurement driven instruction stuff, but he has since changed his mind. Harlen & Deakin-Crick – particularly de-motivating when feedback is in the form or grades, marks or scores Popham’s measurement driven instruction stuff, but he has since changed his mind.

4. Student’s views Semi-structured interviews, approx one hour Experiences of preparing for and taking GCE Perceptions of examination standards (challenge, difficulty/easiness) Perceptions of new-style question papers (students matched to actual 2008 paper and corresponding specimen paper for 2010 from AQA, Edexcel or OCR)

5. Student sample Students who completed psychology or biology A levels in June 2008, gaining a grade A with any awarding body (high achievers) Currently first year under-graduates at Universities of Manchester and Bristol How do you do research on the effect of new exams? Ideal participants have studied the right syllabus and prepared for the exam. Not possible for new exams unless you wait until they are live. Took a different approach.How do you do research on the effect of new exams? Ideal participants have studied the right syllabus and prepared for the exam. Not possible for new exams unless you wait until they are live. Took a different approach.

6. Themes emerging from the interviews Theme 1: Examination preparation Theme 2: Motivation and stress Theme 3: Engagement and challenge Theme 4: Perceptions of new question papers

7. Examination preparation Highly emotive, dominated their lives for considerable periods of time Predictability of content of question papers – extensive use of past papers, model answers, marking schemes ‘‘Everything was very formulaic which was quite annoying because we just spent all year sort of learning how to answer the questions more than anything else. No one really wanted to take any risks in their exam results.’ Psychology student ‘I literally learnt the mark scheme. I was like, well there’s no point in trying to go into the details of why this [biological process] works. I knew exactly what wording they wanted.’ Biology student

8. Motivation and stress Hard work, motivation and stress External sources of motivation – get into university, please their parents & teachers ‘When you look back it seems like a lot of worry for nothing when you get your grades, but, when you don’t, I can’t even imagine what it would feel like because I know how stressed out I was beforehand. I was really anxious, and all I wanted was to [study at the University of Manchester]. If I hadn’t have got in [to the University of Manchester] I would have been so upset.’ Biology student ‘I think everyone just wanted to get grades to meet their offers really. I don’t think many people were particularly interested in sort of achieving for achievements’ sake by that point, because we were all a bit tired.’ Psychology student Some said they felt traumatised and highly anxious. One student had missed an exam due to anxiety. Of course, this is a biased group – these are the folk who did really well Suffice it to say that students did not say it was a breeze. But this appears to have been more to do with staying in the top club and getting into university than motivation to study the subject matter per se, in depth.Some said they felt traumatised and highly anxious. One student had missed an exam due to anxiety. Of course, this is a biased group – these are the folk who did really well Suffice it to say that students did not say it was a breeze. But this appears to have been more to do with staying in the top club and getting into university than motivation to study the subject matter per se, in depth.

9. Engagement and challenge Rationale of the stretch and challenge policy is that by changing exams you will change the learning, but also the teaching style. Called backwash or washback in the literature – the effect of tests upon teaching and learning. Also looked at teachers’ views. Rationale of the stretch and challenge policy is that by changing exams you will change the learning, but also the teaching style. Called backwash or washback in the literature – the effect of tests upon teaching and learning. Also looked at teachers’ views.

10. Focus groups with teachers Comprehensive sixth form college, Hampshire 11 participants: Accounting, biology, business studies, chemistry, Curriculum head, D&T, geography, ICT, mathematics, PE Sixth form college, Manchester 8 participants: Applied science, biology, chemistry, computing, geography, ICT, PE, physics Independent school, Manchester 5 participants: Biology, chemistry (x2), D&T, geography, physics Independent school, Bristol 3 participants: ICT, PE, physics Told them the aims of the stretch and challenge policy Told them the aims of the stretch and challenge policy

11. Stimulus materials Materials shown to teachers Stretch & Challenge initiative Sample question papers from AQA, Edexcel & OCR Prompt questions used by researchers Do you think that second year A level students need to be stretched more? Prompt: Are A levels currently too easy? What do you think students will have to do differently? What do you think you will have to do differently to help them? What (if any) support from awarding bodies would be helpful?

12. Themes emerging from focus groups

13. Demands of A-levels Current A-levels already stretching Students hard-working and anxious about exams No reward for displaying skills beyond those expected “I think in my subject area I’d go a step further than that and I think that A-level actively discriminates against the most able students. I don’t think the most able students are necessarily the people who get the highest grades. I think there’s too much recall …we have significant amounts where they need to be able to regurgitate definitions, erm, which are fairly insignificant really…” Chemistry

14. Pedagogy Examination preparation an important part of teachers’ responsibilities Teaching to the test, explaining marking schemes and stem words to students With new A-levels, teachers needed to know what examiners would be looking for in the new marking schemes, to prepare students appropriately The place for stretching students was within pedagogy, not in the examination “It’s about, ultimately, tuning it up, delivering stretch and challenge in the classroom, not in the examination. I think it’s too late then.” Physics Current A-levels Demanding, but not necessarily right demands e.g., stress, reduced interest, unfair, impact on performance Stretch & challenge generally a good thing Deeper learning & interest, opportunity to show skills Prepare students for examinations Need to know what examiners want Greater teacher support Current A-levels Demanding, but not necessarily right demands e.g., stress, reduced interest, unfair, impact on performance Stretch & challenge generally a good thing Deeper learning & interest, opportunity to show skills Prepare students for examinations Need to know what examiners want Greater teacher support

15. Conclusions Students and teachers agreed: Current A-levels Very demanding Foster an instrumental, strategic approach Stretch and challenge policy generally viewed positively

16. On two metaphors for learning and the dangers of choosing just one

17. What kind of learning is needed?

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