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The Future Of Digital GCSE Exams In Our Schools

Last autumn, England’s largest examination board for GCSE exams, AQA, revealed its intention for pupils to sit their GCSE exams partly digitally in at least one major subject by 2030.

By Adam Speight, acting Assistant Headteacher and content creator for Access Education.

The announcement, intended to ‘allow young people to use their digital skills’, set the wheels in motion for a series of developments which leave little doubt that digital assessment will become a key part of our education system. 

Just a few months ago, AQA subsequently launched a free digital maths test to help teachers work out why some students are struggling with the subject. Aimed at Key Stage 3 students and those preparing for  a maths GCSE resit, the on-screen test reacts to the answers a student gives, powered by ‘adaptive technology’. 

Similar tests, which assess and help improve students’ knowledge through instantaneous, automated feedback, are already being used in schools up and down the country. They provide early insight into the impact of widespread digital test adoption – and, crucially, what lessons can be learnt from the results. 

Data-driven insights

Earlier this year, data from over 80,000 GCSE students, who collectively answered over 6 million questions through digital assessments, formed the basis of GCSEPod’s Knowledge and Confidence Gap Analysis Report 2023/24.

It helped to pinpoint the exact areas where students currently struggle across a range of subjects, including Maths, English and Science.

Recalling and correctly applying formulae (66.7% incorrect attempts) and dividing fractions (62.9% incorrect attempts) were revealed as the areas of foundational knowledge students struggled with in Maths, following news that pass rates have fallen for GCSE maths resits this year.

Meanwhile, in English Language, students have faced difficulty understanding how to use apostrophes and quotation marks (69.1% incorrect attempts), with basic punctuation an area of low confidence nationwide. 

In Combined Science, the commonality of errors relating to equations and data could mean that inadequate understanding of mathematical skills and process may be affecting both confidence and attainment.

Overcoming areas of difficulty

Through understanding where students’ knowledge is lacking and misconceptions are frequent, teachers can focus their efforts in these areas, implementing easy solutions such as recapping lessons or undertaking targeted revision sessions. 

While many teachers gain this understanding through traditional pen and paper marking methods, digital tests can help predict what areas a cohort will struggle with before they do, based on the vast amount of data from the year before. 

Digital tests also help to alleviate teacher workload here – a clear advantage when teaching commitments and administrative tasks often leave very little time for lesson planning.

And, as the teacher recruitment and retention crisis shows no signs of subsiding and increasing numbers of schools have to use non-specialist teachers, digital tests can assist in alleviating shortcomings in teacher knowledge. Structured feedback helps provide both learners and teachers with additional support.

It can be a challenge to pry digitally-savvy students away from their phones, but digital tests are also an effective way of helping to ‘meet students where they are’, not to mention more inclusive. 

They help those who can type faster than they can write, while alleviating the need to worry about how your writing looks. For those, like myself, who are dyslexic, this is particularly helpful.

From the classroom to the exam hall

Though digital exams remain a vision of the near future, it’s clear there is an appetite building.

2022 TeacherTapp survey of nearly 4000 secondary teachers, found that 75% of teachers believed that on-screen assessment would be a good thing, if challenges such as access to technology are addressed effectively.

With such concerns valid, a clear way forward is to focus on incorporating digital tests into everyday learning now, familiarising students with best practice and introducing the correct infrastructure into classrooms.

Digital exams will likely never fully replace traditional written examination, with a hybrid approach keeping in place the benefits of both. The positive impact of this is being seen in our schools already and with technology only advancing, it’s an exciting area to watch. 

To find out more about GCSEPod’s Knowledge Gap report, visit https://www.theaccessgroup.com/en-gb/education/resources/where-in-england-has-the-biggest-gcse-knowledge-gap/

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