726 ways to achieve good exam results! (Or why the solution should always be smaller than the problem.)

Image: @jasonramasami


What looks like resistance is often a lack of clarity.

– Chip and Dan Heath, Switch

In the opening pages of Switch: How to change when things are hard, the Heath brothers share the story of two health researchers from West Virginia University who wanted to persuade the public to eat a healthier diet. Rather than telling people to eat less saturated fats or to cut their daily calorie intake, they went for an unexpected approach. Buy skimmed milk rather than whole fat milk. The researchers had worked out that if the entire population were to make this simple switch, average levels of saturated fat consumption would immediately drop to a healthy level. Just like that.

This is an example of ‘script the critical move’ – in other words, if you want people to make a change, give them sharp, simple first steps. In this case, buy 1% milk. It worked too: purchases of skimmed-milk increased significantly in the areas targeted by the advertising campaign.

I also found the book’s discussion of ‘decision paralysis’ very revealing – this is the finding that the more options we have to choose from in a given scenario, the less likely we are to make a decision or take action. If people are going to change, they need complete clarity. The solution, therefore, should always be much smaller than the problem.

This is an important message for schools and teachers. Indeed, I think it has implications for how we deliver our lessons…

“Right class, here are ten things I want you to do to make this a fantastic essay!”

“Now, have a look at your double-sided place-mat of 99 sophisticated connectives. (Make sure you don’t bend them; I spent three hours lovingly laminating them last night.) Use these to link together your ideas…”

“Oh, and before you forget, flick back in your exercise books to the three targets I set you last lesson…”

(5 minutes into the written task): “Oh by the way, I forgot to mention…”

Multiply the above by the number of subjects the child is taught, add to this any other target-setting structures your school puts in place and ask yourself a question: is it any wonder that some children just carry on doing what they have always done when we constantly swamp them in our good intentions? (Interestingly, I think these ideas run parallel to theories about the role of ‘working memory’ in learning – that we can only process a certain amount of new information at one time.)

Another problem lies in abstractions. Learning objectives, success criteria, exam board assessment rubrics are the villains here. They lure us into thinking that just by sharing them, students will be able to follow them. Of course, teacher modelling and the deconstruction of exemplar work help to increase clarity, but we also need to condense this down into something the student can easily remember and apply.

If I want a student to write more fluently, I might write the following in their book:

Write more fluently in future.

Clearly, that’s unhelpful. So I could try:

Try starting your sentences in different ways to create more fluency.

A little clearer, maybe. It gives some concrete advice. But ‘in different ways’ and ‘fluency’ are still as woolly as a woolly mammoth. So perhaps I could write:

Use adverbial phrases and prepositional phrases at the starts of sentences so that fewer sentences begin with pronouns and articles.

If – and it’s a big if – the child understands how to apply the grammatical terminology, this has potentially more clarity than before. It provides some concrete skills to apply; however, it does not really show the child when they should use these structures.

By sheer accident, last year I found a better option. It makes the critical move totally unambiguous and, most importantly, seems to lead to very good writing for those who need to make a change:

Start every sentence with a new word.

I happened upon a similar example this week when setting up a discussion with my Y9s. In the past, I would have asked them to ‘listen sensitively and conscientiously’ or to ‘consider the opinions of others when coming to conclusions’. Now I start with this simple instruction: use the first name of at least one other person in the class when making a comment. They have to listen; they have to agree or challenge; they have to be conscientious.

A reasonable critique of this argument might be that these ‘critical moves’ are not challenging in themselves. Switch second guesses this by also suggesting that a ‘destination postcard’ should accompany the critical moves. This is the long-term destination you want the child to aim for; the ‘critical move’ is just the first step in a much, much longer journey – one of many. For instance:

Start every new sentence with a new word … so that you can write with the fluency of an A* student. (Or, if like me, you are squeamish about the crude use of grades you could try: start every new sentence with a new word so that your writing makes me laugh/feel tense/sob onto your work.)

Over the next few months, we hit exam season. Suffice to say, this will be a nerve-wracking time for our students. So that we do not contribute to the burden, we should take time to cut back our well-intentioned advice to the barest and sharpest essentials. This might mean withholding the temptation to go overboard and doing a little less ourselves instead.



Cut 10 down to tips down to two tips.

Make 99 connectives, 5 crucial discourse markers.

And lest we forget… Keep the woolly mammoth where he belongs. In his icy grave.


Related posts:

10 strategies for talk better teaching

A simple classroom in a complex world

Wreaking havoc on the educational universe: the problem with change

7 thoughts on “726 ways to achieve good exam results! (Or why the solution should always be smaller than the problem.)

  1. This is a really interesting piece, thanks Andy – I’ve recommended you to teaching friends on Facebook today so hope you get some more well deserved follows!

  2. Pingback: Sequencing lessons in the lead-up to exams | Reflecting English

  3. Pingback: A directory of my posts on teaching writing | Reflecting English

  4. Pingback: Assessment – it’s all in our heads | Reflecting English

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