8. Achieving examination success

“While testing can be useful as an assessment tool, the actual process of taking a test can also help us to learn and retain new information over the long term and apply it across different contexts.” Association for Psychological Science[1]

One school can achieve much better exam results than another school, with similar students. How do they do that? This chapter is all about how to make your students successful in examinations.


1)Why do you think some schools are much more successful than others in examinations?

2) What do you think you can do to improve the examination results of your students?

This chapter discusses four things that are key for exam success:

  1. Students studying well.
  2. School culture.
  3. Assessment and interventions.
  4. Put exam practice in lessons.

1. Successful exam study

There are three things that are important for successful exam study:

a) Students do useful study activities

b) Students practice.

c) Students seek help when stuck.

a) Students do useful study activities

You should finish your courses early to allow time to study in class. Some suggestions follow for what students can do in class or at home:

  • Ask groups of students to prepare a revision ‘presentation’. Split the class up into groups and give each group a different mini-topic. Make it clear what you expect:
    • Students to review all the key points.
    • Students to lead some sort of activity or quiz to review the topic in an active way.
  • Play fady, to review words (see the ‘Active Learning’ chapter)
  • Mind mapping topics (see the ‘How people learn chapter’). One example activity you could do is as follows:
    • Choose a few topics to revise in class (at least three).
    • Take a piece of A4 paper for each group. Write the name of one of the topics on each piece of paper.
    • Each group gets a piece of paper with a topic. Give the group some time (up to 10 minutes) to write as much as they can about the topic on the paper. No books allowed!
    • Then swap the papers with another group. Groups read and correct what the first group wrote, and add anything they can.
    • Keep swapping the papers. Once most ideas have been written down allow students to use books to help.
    • During the activity walk round the class correcting and reminding students of things they may have missed.
    • Finally, the papers should go back to be read by the group who started the activity.
    • Consider sticking the best ones on the wall outside the classroom as a revision resource.
  • Ask students to use their books to make mind maps of each topic individually.
  • Tell students when the exam is and expect them to revise.
  • At college or lycée level (for students age 12+), give students a list of what they need to do for an exam. This is saying what couldbe in an exam not what is in your exam. Students then can revise all the appropriate areas. Encourage students to make more effort to study the things they are unsure of. As a teacher you should also have a list of what students need to do in exams.
  • Students make flash cards. A flash card has a question on one side and an answer on the other. One student can use the cards to quiz another student. Both students learn.
  • Make sure students have great study notes. Check their notes are getting written well.
  • Ask students to make their own summary notes about topics. The notes should include:
    • The key definitions you need to know.
    • The key points you need to know.
    • Examples of any problems they may have to solve.
  • Setting good homework helps students know what to do at home. Some suggestions:
    • Make summary notes or a poster about a topic.
    • Set students questions. Questions should be easier than those seen in class to avoid students getting stuck without support.
  • Tell students that making an effort will improve their results.
  • Make a home revision timetable for students in advance of their exams. The timetable will tell them when to study each topic. Give more time for content that was learnt a long time ago which will have been forgotten.

b) Students practice

For students to succeed they need the chance to practice exam style questions. Some suggestions:

  • Students work through a printed book of questions at their own pace. Some will finish them all. Others will do a few questions. Make sure you have an answer book that students can borrow to check their answers.
  • Split the class into teams and have them compete in a TV style game show.
  • Write up exam questions on the board. Students work on them in groups or individually.
    • Tell the students the answers before the end of class.
    • Expect some students to work faster than others. Have something to do for those who finish.

c) Students seek help when stuck

Encourage students to ask each other for help when stuck. They shouldn’t ask you if their friends can help. This encourages students to teach each other which enhances learning.

2. School Culture

The culture among students in a school makes a huge difference to exam results. Let’s consider the culture of two schools:

School A

Students are pleasant and attentive in class however success at school is not seen as a good thing. Successful students are not popular and sometimes bullied by their classmates and work away quietly at home or in the library. Books and study materials are nowhere to be seen during break and lunchtime. Many students claim that school is ‘for dummies’. Teachers are mostly good at teaching however most of them do little to convince students that education is important. School A has a culture where academic success is not important.

School B

On my first day teaching, I was surprised to see students sitting out with their books, reading, studying and discussing lessons with friends. Students still found time to play games and have fun, but it felt like their academic studies were important and only the best results would do. In class most students were diligent and hardworking, and successful students were admired and respected. A few students did not care for education. School B has a culture where academic success is important.

Why is the culture so different?

I observed a several differences between the schools:

  • Parents in School A had low expectations for their students. However, parents in School B expected their children to achieve excellent results.
  • Teachers in School B had higher expectations of their students than teachers in School A. Research[2] suggests that students often achieve the expectations of their parents or teachers.
  • Teachers in School B prepared their students better for examinations than teachers in School A.
  • Students in School B wanted to succeed more than those in school A. Some students who didn’t care much about education were encouraged by the majority who do. I remember one girl who joined my class who had terrible results in her previous school. Her scores jumped at least 20% over a few months because of the better school culture.
  • The management of School B checked on the performance of students regularly. Students that were heading for poor exam results were spotted and helped.
  • Excellent academic performance was always celebrated in assemblies and classrooms.

How can you change the culture?

Encourage excellent or improving students in your classroom. Congratulate the best and most improved students in class. Weaker students should also be given realistic goals and praise when they reach their goals.

Use whole school assemblies to celebrate achievement, perhaps giving certificates to students for effort as well as academic achievement.

Parents or guardians should be told by the school how important their children’s education is. Help them to see how a well-educated child will be much more successful throughout life. If parents are enthusiastic about education, then the students’ effort will increase. Also help set parental expectations for students and help them to see how their lives could be improved by their children’s education.

Some students try hard but get poor grades. These students must be recognised for their effort. I strongly recommend giving a grade for effort in addition to the class grade. I always told my students that I don’t care about their exam grades I only care about effort. If a student works as well as they could in class, does the best they could with homework and revises effectively they receive a good effort grade. Remember that a student who produces poor work may be working as hard as they can.

Subject knowledge

As a junior teacher, I was enthusiastic but had gaps in my subject knowledge and understanding. I often asked colleagues for advice that helped me improve my understanding of what I was teaching. They also suggested ways of teaching challenging topics. Sometimes they didn’t know the answer either.

You must promote a culture in your school where teachers can ask each other for help, ideas and resources without any judgement. In Scotland, we have an online network of Physics teachers who share the resources they have produced. There are also associations that promote science education and assist teachers. The sharing culture makes us all better teachers. It’s also important to promote a culture where teachers ask for advice about dealing with difficult classes or students.

You must also know the course examination very well. You should have completed many of the examinations yourself and have marked them using the official mark schemes.

You can find some subject resources linked from http://www.mada-enseignants.org. If you have excellent notes for your subject, consider sharing them with other people for free.

3. Assessment and interventions

A French teacher told me she was shocked that all her pupils had failed their writing exam. She was surprised because she had not assessed them and did not know their ability. You and a student should rarely be surprised by a fail.

Firstly, work out how well a student can do. What is their best work like? Then carry out regular assessment that shows the level they are working at.

If students are not doing as well as they can, talk to them. Maybe their pet died last week and they are upset. Maybe they have lost motivation and need encouragement. Or maybe they need help with a difficult topic.

If students need more help, there are a few options:

  • Arrange a study session for the student alone with the teacher. This may be difficult to arrange or too costly for the student.
  • Join an extra study class with the teacher. This may also be too costly for the student.
  • Have a top student work with them and teach them. This benefits both students. The top student learns because they are teaching, and the weak student learns by being taught. Make sure that both students understand what they are doing will help both of them.
  • Parents need to know their students are struggling. Maybe they need more space to study, more food, or more encouragement.However, expecting parents to teach students what you should teach them is not acceptable. Family will sometimes offer tuition, but not all families have the skills or time. I repeat, it is not OK to expect parents to teach their students, that is your job!

You should keep a record of class exam results over the years. This will help you track whether the results are improving or getting worse. You can then try and identify why the results have changed,

4. Put exercises which contain exam style questions into lessons

In the French class where the students failed their writing exam, they failed because they were not given the opportunity to practice writing! Their teacher showed students how to write but never gave them practice writing.

In most lessons you should include practice questions. Try and have some easy questions and some hard questions. Include at least one question from level 3–6 of Bloom’s Taxonomy. You should write questions that test knowledge and understanding of the lesson content. This ensures students review the lesson and can learn.

If you don’t have enough time for practice, try one of the following:

  • Be on time. If your lesson starts on time, you will have more time for questions.
  • Explain a bit more quickly. When students are doing questions, if a few did not fully understand they can ask for help.
  • Print the notes. Copying notes takes a long time.
  • Ask students not to copy the questions; only answer them.


1. What ideas were new to you in this chapter?

2. Which ideas would you like to implement in your classes? Plan how you will do this now.

3. What will you do differently when you are close to the exams?

4. Do you have a list of what students need to be able to do in your subject? If not, start to make one up as you teach.

4. Critical thinking: Which idea do you think would make the biggest difference to students? Why?

5. Critical thinking: Which idea do you think would make the least difference to exam results? Why?

[1] http://www.psychologicalscience.org/index.php/news/releases/testing-can-be-useful-for-students-and-teachers.html, accessed August 2016

[2] http://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ1081569.pdf accessed September 2016