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The ‘real exam time’ project: Strengthening the retention of information to improve outcomes

Written By: Mark Blackie
4 min read

The purpose of the project I describe here was to create a sustainable model for the English department to improve exam technique for all students across Key Stage 4. This would both improve student confidence in, and outcomes for, the English language and literature GCSE examinations.

The retention of information is key to success in examinations. Tom Sherrington’s book on Barak Rosenshine’s ‘principles of instruction’ was enlightening in its explanation of students’ retention, and the idea of how little, frequent and low-stakes testing helps build both subject knowledge and confidence in the material being taught (Sherrington, 2019). The idea of using cognitive science was new to me and I thankfully had the opportunity to discuss it in depth with a more experienced colleague at school, who introduced me to an article from the American Physiological Society about collaborative-group testing – an approach that encourages interaction and discussion (Cortright et al., 2003). These texts both informed my new approach of revisiting small chunks of exam material carefully and every few weeks to reduce loss of retention.

We started with AQA English Language Paper 1 of the GCSE English syllabus, as it was in line with the literature studies being taught in school at the time, which would allow for suitable crossover of skills between the various assessment objectives for students. The structure of the sessions was constructed thus:

  • Introduction: students quickly pre-read (if this is the first task of this particular paper, re-read if not) the source and identify interesting quotes, obvious language techniques and basic structural features of the text.
  • Input: students use the department’s agreed method for completion of this question, revise any relevant acronyms and subject terminology. It is important to ensure clarity with students about the length of time given in the exam for this question (including time for thorough, exam-level reading and annotation of the source). Groups of students are guided through model answers to the same question (from a different source) by the teacher and they annotate and discuss the response in front of them. Together, the class create a checklist of the things to include in this response.
  • Main task: answering the question. Students read and annotate the source, then answer the question to the best of their ability in exam conditions. Work is stopped by the teacher after the given amount of time, allowing students to understand the speed at which they will be expected to write in an exam and the amount that they are expected to write.
  • Plenary: students swap responses and use the checklist they created earlier to highlight the relevant ‘ingredients’ in each other’s work. Positive written comments from peers are given.

The plan was originally for students to complete one exam question every two weeks, but this led to untenable staff workload due to the sheer volume of marking required. Therefore, the decision was taken to spread out the questions and complete two per half term to allow for all remaining materials to be covered whilst reducing workload. For the duration of the academic year the ‘real exam time’ (RET) project became an integral part of the department’s assessment policy. After the initial two questions were distributed and the frequency lessened, staff began to share resources, which was particularly encouraged from higher sets to lower sets to allow teachers to ‘teach to the top’ of their classes more efficiently. Work was marked according to exam-board mark schemes and moderated regularly for consistency.

The provision of resources required for classes to successfully complete the tasks entails a minimal amount of work for leaders and staff within the departments. The resources we required were: central presentations (adapted by the relevant staff for their classes); a bank of reliable and challenging exam question tasks (enough to last the duration of the academic year); a question-level analysis data recording spreadsheet (stored and accessed centrally to allow for live analysis).

Results improved across the duration of the project, albeit marginally in some cases. Of course, an improvement between October and June is to be expected, but the rate of improvement was beyond what we had had expected. Notable improvements within the scope of the project are:

  • average grade for the cohort improving from a low 3 to almost a 4; an improvement of over half a grade
  • 11 per cent more pupils reached grades 9-5 – in real terms meaning that 18 more students in the cohort are achieving at grade 5+ standard.
  • a large impact on the confidence of PP students with a P8 increase of 0.57 across the cohort
  • a 14.3 per cent improvement in 9-5 per cent for girls, suggesting that the project has resonated well by raising their confidence. This is reflected in the student voice data.

The improvements shown can mainly be linked to the building of students’ confidence over time – by both being exposed to more exam questions but by also focusing on each question under exam conditions in class. Student voice questionnaires at the time indicated a much higher level of confidence in students just before their final exams when compared to the level of confidence found at the start of the project. Most efficaciously within this project, staff’s subject knowledge improved greatly as we had several new and non-specialist teachers within the English department at this time. Staff commented that they were able to become very familiar with the rigours and nuances of both the exam questions and the mark schemes. It also gave us a bank of resources with which we could start immediately preparing for the next cohort in a bespoke way.

Moving forwards in our department, RET sessions are now embedded into the long-term plans of every topic in Key Stage 4 English, using the following principles:

1) Not more than twice per half term, to maximise the time for learning new content

2) Completed in silence under exam conditions to focus on the act of retrieving information and applying skills

3) All classes must be involved in the task to ensure that all students gain from the sessions

4) Guidance is given to enable students to peer-assess, to ensure that they appreciate the answers from all perspectives and understand what the examiners are looking for in their responses.



Cortright RN, Collins HL, Rodenbaugh D et al. (2003) Student retention of course content is improved by collaborative-group testing. Advances in Physiology Education 27(3): 102-108.

Sherrington T (2019) Rosenshine’s Principles in Action. London: John Catt.


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