My weekend typically involves helping coach my boy’s football team in muddy fields in the far corners of North Yorkshire. It is one of those parental experiences that mingles pleasure with pain. From narrow wins to thumping losses. 

Coaching is a lot like teaching. From wrangling a bunch of excitable teens to the pressure of a big game proving parallel to an exam. What the weekday training drives home is that how novices learn looks very different from the big game. 

The paradox of learning can be hard to grasp: playing the big game – like sitting a mock examination – is rarely the best means to prepare for future success beyond some minimal practice of exam conditions. 

With my fellow coaches, we recognised this season (after some sobering losses) that we needed to get back to basics. Drills on the absolute basics, such as passing, simple positional play, and even how to kick and tackle, were needed because in the tumult of the big game. 

Effectively, novices learn differently from experts. We need to shrink the big game into learnable chunks, before overlearning these moves. Whether it is football, chess, or an English GCSE exam, the moves of the game invariably need more practice. 

The past papers problem 

It wasn’t so long ago that I spent most weekends away from the muddy football field and instead marking GCSE exam essays. Half of most spring holidays would be filled by the bag full of mock exam essays. 

What is the problem with past papers, beyond teachers lugging home mountains of marking? The key issue is that for novice pupils, a big summative assessment reveals so many gaps in pupils knowledge and skills, you have to give scattergun feedback on lots of things.

Even when you chunk an English Literature exam into two halves, it still leaves a significant essay on a character or theme – such as Juliet or immature love in ‘Romeo and Juliet’. Pupils play the ‘big game’ of remembering quotes, writing insights about character theme, social context, all in a coherent structure, with written accuracy. Usually, this is undertaken without the practice and focus on specific knowledge and skills needed to do all of these things. 

Dylan Wiliam describes this typically skilfully when describing baseball:

The coach has to design a series of activities that will move athletes from their current state to the goal state. Often coaches will take a complex activity, such as the double play in baseball, and break it down into a series of components, each of which needs to be practised until fluency is reached, and then the components are assembled together. Not only does the coach have a clear notion of quality (the well-executed double play), he also understands the anatomy of quality; he is able to see the high-quality performance as being composed of a series of elements that can be broken down into a developmental sequence for the athlete. 'Embedded Formative Assessment, p.122'

An alternative to summative past papers

So, what is the alternative to doing past papers? How do you avoid playing the ‘big game’ too early?

My teaching shift was to move to quizzing pupils on core elements of the text. A quiz on characters and themes would help to consolidate the base knowledge they need. A short answer test on key quotations would prove useful. Multiple choice questions to tease out their knowledge and understanding of the social and political context of the text would each help narrow the focus of assessment. Discussion and debate of key quotations or themes would offer me crucial diagnostic insights into pupils understanding (it just doesn’t feed the whole school data manager in the same way!). 

After developing a coherent progression of diagnostic assessment, they’d be better prepared to tackle the Romeo and Juliet essay. The mock exam with more than one essay would be done at the latest possible opportunity. Given each of these more precise formative assessments offer more accurate diagnoses of gaps and issues, you are more prepared to aid their progress. Like my weekend football coaching, some novice players need more passing work, some positional play, others the basics of tackling an opponent. 

Although it seems like a simplistic assessment, a cumulative quiz helps you to narrow the filed within the given ‘game’. It is the equivalent of a ‘rondo’ drill in football. This ultimately builds up a more reliable judgement to bear on what your pupils know and need to know and do in future. It still challenges many teacherly assumptions though. 

I had been doubtful of the efficacy of multiple choice question for the study of English Literature. To me, they felt reductive and limited as a teaching tool. Now, a well-constructed multiple choice question appears to me to be concise but very effective. They are tricky to write (you need ‘plausible distractors’ and more), but they can save a lot of time and effort later as they can diagnose key misunderstandings and isolation important insights, while leading to rich discussion and debate. 

For English Literature, improved assessments that delay the summative assessment of the big game could include a vocabulary test; quotation recall quizzes; literary term quizzes, and more. They seem inadequate, but they are diagnostic and secure the base knowledge pupils need to do the complex extended stuff later. 

In the spring and summer, conversations can bemoan the lack of past papers for exams. There is a cottage industry of mock SATs, GCSEs and A levels. Rather, paradoxically, we should see this an opportunity to shift to (marking friendly) assessment practices that focus on diagnostic assessment over summative. 

And so, back to football. On a bright Spring weekend, I want my boy to keep practicing great drills and skills in his training. Just playing mini matches would improve his skills. He may still career around the pitch like a balloon in a cyclone, but he will – in some longed-for future, do better in the big game! 

For busy teachers, reducing the past papers marking burden – cutting out the endless mock exam marking frenzy – may free up more successful weekends too! 

Related reading: 

  • '4 Reasons to (Re)Focus on Formative Assessment’ – see HERE.
  • The EEF guidance report on ‘Teacher Feedback to Improve Pupil Learning’ (featuring Dylan Wiliam) distils the evidence on feedback and formative assessment - see HERE