Students can avoid cramming by studying critical thinking

Getting those all-important extra marks in their GCSE or IGCSE exams is not about knowing the facts, it’s about knowing what the examiners are looking for, explains former IB examiner, Tamara Budham Caldwell.

Pressure on students and teachers

In August this year, the Guardian reported that while ‘students attending independent schools in England achieved top GCSE grades at twice the rate of those attending state schools, this year the top grades fell from 61.2 percent to 53 percent, a fall of nearly four times the national average (overall, the proportion of students getting top grades this year fell from 28.9% to 26.3%).At the same time, it was also reported that ‘GCSE students’’ exam nerves were at a high’, with headteachers stating that ‘GCSE students this year were so nervous about their exams that they suffered from anxiety, panic attacks and insomnia’.

Students feel that the entire sum of their education is leading up to this one day; their nerves are based on failing their parents, teachers and of course themselves.

Last year we reported on research from the Sutton Trust which highlighted the pressure that teachers are also under! The survey showed that 23 percent of teachers at private schools have felt pressured by parents over students’ grades, compared to 11 percent of teachers at state schools in poorer areas.

Exam success – the importance of critical thinking

Whether students are taking GCSEs or iGCSE exams, how can teachers give students the skills, confidence and tools they need to apply their knowledge effectively, avoid mistakes and achieve the greatest pass marks?

These skills are not part of the syllabus, but by teaching the students how to achieve these extra marks, they can go into the exams with more confidence and less stressed, knowing that they will be able to achieve the optimum marks for their responses. Also reducing the teachers’ stress!

The most important thing to remember is that exam success is not about cramming or teaching to the test (this just adds to the pressure they’ll feel) but about demystifying the exam process; supporting the students to understand the exam structure and requirements.

As a team of former examiners, we regularly saw student exam papers where the student clearly knew the answer but could have earned a lot higher marks if they’d have presented their answer in a different way.

An excellent example can be found in the AQA GCSE English Literature Paper 1, question 5: Explorations in Creative Reading and Writing.

It is important that students realise that this question is worth 40 marks, equivalent to half the entire exam paper. The key to this kind of question isn’t writing as much as of a story as possible. The examiners love inventive stories that stand out for using a wide range of phrasing and language techniques; basically they are inviting the students to ‘show-off’ their knowledge and flair.

There is an easy hack in this paper that we recommend. Section A requires students to analyse a literature extract and identify the writing techniques used. Having done this, they can ensure they include those techniques in their own story in Section B.

A student who understands pedagogical practice would first consider how marks are awarded and how to allocate their time accordingly.

In this question 16 marks are awarded for technical accuracy and 24 marks for content and organisation. The recommended time to spend on this question is 45 minutes.

A student might aim to write a long and detailed story and do a quick proofread, but with spelling, punctuation and grammar worth the majority of the marks in this question, at least five or ten minutes should ideally be spent on thoroughly checking and proofreading to maximise their results.

The framework we have developed to help student achieve top marks in this English Language paper is the DFZCR framework, however our advice covers all subjects.

D is for Dialogue, reminding students to follow the critical writing rule of ‘show don’t tell’ through expressive dialogue that shows the reader how their characters are feeling. F stands for Flashbacks. Additional marks can be scored by contrasting this dialogue with scenes from the past, moving backwards and forwards in time. This relates to Z which stands for Zooming in and out, focusing on smaller elements and then how they fit into the overarching story. C prompts students to include a Crisis, the focal point of a story around which events unfold, in response to which the main character should make an important decision. The final piece of the puzzle is R, the Resolution, which brings the disparate elements of the story together in conclusion.

Four marks can be earned in this question purely on the basis of a story being compelling, so students should use these story elements to provoke the readers’ curiosity and emotion, illustrated with the creative language techniques they’ve learned.

None of the above skills can be gained through cramming. By breaking down what examiners are actually looking for, students can enter the exam calm and equipped with precise knowledge of what they need to demonstrate to gain marks.

These techniques can be applied to any subject, including Maths, where the key is still in demystifying the paper and understanding what skills are actually being tested.

In GCSE Maths, students aren’t only being tested on their aptitude for numbers, but correct comprehension of the question being asked. This is why Read, Read and Read Again is one of the most important pieces of advice in our toolkit.

For an example of what this looks like in practice, consider the following Maths question:

 If 16 + 4x is 10 more than 14, what is the value of 8x?

  1. A) 6
  2. B)80 
  3. C) 2 
  4. D) 16

A student who is rushing through their paper might quickly decide the answer is C. But what the question actually asks for is the value of 8x.

What’s more, while all teachers will tell students to include their workings so examiners can see their process. However, fewer will be aware that even this has a preferred format which students can use to be awarded extra marks.


By itself, being an experienced examiner itself would leave one ill-equipped to teach in a classroom. But by the same token, a teacher’s skillset is quite different to the one I have just described. By entering exams armed with an examiner’s insight, students can more calmly and confidently display their skill and prowess to achieve the best possible grade across all their subjects.

About the author 

Tamara Budham Caldwell is one of a team of former GCSE, IB, principal and senior examiners at Impress Education.

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