Exams are a source of stress and anxiety for many teens.
What if they could be an opportunity to build confidence, success and pride?
In this episode I draw on over a decade of working with multiple exam boards internationally and marking tens of thousands of external exam papers and coursework to share with you:
- The two other things exams are REALLY testing apart from subject knowledge.
- The Exam Mastery Framework ( click the button above to get your free download! )
- The three 'Exam Performance Killers' that are thwarting students’ exam results and confidence.
- The solutions that mean your teen gets the results they’re capable of, in the most efficient way.
FEATURED ON THE SHOW:
Podcast Resource: The Exam Mastery Framework ~ 2 pager.
Click the button below :)
You’re listening to the Parents of Hardworking Teen Podcast, episode 3 - and today I’m going to explain how exams are NOT just testing your teen’s subject knowledge. I’ll reveal the other two things they’re also testing AND the 3 exam performance killers that are likely bringing down your teen’s marks and causing them more stress than is necessary. So, if you have a teen who’ll be sitting exams - now or in the future - and let’s be honest that’s probably almost everyone listening to this podcast - then stay tuned and let’s go.
Hi VIP’s I’m so excited to be spending this time with you today, because I’m going to be talking about my absolute favourite topic when it comes to study success - and likely every student’s LEAST favourite … EXAMS!
I got totally hooked on all things exams, how the questions are worded, what gets marks and what doesn’t on the very first day of my first ever exam marker training with the AQA exam board in the UK way back in 2010.
Now, that first time, I did it to earn a bit of extra money and because I was genuinely interested in how the world of exams worked. I was curious about what went on behind the scenes. Well, it did not disappoint, and since then I’ve worked with many different exam boards internationally, as an external marker, coursework moderator, and on scrutiny panels and writing panels and I take every chance to get in on these roles and opportunities because I love learning all the nitty gritty details into how exams are set, timed, written and marked, and therefore how students can perform at their very best in them and prepare in the most strategic and effective ways. Because what I also see, especially having marked tens of thousands of exams, are students who are clearly smart and hardworking, you can just tell by what they’ve written and how, but aren’t getting the results they’re capable of.
Now I know that exams can be a bit of a delicate subject - because I know they can be the cause of a great deal of stress and anxiety to students - and to you as the parent!
And I know there is some contention out there about the value of exams and whether they cause more harm than good.
So, whilst I’m not going to get into a debate about exams themselves, I am going to take the situation we have, which is that for most students their final results either for their report cards, or for their formal qualifications and certificates, are at least 50% dependent on formal exams and aim to turn things around when it comes to exams, by making them as positive and successful for you and your teen as possible.
Because it’s certainly true that the marks and grades that your teen gets, does not define them, and don’t determine whether or not they’ll be successful in life or their career.
It’s true that there are many different pathways into careers these days.
And it’s true that there are MANY brilliant examples of amazing people who did not excel academically.
BUT - what’s also true, in my experience as a teacher and study coach, is that for students who do want to do well in their study, they do want to push for high grades and get results that match their potential, trying to take the pressure off by lowering their goals or aspirations either makes them think we don’t believe they can achieve them OR it’s just dampening their drive and their spark and ambition.
So, I want you to know that there is another way.
An alternative to just watching them slave away and stress themselves out.
An alternative to trying to relieve some of the often self-imposed pressure by telling them that their disappointment at a less-than-hoped-for mark doesn’t really matter or that results aren’t the be all and end all.
We know those results aren’t the be all and end all, but… what if they smashed them out of the park anyway?
Just to prove to themselves that they can do it and boost their confidence and self-belief and pride.
AND to have that their hard work actually pay off.
Because exams CAN be an OPPORTUNITY.
They can be a chance to shine and excel rather than something to be dreaded.
Now, I’m not saying the exams are going to be all FUN and sunshine. But they CAN be a source of confidence and pride and achievement.
And when students have the skills and techniques to tackle exams strategically and systematically, this can and does become a reality.
And we have so much proof of that in the students who report at the end of the 10 Week Grade Transformation Program that they feel more confident walking into the exam hall, are achieving results they never believed were possible for them - And they tell me all this with a smile on their face and a tiny bit of bewilderment in their eyes - like how did this happen, they’re still getting used to being someone who actually achieves the results they wanted, or even better than they expected after years of struggle.
So, let’s talk about how to make that happen.
The most important thing I want you to know is that exams are NOT just testing subject knowledge.
They are testing that, but they’re also testing your teen’s ability to: respond to the specific commands of the questions, in the way the mark scheme requires.
AND do it in the time allowed.
In other words exams are about students’ ability to APPLY their knowledge by giving a relevant, clear and focused response within time limits.
Now I talked about the application of knowledge in episode 1: The Study Success formula : Knowledge plus application equals success.
So definitely go back and listen to that if you haven’t already.
Because over time, I’ve seen common issues preventing students from being able to do all of that. And I’ve distilled them into the Exam Mastery Framework with three super-common Exam Performance Killers.
If you’d like the full diagram of the Exam Mastery Framework, just go to the link in the show notes to grab your own copy, it’s all labelled and annotated by me and I’ve also included space for you to add your own notes from this podcast too.
Now, the framework is a venn diagram of three overlapping circles, and each circle is one of the 3 Exam Performance Killers; the key causes of even smart and hardworking students losing marks they shoulda-coulda got in exams.
I know exactly why this happens. Why they ‘go blank’ in the exam hall even when they revised for hours - and hours - and hours or why they only get something like half marks for an answer even though they filled every line and all the info was factually correct.
But the great news for you and your teen is that these 3 Exam Performance Killers can all be overcome.
Identifying which one or ones are killing your teen’s exam performance is the first step.
So here’s what they are, and how they might be showing up for your teen.
Exam Performance Killer number 1 is GATQ - Generic Answers to Questions.
This is where your teen is responding to the TOPIC of a question, but isn’t answering the command or responding at the level required.
When students read a Q, usually the first thing their eyes and brain goes to is the topic.
Oh, it’s asking about this particular battle in World War 2, or the function of the kidneys, or the causes of climate change.
But this is only half the story.
They also need to identify the COMMAND of the question.
Often this is done by finding the verb in the question - the command word - sometimes known as the directive, or cognitive verb, or the task word.
And sometimes it’s a little more complex, like questions that ask HOW… where a question doesn’t necessarily have a verb, like suggest, or explain, or define, but it WILL still have a level of command.
Because not all command words are created equal.
Consider that example of climate change.
Define climate change would require a one sentence answer.
Whereas explain climate change would require at least a paragraph, perhaps multiple pages of explanation, and maybe a diagram too.
Same topic, one word difference - VERY different answers required.
Now, this is a skill that I always cover in detail on my parent webinars and masterclass events. So if you’d like more detailed info on this, and see it all in action with real life exam questions, then be sure to get on my email list so you receive future invites (as well as weekly free tips and insights along the way).
If you grab the exam Mastery Framework resource from this episode - or if you sign up for my free parent guide on the website, you’ll automatically be added to my email list :)
Now, here’s how you know if your teen’s efforts are being thwarted by GATQ.
If they’ve ever had the feedback of READ THE QUESTION - or you haven’t actually answered the Q- this is what the teacher means. They might’ve written about the topic, but they haven’t responded to the command.
Or, if they get told to ‘add more detail ‘in an extended response. It doesn’t mean they need to write more info or facts. It means they need to be answering at a different LEVEL. They need to understand what it means to move up from describing to explaining, or exactly HOW to go from explaining up to ANALYSING.
And that is a brilliant litmus test: ask your teen to tell you the difference between explaining and analysing. If they can’t do it clearly in one simple sentence, or if they say something like analysing is just explaining in more detail, then you know they are missing this critical skill.
Which leads us nicely to Exam Performance Killer number 2: The thing that many students end up doing when they’re told to ‘add more detail’...
It’s TSA - The Spaghetti Approach.
This is where students kinda throw spaghetti at the wall in their answers and seeing what sticks. They try to write everything they know about the topic being asked in the hope that at least some of it will get them some marks.
And some of it will. Though the fact that the answer then isn’t as focused as it could be means it’s less likely to pick up full marks in an extended response - which requires more than just facts and info. These Qs also require structure and linkages between points.
But ALSO some of it likely isn’t required. And writing more than is required is the TOP reason I see students running out of time in exams.
Writing more and more information does not necessarily mean more marks.
The problem is that as students through primary school, and even into Y7, maybe a little bit in Y8, just producing lots of factually correct information, like in research projects or in knowledge tests it gets credit. Going over and above, giving things that aren’t actually asked for gets an extra gold star, effort mark, or smiley face.
BUT exam don’t have marks allocated for effort, or going above or beyond what the Q asks for.
And for me as a student, although I was definitely susceptible to all three exam performance killers, this particular one, the spaghetti approach was a huge one for me.
Firstly I wanted to show all this knowledge I’d studied so hard to learn - like hey, I learnt it and it’s going on this paper, whether it’s been asked for or not.
And secondly, I was kinda hedging my bets because I wasn’t totally sure what the Q really wanted or what was really required in that answer.
So you’re probably thinking that there’s an overlap here with GATQ. And you’re right.
If your teen can systematically dissect a Q to know exactly what it’s asking then that will go a fair way to helping solve this.
And this is the beauty of these skills and techniques. Mastering just one has positive knock-on effects and multiple flow-on effects. Which is why I consistently see students catapult their results quickly and across multiple subjects once they have even just one or two of these skills and techniques in place.
So the key to overcoming the spaghetti approach is understanding how mark schemes work. And by mark scheme, I’m including success criteria, rubrics, marking guides, all those names given to the ways marks or grades are awarded for assessments.
When students understand and practise and master this, they get to see things through the eyes of the marker.
In fact, one of the sessions I ran in my Exam Mastery Workshop earlier this year was the ‘most marks, least words challenge, and another was literally called ‘Predict the Mark Scheme’ where we reverse-engineer the wording of the Q to determine what will get marks, and what traps students might fall into and therefore miss those marks.
Now, just to be clear here, external exam questions are never purposely written in ways to ‘trick’ students. When I say students fall into a ‘trap’ I just mean that this is a mistake that many students would make, just because they aren’t dissecting the question carefully enough, not because it was written in a sneaky way to actually trap them.
And this isn’t students’ faults. It’s totally understandable that so much focus is put on the subject content, because that is what all syllabus documents focus on too, like the specific topics and concepts that need to be covered.
And it’s not the teacher’s or schools faults either! Only a tiny percentage of teachers also work for exam boards - I’d won a UK national teaching award for the quality of my teaching and the outcomes my students were getting, before I knew about any of this stuff. And even for teachers who are trained external examiners, it can be a challenge just getting all the syllabus content covered in lesson time, so there often isn’t time to go into it in class.
So, let’s get into the third Exam Performance Killer, PRT: which stands for Passive Revision Techniques.
Passive revision techniques include things like reading over notes, typing notes or definitions, copying out diagrams, watching video tutorials, re-reading their novel or other text, highlighting or sticking those little sticky markers on them, reciting information.
Now these are perhaps better than nothing, but the issue is that passive revision leads to what I call the Familiarity delusion. Where the information looks or feels familiar, so they feel like they know it. ANd carrying around piles of notes or bundles of revision cards is a bit of a badge of honour but gives a bit of a fals sense of security. Because often, that information hasn’t fully been digested, perhaps understood, and won’t have been committed to long term memory. And when I say long term, I don’t mean they need to remember it for the next 20 years, I mean they need to retain if for their exam, perhaps in an hour, tomorrow or in a few weeks.
For revision to be effective, it needs to be active. That means the information needs to be processed or transformed in some way. It means our brains actually have to therefore DO something with that information.
For example, turning a bullet point list of events into a timeline, transforming a flow diagram into written sentences, creating a character web from a novel.
This will feel more taxing to your teen, And that’s the whole point. It’s like working out. If it’s easy, it’s probably not really doing much. After all, typing up notes or copying a diagram isn’t mentally challenging, BUT they are still time-consuming, so your teen is working hard, but won’t be getting as much out of it as they could.
So the beauty of active revision is it’s more efficient as well as more effective.
And to bring all of these together, efficient and effective is exactly what I want your teen’s exams to be. I want their responses to be sophisticated yet succinct, detailed yet focused.
Because a lot of the stress and anxiety over exams comes from the fear of the unknown - not knowing what they’ll ask, and not being sure of what they want in the answers - and it comes from the uncertainty of how to really study and revise effectively.
So if we can solve for those, the root causes of that stress, with proven systems, strategies and techniques, then we don’t have to solve as much for the symptoms - trying to find ways to help them relax or remain calm.
So if you recognise any or all of these exam performance killers in your teen… it’s not terrible news, it’s actually great news - because that means they have a HUGE amount of potential to boost their exam results and confidence. And they don’t need to slave over textbooks learning more and more content, they need to master their exam technique.
So I hope you’ve found this helpful, if you have friends or family or a school group or social media page who would also benefit from this, then please share this episode with them.
Have a fantastic day and I’ll see you back here soon!