Sequencing lessons in the run up to exams

The weeks preceding an exam always feel like a mad rush, at times chaotic. There’s so much our students need to know and be able to do in such a short space of time that it can be hard to identify what to cover and what to leave out. These final lessons should pinpoint the  critical content of our subjects, but sometimes in our desperation to throw everything at students we can create more problems than we solve, leading to confusion and inertia.

My year 10s will be sitting their AQA, GCSE literature exams towards the end of May. One paper will ask them to write extended responses to two literary texts: Of Mice and Men and An Inspector Calls. The other will ask them to compare two poems on the theme of conflict – of a group of 15 – and respond to an ‘unseen’ poem (i.e. one they have not read before). Barring two poems, we have now thankfully covered everything else on the syllabus. There is still, however, much to do. Not only do my students need to revise, extend and connect – and perhaps even critique -what they already know, they also need to practise writing exam answers in a fluently academic style. How do I fit it all in?

Two recent posts by English teachers have inspired me: Joe Kirby’s on ‘knowledge organisers’ and Phil Stock’s on how and why we should teach students to memorise key quotations. Joe’s post argues that by creating a simple one-page organiser we can a) meticulously clarify the key knowledge in every topic and b) provide a memory tool for students to revisit and test themselves with. Phil’s post looks philosophically at how learning a quotation might lead to greater appreciation of literature. He also argues that “from a practical point standpoint, a well-selected quotation can stimulate deeper language analysis or act as a cue for links to other ideas and interpretations across a text.” Phil then shares a number of practical memory strategies to help students learn them accurately.

I have created knowledge organisers for An Inspector Calls (link) and Of Mice of Men (link), complete with key quotes.

AIC knowledge

OMAM knowledge

These were more tricky to design than I had expected. I agonised over what I was leaving out as much as what I left in; I imagine many other English teachers will quibble with my choices. Still, I see these as cues and points of reference to inspire richer, fuller interpretations rather than ends in their own right. I decided not to create a poetry organiser for two reasons: 1) it is easy to find quotes in the exam as students are given complete poems and 2) I will use these first two as experiments – I do not want to over-complicate things at this stage.

So, the next question was: how should I plan the sequence of lessons leading to the exams? Here, I have looked at the evidence from learning science shared in Make it Stick by Brown et al and How We Learn by Benedict Carey. This is also nicely summarised by Dunlosky et al (2013) here.

This is my revision programme:

lit revision

Lessons (apart from extended exam practice) will:

1) Begin with a ‘memory platform‘ where they will be tested on key knowledge/quotes from the knowledge organisers using a wide range of  quizzing methods. Students need to be fluent in this knowledge and to do this they will need to cover it repeatedly. They will be encouraged to elaborate on these points of knowledge, exploring their wider significance.

2) Revise and extend a key area. OMAM and AIC – the green lessons – will be taught side-by-side, whereas the poems will be revised in pairs.

3) Lessons will end with 15 minutes of deliberate writing practice where students will be expected to hone the finer parts of their analytical style by writing a paragraph at A/A* standard – this is a top set – based on the content of the lesson (modelling and scaffolding will feature here too).

Rather than tell students to ‘go home and revise’ I will give them specific revision tasks for the first few weeks before the cramming inevitably ensues. These will involve self-testing using the knowledge organisers, further extended writing practice and planning exam answers. Fortunately, we do have more than 12 lessons until the exams – I have given myself some wiggle room and a chance to respond to any other pressing needs that arise.

So why do I think that this has a reasonable chance of working effectively?

The evidence suggests that distributed practice is more effective than massed practice. I have avoided blocks (two weeks of OMAM, two weeks of AIC and two weeks of poetry). This scheme breaks this into smaller chunks that sit side-by-side. Another way of looking at it is that students will be constantly shifting across an interconnected body of knowledge, practising it as they go, rather than the more traditional approach of studying three isolated units of knowledge.

The evidence suggests that regular retrieval practice aids long-term retention – it is much more effective than re-reading notes. The ‘memory  platforms’ allow for regular quizzing – teacher, self and peer. Before we revise each poem, they will read it and annotate themselves; this will ultimately be a retrieval task (although, of course, they may usefully generate new ideas too). The extended writing opportunities will be a chance for students to both extend and apply their knowledge. Lastly, lessons will be peppered with retrieval questions: e.g. ‘Give us a quote/event that supports that argument?’ or ‘Let’s have two adjectives to describe Slim.’

The evidence suggests that getting students to elaborate – the process of finding additional layers of meaning in new material – can further aid retention. Rather than simply recalling information and quotes, students will constantly be asked to explain the broader significance of this, linking it within and across texts.

The evidence suggests that through interleaving – alternating between different problems rather than focusing entirely on one – not only is the material more likely to be retained, but it will improve  chances of success in a future test. As you will have noticed, the lessons alternate between poetry and drama/prose all the way through. Teaching  literary texts side-by-side is really exciting: students must consider the finer, subtle differences between them. Which writer provides the most positive portrayal of women? Both Priestley and Steinbeck took a socialist stance: how do they differ? Which text has the greater emotional impact? In other words, students might well gain a more nuanced understanding of the texts by considering them in relief rather than in isolation.


As a research lead at my school, it is incumbent upon me to present evidence-informed ideas in a cautionary light. I think my sequence has a strong chance of working, but…

1) While the research into the learning methods presented above is robust, it has yet to be tested in my classroom. Will these findings extend to the study of English literature in my real-world context or not?

2) The success or failure of my plan will, as always, hinge as much on quality of my teaching along with the motivation of the students. We will all need to work hard outside of lessons.

3) While Phil Stock’s ideas about learning quotations appeals to my confirmation bias, I have yet to see/read about conclusive proof that this method produces better extended writing. It is great fodder for an action research project.

4) With so many variables in the mix, it will be hard to evaluate the effectiveness of this approach. Without a control group, it would be unwise to jump to assumptions based on exam grades. Looking at student work for evidence of impact would be a safer option – as would buying back one or two final exam scripts. I ‘could’ interview students on their views. However, the research into ‘desirable difficulties’ – as the strategies I have shared are sometimes known – suggests that even though people may have learnt more through exposure to these approaches, they often feel that they have not.

Your thoughts would be appreciated.

Thank you for reading.


13 thoughts on “Sequencing lessons in the run up to exams

  1. Interesting that you and I are on the same lines, probably because it’s ‘that time’ in Y11 again! I’m hitting the ground running with AIC tomorrow! I’ve also been working along the lines discussed by Joe Kirby, reorganising some of my files and slides and using more recall tasks between input material and notes, lists or longer pieces of exam practice writing.
    As for the discussion about learning quotations..we often work on learning a trigger word or series of trigger words related to a theme, character, plot event or dramatic/poetic/language technique. This way, with keywords in their minds, pupils can more quickly locate quotations in the open book exam by skim reading. Those who remember page position can do this really quickly. Even as I’m writing this I’m thinking of things I wish I’d been doing all along!
    Thanks for the inspiration.

  2. Pingback: Sequencing lessons in the run up to exams | Andy Tharby | Echo Chamber Uncut

  3. This plan looks ambitious but do-able. I really like the idea of having students work on the different texts in chunks of time, placing ideas side by side, thereby creating more connections. I also feel a little jealous– in the States, I can’t think of a single test our students have to take that is tied to literature they already know. Perhaps this is an avenue to examine as the American high-stakes testing has come under intense scrutiny in the last year or so.

  4. Hi Andy as usual there’s a lot to take from your post. I especially like the idea of thinking about wider themes in AIC and OMAM side by side and practicing comparative skills this way. I will probably also magpie your knowledge organisers. Our Year 10s are also sitting their Lit exam soon, we are still reading OMAM but I have been using the first 15 minutes of my lessons to revise the Conflict cluster: a bit like your memory platforms, but not in a quiz format. I display two key quotations from two poems and ask students a) what poems have they come from? b) what does each quotation tell us about conflict? (sometimes I vary this question to something like ‘what do these lines tell us about the impact of war?’ or ‘what do these lines tell us about power and control?’) and c) what else can you tell me about the structure and language in these lines or in the rest of the poems they come from? In a huge class of not-as-engaged-as-I-would-like boys with C – A targets, I then use their responses as a bit of a stick: if they haven’t written in enough detail, used exploring phrases or dug into language/structure, they stay at the end of the lesson.
    Thanks for sharing your ideas!

  5. I too have provided what I called ‘overviews’ of what my students should know about their texts. They were more basic than yours – list of character, list of themes, list of events. Like you I expect these to operate as cues – it gives students something to start with rather than a blank page. I am also planning lots of testing and writing activities interleaved. Good to know that I’m not alone.

  6. Could you possibly put up an editable word file of your knowledge overviews? Cheeky I know, but they’re excellent and I’m sure would save people a lot of work. Cheers

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  8. This is the first year that I’ve really been trying to teach various topics alongside each other, so far I like it. For example,I gave a “pack” of exam papers as a starter the other day (OMAM part(a), CIE IGCSE Q2, Unseen Poetry) and students had to answer the same questions on them all (when is the exam, how long, how much do you produce etc) but critically WHAT IS THE SKILL THE EXAMINER IS LOOKING FOR? And that drew out a very helpful point about how they were actually all very similar – read a given extract, analyse language.

    Another useful revision task I do is the 10 second challenge. So once we’ve got main events in order in our minds, and rough key pages, I say things like “Find the page where Slim is introduced…” “Find Inspector Goole’s final speech about the “millions”” and count from 10 seconds down… do they know their whole text well enough to be able to find these key moments is the challenge? I’ve been doing this rather than memorisation, but as we move to closed book exams, I’m grateful for your direction to Joe Kirby’s post too.

    Thanks for the knowledge organisers too, I’ll be sharing on my blog for my students – credited of course!


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  11. Pingback: Knowledge organizers: Of Mice and Men and The Great Gatsby | Evidenced English

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