Supporting pupils of all abilities through the linear A Level

One of the significant challenges we have faced in RE departments this year has been the change to the linear A Level. Heads of Department and teachers have made our choice from the new specifications and are reaching the end of the first year of teaching. Some schools offer both the AS and A Level side by side and are thus in the midst of examination preparation. But others, including mine, have scrapped AS Levels altogether and offer pupils a two-year course.

This first year of OCR H573 has been a year of reflecting on our practice. My priority is to ensure that my department delivers the material in a manner which will best prepare our pupils for their three terminal examinations at the end of the course. The challenges of the new specification have revealed themselves over this year, and they were manifested most acutely by some disappointing performances in our recent Year 12 mock examination. This blog outlines these challenges and gives some practical suggestions about how to improve the teaching and learning in the Sixth Form to ensure that pupils of al abilities can be supported through the linear A Level and reach their potential in the subject.

RS A Level at my school: A Case Study

Every school and department are different. The specific obstacles which I face might not be relevant to all and, therefore it follows that the steps which I have put in place to tackle these might not suit all. However, I think that they will resonate with the vast majority of other departments in the country since we all share the same responsibility of meeting the particular needs of all our pupils in our care.

The challenges faced teaching RS to A Level at my school are twofold:

1. Pupil Challenges

  • We have a ‘long tail’ of weaker-ability pupils and a number with SEN
  • We attract a broad range of pupil ability to the subject at A Level (predictions range from A*- D)
  • We have mixed-ability sets

2. Specification Challenges

  • Linear (OCR H573)
  • More content
  • Content is more challenging
  • Harder exam with less choice (3 exams, each require pupils to answer 3 Qs from a list of 4 in 2hrs)
  • Focus has shifted towards the more difficult AO2 skills: Evaluation and analysis.

Ultimately, we teachers of RE do all strive for better results for all our pupils. The suggestions which follow do enable this.

 

Going Linear: The Challenges

In addition to the individual needs of the pupils which we must meet as teachers of A Level RE, we have the particular issues of the new specification, again twofold:

1. Linearity

  • There’s more content to learn
  • That’s more things to remember (or forget!)
  • The content is more difficult to grasp (Bigger ‘leap’ from GCSE)

2. Exam Skills

  • The questions are less focused on regurgitating facts (low-level skill)
  • There is more focus on analysis and evaluation (high-level skill)
  • Timings: less time, more questions.

 

Meeting the Challenges: It’s easy! Offer regular, one-to-one, support!!

Individual support is invaluable and often will enable a pupil to make significant gains over a short period of time. During exam season, I have a sign-up sheet on my door where pupils select a slot and come to see me outside of lesson time to help them with whatever their particular need might be. Such sessions have often included genuine and timely ‘eureka!’ moments for pupils struggling with essay writing, interpreting the question and understanding key scholarly points. But, how much time do we have to give this sort of support? Certainly not enough to do it as often as we would like, or as often as is necessary. So: how can we best meet the challenges of Linearity and Exam skills?

 

Linearity: meeting the challenges

  • Cumulative testing: low stakes, high frequency factual recall tests which require pupils to have an up-to-date working knowledge of material studied.
  • Starters: Short Qs in the first five minutes of Year 13 lessons on content studied in Year 12 can keep the pupils’ minds focused on recapping those topics which seem to have been explored aeons ago.
  • Consolidation: ‘Nothing New’ lessons that include revision or extension material on topics already covered.
  • Ongoing revision: Revision Workbooks for consolidation throughout the course.

Revision Workbooks:

Documents which include space for pupils to make notes on the basic content covered in their lessons. One per exam paper. Includes all topics from the specification.

rev workbook
Revision Workbooks: meeting the challenges of linearity

 

Expectations:

  • To be handed out at the start of the course in Year 12
  • Pupils complete regularly as part of prep/private study
  • Teacher checks progress at half termly intervals

Results:

  • Pupils take time to read through their class work and consolidate their learning outside the classroom from the very beginning.
  • Pupils notice if they cannot fill in a ‘gap’ and can ask questions.
  • Pupils have revision notes completed ready to revise from ready as soon as they have finished a topic.

Why bother?

  • We have found that when ‘revising’, pupils spend too much time making notes (copying!) rather than committing content to memory
  • Lots of content in a linear course requires ongoing consolidation and many pupils need to learn to do this independently.

 

Exam Skills: Meeting the Challenges

  • Speed planning- Understanding the question: pupils practise re-writing the question in their own words. They then produce a ‘speed plan’ in less than 6 minutes  which outlines their answer.
  • Answering the question directly: making sure that the pupils’ introductions state a line of argument and that their ‘thesis’ is referred to throughout their answer
  • Structure: teach pupils to use a writing frame that works (really important!!!)
  • Go on a QuEST: pupils should use Quotes, Examples/Explanation, Scholars and Terminology in their answer

 

Speed Planning:

This revision method enables pupils to answer the question directly, helping them ensure that they know what the question is asking of them and giving them an opportunity to practise recalling relevant information to include within their answer.

speed plan
Speed Planning: meeting the challenge of exam skills

Method:

  • Pupils re-write different exam style questions in their own words.
  • They then produce a ‘speed plan’- could be a series of PERELs or an introduction which is focused on the Q.
  • Teacher completes it with them (no pressure!)
  • Pupils feedback ideas to class, teacher feeds back last.
  • Write the essay in full for revision/private study.

 

Expectations:

  • Pupils need to have a good grasp of the content in their memory before attempting
  • To be done in revision lessons: frequency increases as exam looms nearer.

Results:

  • Pupils realise that different questions require the selection of different content and arrangement of that content
  • Pupils get better at recalling relevant information
  • Essays become more focused on the question

Why bother?

  • We have found that pupils find it difficult to recall and select the most relevant information to use under exam pressure
  • Pupil confidence about the exam increases
  • Marks increase!

 

Conclusions

There has only been space here for a very quick look at what the challenges are of the new A Level and how we can best meet them in order to help all of our pupils reach their potential in the subject. The linearity of the A Levels is tough, the amount of content to learn is tough and the expectations of the exam boards are tougher still. To give our pupils the best chance to achieve it is important that we do what we can to help them.

This blog has only given some suggestions and there are plenty of ways in which we can improve our teaching and learning, reflect back on our year of experience of the new specifications and meet their challenges better next year.

 

*****

Many thanks to the brilliant @MintSpies who kindly shared her expertise, time and many of the teaching ideas which inspired this post.

This blog is part of #BlogSyncRE. For information please follow @REEchoChamber or go to https://thereandphilosophyechochamber.wordpress.com/

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