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The learning challenges of linear exams

The learning challenges of linear exams

4 min read
  • Study skills & exam prep

Most subjects are now graded through linear exams instead of modular ones. This means less coursework and small tests over the course of a year or two, and instead students sit one big exam at the end of the year. This brings with it some tricky challenges for students, such as having to remember large amounts of information, managing their independent study time, and performing well under exam pressure. Fortunately, tips from cognitive psychology research may have just the solutions.

Why students forget things

There are two main reasons why students forget things. Firstly, because many of the revision strategies they employ don’t lead to long term learning. In order to remember things, students have to think hard about them. Essentially, anything that can either a) be done on autopilot or b) be gained quickly (but also be forgotten quickly). This is why strategies such as simply re-reading notes and highlighting key phrases tend not to help long term memory.

The second reason is in the order that students learn things. If students have to study module one, then module two, then module three (and so on) then by the time they get to module twenty, they would have all but forgotten everything in module one. Essentially, they would have to learn it all from scratch just before their exams (cue panic, stress and generally poor performance).

How to remember large amounts of information

To address the first issue (on how students learn things), research suggests that the most effective strategy is ‘retrieval practice’. Retrieval Practice is the act of having students generate an answer to a question. This can be quizzes, multiple choice tests, or simply verbally answering a question. Research suggests that there are many benefits to this approach. These include, but are not limited to:

  • Helping the brain make new connections
  • Strengthening existing connections
  • Allowing students to recall information under times of stress
  • Prompting students to confront what they do and don’t know

To address the second issue (of the order that students learn things in), evidence suggests that students should ‘space’ their learning. Doing little and often is more effective than doing a lot all at once. An example of this would be how doing one hour a day for seven days is more effective than doing seven hours of learning in one day. This process works because it allows the learner time to forget and relearn the material, which embeds and ingrains it into long term memory.

Taking both of these strategies into account, schools would be well advised to regularly quiz students (at either the start or end of each lesson) on topics that were studied a few weeks ago. This ensures that they get plenty of retrieval practice in a well-spaced out manner.

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Managing time more effectively

Left to their own devices, people tend to procrastinate. Research suggests that most students are poor predictors at estimating how long a task will take to complete, as they get distracted or face unexpected obstacles along the way. This is called ‘The Planning Fallacy’.

One study found that one of the best ways to overcome the planning fallacy is if a teacher sets small regular deadlines. This was proven to help students manage their time better and achieve higher grades. Breaking down the work required on a two year course into small and manageable chunks helps students stay on task and not get overwhelmed.

Handling exam pressure

For most students, exams can be stressful. With linear exams, the ability to perform well under pressure has become a premium skill. Fortunately, this is something that can be taught, learnt and developed. These skills include how students talk to themselves, learning how to manage their emotions, and focusing their attention on the things that are helpful and controllable. Find more strategies to overcome test anxiety in this blog.

The Education Endowment Foundation has found that helping students to develop their metacognition and self-regulation skills can be found to add up to 7 months of additional learning.  This area of research has been found to be based on a large range of studies and is cheap to implement. All of which, has given educators and psychologists cause for optimism in this area.

Final thoughts

The move from modular to linear exams need not be a cause for concern for either students or teachers. As researchers learn more about the science of learning, the strategies detailed above offer a range of opportunities to help students tackle this challenge. By teaching them material using retrieval practice and spacing, by setting short and regular deadlines, and by developing their metacognitive and self-regulation skills, they cannot just survive their linear exams, but thrive whilst taking them.

About the editor

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch is a Chartered Psychologist and a leading expert on illuminating Cognitive Science research in education. As Director at InnerDrive, his work focuses on translating complex psychological research in a way that is accessible and helpful. He has delivered thousands of workshops for educators and students, helping improve how they think, learn and perform. Bradley is also a prolific writer: he co-authored four books including Teaching & Learning Illuminated and The Science of Learning, as well as regularly featuring in publications such as The Guardian and The Telegraph.

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