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GCSE and A level exams – are we ready to return to normality?

By Stewart Watts – VP EMEA at D2L

Stewart Watts

The government has recently announced that GCSE and A-Level exams will ‘return to normal’.

In line with the plans set out last September, Ofqual has confirmed a return to pre-pandemic grading in 2023, and less help with exams such as supplementary information given alongside exam papers. The decision reflects the government’s view that this cohort has experienced much less disruption than previous years and that it is time to return to normality and get students’ learning back on track.

However, it’s likely that the current cohort may struggle with these changes, and it is predicted that A-level and GCSE grades awarded in 2023 will be affected as a consequence, with disadvantaged children – who experienced the most disruption throughout the pandemic – potentially being impacted. With gaps still present in this cohort’s learning it is essential that the government still works closely with schools to ensure that each child has the chance to learn in a way that is personalised to their needs.

A data-led recovery strategy 

Despite the government’s promising statement, schools and teachers are still faced with the challenge of filling the gaps in students’ learning in preparation for their exams next year.

As the education sector strives to recover the lost time in the classroom, it is vital staff take every student’s circumstances and learning pathways into consideration. Staff must use all data and digital tools at their disposal to ensure they have as much insight as possible into each students’ progression and needs. 

This will become particularly important in the months ahead, as teachers will need continuous insight into how students are getting on both at home and in the classroom. Staff will need real visibility into students’ performance, particularly when it comes to identifying specific areas for development. The ‘one size fits all’ approach is simply no longer viable.

By using data to drive their teaching or courses, staff can plan more extensive learning programmes that account for all students’ abilities and learning requirements. Current learning analytics can provide teachers and lecturers with real-time insight into the location and extent of learning gaps – such as, whether a student has particular strengths or weaknesses. With this level of continuous insight, teachers will be able to fill the gaps in students’ learning and identify any of those that may be struggling, enabling earlier intervention. 

In fact, they will have the ability to create far more tailored learning pathways to help ensure that the needs of individual students are constantly being met. Hopefully then, students will be better prepared ahead of their exams. 

Reviewing the examination process – the need for continued assessment 

Given the disruption caused throughout the pandemic, many children have never sat a public exam before. The cumulative pressure that this causes, and the possibility of students having rushed, or incomplete learning is yet another reason to rethink summative exams in favor of more continuous assessment over the academic year. This shift can ‘even the playing field’ for students who may not perform well under pressure, as well as giving them a more lifelike assessment structure that mimics demands of the working world. 

Previous grades, or results from mock testing, can offer one part of the puzzle but getting an accurate reflection of the overall picture, requires a rethink. Teachers need more ‘data’ which can only be provided through regular testing and examinations – whether that is in the form of debates and chat forums, online tests and videos, or physical practice papers. Staff need to be able to test students’ knowledge, and the best way to measure that, is giving them a chance to put the theory into practice. However, designing complex learning programmes such as these, takes time. 

In the meantime, the best way to generate ‘real’ data and continuous insight, is by looking at access information, regular assessments, utilization of revision materials, and other data points which can give a more holistic view of how students are performing and how prepared they are for their final exam. That way, teachers will be able to establish a students’ average grade far more easily and fill in the gaps in their learning – maybe even review course content, according to students’ uptake. 

The ‘great readjustment’ – preparing students and teachers for exams

Students are not the only ones who need to be prepped for next years’ exams, teaching staff will also have to readjust to ‘normality’ after the past few years. As suggested, data will play a vital role in their recovery strategy. However, faculty will need to ensure that staff are able to use all the tools that they have at their disposal. 

It is often the case that new solutions are implemented without enough support from senior leadership, meaning, teachers may not necessarily fully understand how to use a certain technology, let alone adapt it to their own courses or programmes. Staff need a greater understanding of digital tools and workflows. 

Moving forward, institutions must prioritise CPD for all teachers regarding technology, especially if they hope to make their lives easier and help fill the gaps in students’ learning in the coming months. Without this training teachers will find it extremely difficult to deliver effective learning pathways and track each individual students’ progress. Eventually, they should be able to apply these technologies far more effectively throughout each of their classes and deliver the best learning experience possible.

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