Metacognition and Revision (1) – how to approach exam papers

This post was written by Vicki Barnett

As part of Year 11 GCSE exam preparation, we are running lunchtime sessions to support students with their study and revision. I ran two of them, and based my sessions around metacognition.

I have been using metacognition in my lessons to get students to reflect on their understanding in terms of exam technique and knowledge, so I thought it would be interesting to turn my ideas into something that could work for the masses (ie. not just History students) and specifically in terms of revision. All the students in the group were “High Prior Achievers”, so I felt I could use some more complex techniques with them, and encourage them to move away from “fail safe” methods, such as highlighting, reading over previous work, and producing flashcards, which students often rely upon in times of exam pressure.

Feet first?… or head first?

Students were asked to bring an exam paper with them of their choosing, ideally from a subject that they struggle with. On entering the room, students were asked to register their response to a question about what they do at the moment when the exam starts. Below is the question and their responses:

vba poll

My aim for the first session was to get them thinking about how to use metacognition and exam papers to aid their revision, and to prepare for the exam situation. I asked the above question because I wanted to know what students’ reactions are on being told they can start.

I thought the results were very interesting, and we used this as a springboard to discuss perhaps why this wasn’t always the best approach. A large chunk of the metacognition I encourage in my classroom is thinking about how to approach questions, to pick it apart thoroughly. If this is a 16 mark question, what do I need to do?

From our first discussion we were able to decipher that students make mistakes because they don’t plan answers – they rush into them without really thinking what needs to be done, and the higher acheivers, in particular, can be susceptible to this. They just want do demonstrate what they know, without actually taking any time to think about what they need to do with this knowledge that they have.

4 metacognition steps

With this is mind, I introduced what I believe to be the 4 key steps to approaching exam questions, based around metacognition:
1. What is the end goal?
                  2. What do I need to do to achieve this goal?
                  3. What knowledge do I already have to help me?
                  4. What knowledge do I need to gain to achieve the end goal?

Before looking at their exam papers in more detail, I gave students a scenario where they had to use metacognition. I felt it was crucial for them to understand that metacognition isn’t an abstract concept and is something that we do on a regular basis without always thinking about it. Each student was given a mini whiteboard and pen, and had to jot down answers to the above 4 questions based on the following scenario:

It’s your birthday soon, and you want to organise a dinner out to celebrate. You want to invite 5 friends – one is vegetarian, one is allergic to dairy products.

The students had to plan out their birthday dinner using the 4 metacognition steps above.

They all identified that the end goal was the dinner, that they needed to set a date and a venue to achieve that goal. Students identified that the knowledge they already had was some of the dietary requirements but they also needed to find out what types of food their friends liked, were there any dates the friends couldn’t do, and so on. It was about them consciously thinking about the metacognitive process before moving onto an exam situation.

Metacognition and practising exam questions

As a group, we then looked at exam revision. Part of the difficulty with asking students to “revise” is that they don’t know where to begin. I wanted them to avoid falling back on revision ‘techniques’ that are ineffective and so, with that in mind, I wanted them to use exam papers to help them focus their revision and identify where they needed to spend their revision time.

I asked them to choose a tricky question from the exam paper they’d brought with them, and they spent some time working through it and thinking about the 4 steps of metacognition.

  1. What is the end goal?
    In an exam situation it is to achieve full marks on that question.
  2. What do I need to do to achieve this goal?
    This is where I got students to focus on exam technique and what they needed to do structure-wise to achieve full marks. Students had to jot down what structure they needed for that question, what the key instructional words were in their question, what the focus of the question was. It was about them spending 1-2 minutes focusing on what that exam question would look like when completed, and getting them thinking about their initial ideas. This is something they can do in the actual exam too to help them plan.
  3. What knowledge do I already have to help me?
    Students had to write down what they already confidently knew to help them answer that question. They had to be secure in their understanding and felt they could use this information without revisiting it first.
  4. What knowledge do I need to gain to achieve the end goal?
    Students had to identify what they weren’t confident about. It could be a paragraph focus they were unsure about, a scientific formula they couldn’t quite remember but needed for that question, some specific examples to help illustrate their point.

Once we had done this together, and they had spent some time working together on the 4 steps of metacognition, I asked them to work on another question on their own. This gave me an opportunity to clarify errors, check they understood it, and to identify if the students have identified any areas where this system wouldn’t work (I’m certainly not predicting that this technique will be a solution to everything, and students are usually the ones who spot the flaws!).

The 4 steps and revision

We finished the session by talking about how the 4 steps of metacognition could be used to help with revision. Students suggested that by using the 4 steps they could focus on exam technique (Step 2) and ensure that they were confident in how to answer questions before the exam, as well being able to use the technique in the actual exam to help calm nerves and ensure that mistakes weren’t made (linking back to the poll I asked them to answer on entering the room).

We also talked about how Steps 3 and 4 could help students narrow down their revision focus – if you feel like you have confident enough knowledge on a topic to be able to write about it in the exam, don’t spend ages revisiting it – instead, focus on the knowledge you identified as needing to know (Step 4).

Students left the session knowing how they can use a combination of metacognition and exam papers to practice exam technique, become very familiar with the exam paper itself and avoid sloppy errors, whilst also narrowing down what they need to revise rather than feeling they needed to tackle everything studied at GCSE so far.

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2 thoughts on “Metacognition and Revision (1) – how to approach exam papers

  1. Pingback: How I use mini whiteboards | NDHS Blog Spot

  2. Pingback: Metacognition and Revision (2) – Feedback | NDHS Blog Spot

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