Even in exams, less can be more.

So the story goes…  Once a philosophy exam is reported to have asked students ‘What is courage?’ One student is said to have written only two words saying ‘This is.’

Whether true or not,  how much to write in an exam, or indeed for any report, is a question causing much anxiety.  In today’s high pressured world, the temptation is to believe longer essays and more detailed explanations will be better.

Cambridge Assessment,  who manage a broad range of assessments from the iGCSE,  ‘A’ Levels and various assessment tests like the BMAT,  have sought to actually find out by analysing a range of historical exam scripts to see if there is a relationship between how much students wrote and the final grade.

Taking the 2014 GCSE English Literature exam,  they found what might be counter-intuitive to many a student.  There comes a point where less can be more.

In other words,  once you have passed a threshold, writing more may be a waste of time and is unlikely to lead to better marks.

This graph below, from a paper written by Tom Benton (2017) in Cambridge Assessment’s research division, shows a number of interesting things – but most crucially, students getting top grades do not necessarily write lengthy answers in a clear triumph of quality over quantity. The range of words written for an A* grade is wide:  one student wrote 300 words,  whereas a more verbose student wrote over 1200.

word count and GCSE Engl Lit 2014 score

(source: Benton, T. 2017, pg. 39 – Fig 3)

Of course, it is true that students with higher grades were more likely to write more – on average students who scored a B grade wrote an average 597 words, as compared to the 652 words contained in A grade essays. However it is important that students stop and think – as all teachers will advise:

  • Planning an answer is important
  • One’s first answer is not always our best answer
  • Allow a little time to think through difficult questions – draw a mind map, doodle, or employ some other creative thinking tool
  • Don’t panic!  Adrenaline may result in long essays, but there’s no guarantee they will be any good.



Benton, T. (2017). How much do I need to write to get top marks? Research Matters: A Cambridge Assessment publication24, 37-40.  link


Necessary Anchors in the Storm

Change is opportunity, right?

But what enables people to take advantage, as opposed to being swept aside – as sadly some will, in the coming technological storm?

We focus on 21st Century Skills – and rightly so.  But let us not forget to focus on even more fundamental, vital prerequisites; those things that enable and empower:  namely a sense of place, a sense of belonging and a sense of self.  In that vein, I recommend a recent blog post by Professor Kathryn Riley to you. Her work shines an important light on this  essential topic.




Thinking about thinking – 3

When children come up with the right answer, is it because they actually understand / comprehend the reasons why their answer is right? Do the highest scoring students actually understand the concepts behind their success?

Frequently not, it turns out. When asked “could you light a bulb with a battery and one wire?”, even at some of our most esteemed STEM graduates, from MIT and Harvard revealed some surprising cognitive dissonance.

In this series of online documentaries,  (entitled Minds of our Own) researchers from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics delve in to the thinking behind students answers.  This thinking is often erroneous,  with odd concepts constructed to make sense of learners’ experienced worlds. Such thinking is tenacious and learners are heavily invested in not adapting… and learning environments may not facilitate such adaption. This is true for even the highest scoring pupils… and highlights deficiencies in learning experiences.

This underscores the need for pupils to think about thinking,  and for learning experiences to expose these thought processes – whether it be through inquiry learning, dialogue, problem based learning or moderated peer instruction


Hack your memory

Why is it that complex things – like learning to drive a car – can be much easier and quicker to manage than, say learning a vocabulary in a foreign language?

It’s because the brain has different memory systems.

Our brains weren’t designed to remember vast quantities of factual knowledge.  Hard wiring this knowledge is tough work – but, understanding how our brain’s memory systems work, can make things easier.

In one year, Josh Foer became a memory champion – His TED talk explains how he used ancient methods from early Greek times. On an earlier project, he learnt enough of a rare African language in 22 hours to converse and make himself understood.


Some of these principals are applicable across many subjects.  A core concept is that of spaced repetition.  If we revisit knowledge, it’s the equivalent of putting our brain through a gym workout. Get the timing right and the growth gains are impressive. This was first realised by a Dr Ebbinghaus – who observed the benefits of correctly spaced repetition  – get it right and your memory lasts longer and fades more slowly.



But does this mean we should relentlessly be copying out our notes, again and again, time after time?

No – learning that’s easy, isn’t really learning. There’s little need to practice things that come effortlessly.  The challenge is to focus learning on things that are difficult. A little bit like tennis practice.  At the end of both, you should feel a satisfying sense of exhaustion!



Thinking about thinking – part 2

Project based learning is learning by:

  • Designing
  • Collaborating
  • Making
  • Improving and refining
  • Experimentation and Inquiry

Despite this type of learning going back centuries, it doesn’t seem particularly in vogue. Instead we have a system which is accused of being too much ‘work today’, ‘jam tomorrow’ … Has learning fallen in to a ‘linear trap’?

blooms_oldTake Bloom’s Taxonomy. No one would sensibly suggest it’s components were bad or harmful. However, why should learning only progress up through these stages? Supporters of PBL say this is an inefficient way to learn and real learning is far messier than this. Learning by a mixture of thinking and making, collaborating and experimenting, designing and theorising – applied to real world problems is said to lead to better understanding, long term retention and motivation. As pupils iteratively grapple with messy reality, their knowledge, comprehension and understanding grows too.

This tends to match what the teenage polyglots say about learning languages

One group of schools in the UK have set themselves up along these methods. They are called Studio Schools.

What does this mean for our learning? Should we better just roll up our sleaves and get stuck in?  That’s what Tim Doner says:

What does it mean for you?

Thinking about thinking – part 1

Peer Instruction has been getting rave reviews. Eric Mazur, a Harvard Professor of Physics, holds that learning proceeds at (up to) triple it’s normal rate!  And, with very little input from him… he’s even known students to feel it unfair that they’re doing all the work.

pi-workflowHow does it work?

  1. Students must do prep work before the their lesson
  2. There is a short opening plenary of 5 mins or so
  3. A probing ‘concept’ question is asked by the teacher
  4. Students must think on this by themselves
  5. After thinking, students then vote on the right answer – showing a distribution of responses – perhaps using a PRS or something like plickers.  The teacher does not give any indication which answer is correct.
  6. Now students can see the distribution of responses, and must next discuss – trying to convince each other.
  7. Finally and after discussion, students vote again.

Something to get you thinking: oddly enough, classes typically arrive at the right answer – why might that be?

Does it help learning?  When done correctly, repeated studies have shown a large effect size equal to moving your GCSE grade up an entire grade – e.g. from an A to an A*. Some studies show even greater gains.

But better than exam results,  Professor Mazur has show many other benefits too.  Communicating complex ideas, working in teams, developing flexibility in thinking and also a deep understanding of complex theories. Moreover, it’s fun.


For more information: https://blog.peerinstruction.net/