You’re listening to The Parents of Hardworking Teens Podcast, episode number 66 and today I want to share with you an example of exam prep decisions that I recommend students make AHEAD of the exam, rather than in the exam hall, and how this ties into being efficient as well as effective during exam prep, practise and revision.
Hi VIP’s. I hope you and your teens are super-well. I decided to record this podcast because I just got off a private coaching session with one of my Next Level students where we worked on how they’re going to prep and revise for their upcoming exam block. And one of the things we talked about most was their English Advanced exam where they have a choice of whether to write a discursive or imaginative response to an unseen extract. Now, they were originally planning on doing a practise of both - both discursive AND imaginative, then getting their English teacher to review them both, see which one was best and go ahead with that option in the exam. So, I want to share with you why I advised against that, what I suggested they do instead and why.
Now, quick, but important reminder. I’m not an English teacher. And I don’t mark subject-specific English exams, but I have been an external marker for the Naplan Writing Test and I used to mark trials for the Y12 QCS Writing Test.
So I’m coming at this from an exam prep and performance angle. Not as an English teacher.
In fact, how I got into marking those particular exams was because one year in Brisbane, when I was full time teaching, I actually got given a Functional English class on my timetable. Honestly, I’m not a believer in the idea that if you can teach, then you can teach anything. I think technically you CAN - kinda - but is that teaching going to be anywhere near as good as it is in your subject specialism? In my opinion, or for me personally at least, nowhere near. And nowhere near as enjoyable - for the teacher or the students. For me, half the reason I went into teaching was to share my passion and love for the subject. Geography was my main teaching area and then I gradually brought on Maths as my second subject once I moved to Australia. And so, as you can imagine, even though I was assured that it was because of my teaching skills that the leadership team were confident in me taking this class, which is of course what people say to you when they want you to do something - they pay you a compliment about it - I was not feeling all that confident to teach that subject. But I’m not one for refusing to do something or causing a conflict. Maybe sometimes I should be, I don’t know. I’m more of a suck it up/rise to the challenge person. And I was confident as a teacher by then (this was in my third year of Teaching in Australia, so at least 7 years into my teaching career) but I was not confident in teaching English, even at that Functional Level, which at that time was the lowest level of study of English, one below Essential English. It is more the basic literacy skills. And so these are the kids that need most support, right, so I wanted to be able to give them that support and really really understand the foundations and the core literacy concepts for myself.
So, as part of me trying to do whatever I could to improve my skills and knowledge and understanding in this, I applied to be a Naplan Writing Test Marker. For those of you outside of Australia, these are national standardised exams for numeracy and literacy done from Y3 of Primary school every two years up to and including Y9 in high school. But the only exam that is marked by humans is the Writing Test which is part of the Literacy exams. And it was indeed, excellent for having me learn - or I should probably say re-learn as I’m sure I must’ve been taught this when I was a kid, but it had obviously been a while - things like different sentence structures, paragraphing protocols, what counts as difficult vs challenging spelling words. It really was good for all of that AND it was excellent in terms of experiencing another type of external examination system and formal marking guide, how to apply it, dissecting what gets marks, what doesn’t. You know, all the things I love to find out about, dig deep on and master.
I did Naplan Writing test marking for two years and then I also applied and got accepted into marking for the Y12 QCS Tests, that’s the Queensland Core Skills set of external exams. I did a few years - four, or it might’ve even been five years I think of official marking for the short response paper and then, as I’d got the confidence - and competence really - of marking for that combined with the NAPLAN Writing test, I also did marking during that time for trials for the Y12 Writing Test.
All of this to say - I’m still no English expert, by any stretch. A few years of exam marking for original writing, Writing Tests, does not even come close to years of English study and teacher training in it. So it’s the exam prep aspect, and particularly the decision-making element of that, that I’m going to discuss here. And that’s what actually makes this concept applicable to any subject or type of exam where there is going to be some element of freedom and yet, also some element of constraint. So please do actively consider any other subjects or assessments where this advice could be applied for your teen. But, for the examples I have first-hand experience in, I’ll share what these decisions look like.
In the Naplan Writing Test, students would know in advance that they will have to write on an unseen stimulus in either persuasive writing, or narrative writing. They would be told in the exam which they had to write in, but would know beforehand that it would be one of those two. They would also be provided a stimulus which would be a theme with some prompts and visuals related to it in the exam. They would have no idea what that would be. And in the Y12 QCS Writing Test, students could write in pretty much any genre except poetry, and honestly, who’s writing a poem off the top of their head, in relation to an unseen stimulus, under exam conditions. Maybe it’s just me but that sounds pretty close to the definition of impossible in my world.
Which brings us to the student I was working with and their English exam prep plans. As we’ve just seen, writing a response to an unseen extract is a fairly common style of exam, especially in English and other external Writing Tests, where your teen is presented with some sort of stimulus - in this case it is often a quote, an image like a photo or cartoon, or sometimes even a combination of text and visuals. And they then have to write about something that relates to it. It could be something explicitly named or shown in the stimulus, or if could be more subtle, for example a theme or related issue that it conveys or represents.
Now, quick side-note: if your teen has free choice in topic for an assignment or a research project, I did a podcast episode on that fairly recently - it was episode 60 - all about how to strategically choose a great topic - both in terms of keeping the assignment manageable, but also in terms of giving the best chance of hitting the higher level criteria. There is also a free resource with that episode - so definitely check that out, but that’s oriented around tasks that aren’t in exam conditions, and so the considerations that I advise students to give there, just aren’t possible when you need to make a fast decision in an exam with additional or different restrictions or guidelines.
Now, for this English Advanced exam, as well as having to come up with, on the spot what they will write about in relation to the stimulus, they also have some choice in genre they write in.
In this exam, they may be required to write creatively - either in narrative, discursive or persuasive for. They know that for their upcoming exam they would be given the choice of discursive or narrative which can be seen as a blessing or a curse, depending on whether your teen prefers clarity and direction, or open choice and freedom - with, remember - limited time. Because this is an exam.
Like I said, the student I just worked with, totally understandably, was planning to do a practise of both, and then with feedback, decide which one was their strongest genre and go with that on the day. Now, I will say that I’d definitely rather they do that, have a clear decision to go with on the day, rather than go into that exam and making that decision on the spot. That is often, not always, but often, a recipe for lots of false starts, lots of time brainstorming, sitting in indecision and basically not getting on and being productive. Because here’s the first point to make: my advice almost always, is that we want to minimise the amount of decisions being made on the spot, in the exam hall. That’s partly so that we can maximise the time in the exam, reducing time spent on additional decisions. But also - and this will be the second point I’ll come to in a moment: so that we can OPTIMISE the preparation for that exam.
So, it wasn’t a terrible plan, but I want to explain more about why I advised this student to make as many of the decisions as possible before they walk into that exam, AND, importantly, before they started their exam practise. This is more like PREP for the exam PRACTISE you could say.
Right - reason number one - they have a whole exam block to deal with here. They don’t have unlimited time on their hands. And doing two full practices just for English, then waiting for their teacher to review them on a coaching call, and then making a decision about which one to do is going to take up a pretty big chunk of time. And at the end of it all. They’ve got just one useful - i.e. that they will actually USE - practise done.
Which leads us to reason number two: That by doing this, they are putting time and effort into something that they aren’t even going to use. The genre that they don’t then choose is almost a waste of time. Not totally, you could argue, because they’ll be practising some overlapping skills. But if we want your teen to be as efficient in their study as possible, then this isn’t the most optimised way to do that.
Now, just for clarity here - this is different to revising topics. There are going to be times where your teen revises something that doesn’t come up on the exam. But that’s different. We don’t know what’s going to come up on the exam, but we do know all the things that COULD. And if we don’t cover everything that could be tested, then that’s, well, just gambling. But in this exam they knew they would have the ability to choose for themselves.
And here’s the sneaky third problem with this… the third reason I advise against doing this - practise everything and THEN see - is that it leaves the door a little more open for indecision or a last minute change of mind on the day, and I’ve already mentioned why I don’t like this strategy of making lots of decisions on the spot - it takes up time and means less focused prep. And if they do actually practise both options, like this student was thinking to, and they got the teacher feedback, or even just decided for themself that let’s say their imaginative writing option was strongest, maybe even then do more prep for that, there’s still the chance that in the moment, in the exam, they sit there and when they see the extract given, think that why could actually write a good discursive piece on it.
I’ve seen students do this multiple times. We get their strategy laid out. They practise and prep for it. And then, in the moment, change their mind.
And from all of the mock exams and trials I’ve marked, (of course when I mark externals, I don’t know what that student had originally intended to do) but when I do know and this happens, they almost ALWAYS perform worse than they likely would’ve done if they’d stuck with the plan, or than they or I, or their teacher expected them to.
Is there a chance that this last minute switch could in fact work out? Of course. But in terms of optimal planning and prep, is it the most effective way to go? No. In terms of evidence I’ve seen over the years and years of exam marking - for those who stick to the plan vs those who do a last-minute switch - does it come out with better or worse results? Worse.
Not being harsh, just sharing my experience.
So, here’s what I always do with students I work with:
We discuss the pros and cons of each option for them personally ahead of time. We review past pieces they’ve done. And we make a decision there and then about which one they’ll now practise, prep for and actually do on the day. I’ll even encourage them, especially if they struggle to come up with ideas on the spot, to have a couple of universal themes they could write about that they could adapt to almost any stimulus. Honestly. I know that might not be a popular disclosure, but it’s the truth. Here’s why:
It means that they get to maximise their confidence and performance with that style of writing.
It means that instead of trying to come up with something from a blank canvas, they can adapt and tweak something they have already become confident and skilled in.
Because, they’ll have had double the practise and prep (because they’re now doing one rather than two practises)
At the very least, they’ll have been able to win back half the time to now spend on other things. Either revision for other subjects, or some rest, or sleep, or life balance along the way. It’s a bit like the ‘jack of all trades, master of none’ idea vs becoming a master at one thing.
Consider a musician rehearsing for a recital or a music exam. They aren’t going to have a couple of different options of what they might play and keep practising both up to the day and decide in the moment which one they’ll play. They’ll pick the one they think they can do best, the one that will allow them to best show their skills and then practise and practise and practise it to become a master of it. And for students in the situation of this style of exam, where they’ll be given an unseen extract or stimulus, they already a decision to make in the moment. They have to come up with what they will actually write about in relation to the extract. That is enough of a challenge to deal with. They don’t need another decision layered on top.
So, by minimising options and decisions as much as possible on the day, they also get to maximise their practise and optimise their time and effort in their exam preparation. So, I wanted to share that with you today. It’s a really specific situation, but I hope it’s helpful.
If you know any other parents or carers who might also find this podcast helpful, then please forward it on to them. And if you’d do them and me a HUGE favour and share it on your social media, or post it into a parents Facebook Group or Whatsapp group you’re in, then screenshot your share and email your screenshot to me at email@example.com and to thank you for helping me spread the message, I’ll send you a copy of my Essay Title Swipe File - the Topic and Focus System for your teen.
Have a wonderful rest of your day and your week and I’ll see you back here next week.