This much I know about…what REALLY WORKS when preparing students for their examinations!

I have been a teacher for 26 years, a Headteacher for 11 years and, at the age of 50, this much I know about what REALLY WORKS when preparing students for their examinations!

I am keener than ever to spend as much time as possible in classrooms. As I wrote in a post last October, leading our teachers’ own learning about teaching, is, I feel, the most important thing I do in my role as a Headteacher.

It’s not often you innovate in your teaching and the impact on students’ learning is so clearly significant. My recent post about meta-cognition and self-regulation described an obvious tactic for helping students perform better in examinations. Thing is, whilst it now seems obvious, it took me 26 years to discover. It’s probably worth quickly reading my meta-cognition and self-regulation post here before looking at what follows.

Lead teacher learning by sharing. My meta-cognition and self-regulation post was picked up by some of the teachers at Huntington. Tim, a truly great teacher of Music, annotated an A level paper just as I had done and then explained his thinking to his A level class during their mock debrief.

He then sent me this email:

Tim Burnage email

Reading from the bottom up, here is my reply and then Tim’s response, which I feel is the fruit of sharing as a Headteacher.

Tim email 2

Observing lessons judgementally, or leading teacher learning? I try really hard to make lesson observations a developmental experience for colleagues I performance develop. I cannot see the point of spending time observing a lesson if I am not actively helping teachers to improve their practice. We co-plan, I play an active, helpful role in the lesson and then we spend time reflecting upon how the lesson could have been better. Quite often we wait a week or two to meet so that the teacher can bring along work completed in the interim period by the students so that we can see whether the teaching has resulted in improved student progress – the Golden Thread!


This particular meta-cognition technique is spreading. In the following lesson another truly great teacher, Lisa, uses a visualiser to demonstrate her thinking when completing a particular simultaneous equation question from the mathematics GCSE mock paper the students sat recently. Everyone has a fresh blank copy of the question sheet. She describes her thinking and the students are directed to copy down verbatim, on their own copies of the question sheet, what she writes as she writes it in real time. This helps ingrain the teacher’s meta-cognitive processes in the students’ memories, with the physical action of the writing playing some role in making the teacher’s meta-cognitive processes more tangible for the students. As well as the video, Lisa’s completed answer is below so that you can follow what she says, as well as the staged approach to answering questions which we are training the students to master.

Lisa worksheet

maths sequence

Practice makes perfect. Once Lisa has modelled the meta-cognitive process for completing the question the students are given a similar question to complete on their own, with the brief to mimic the meta-cognitive processes learnt from Lisa’s modelling. Once the students have attempted the process themselves on the similar question she asks one of the students – whom she has seen complete the question well – to use the visualiser and explain his meta-cognitive processes when completing the question. The video of Kallan’s visualiser monologue is below as is his completed question. Listen for the round of applause from his peers at the end…


An evidence-based profession? All this work is rooted in the Sutton Trust-Education Endowment Foundation  Teaching & Learning Toolkit. Think about it…meta-cognition; effective feedback; peer tutoring all combined in the one lesson…and then look at the Toolkit’s now ubiquitous evaluation of high-impact/cost effective activities to improve student progress:

EEF top 3

When I asked the students about the usefulness of Lisa’s meta-cognition lesson they gave it anywhere between 9 and 10 out of 10.

About johntomsett

Headteacher in York. All views are my own.
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33 Responses to This much I know about…what REALLY WORKS when preparing students for their examinations!

  1. gazdenman says:

    Hello John. Scarily linked to almost every conversation our SLT had yesterday – not least my pleading for visualisers in every class room (I started my new deputy post last term). Self regulation, meta-cognition, the need for developmental observations and how some of the mock scores in maths for us could lead to it hitting the fan with our up-coming KS2 tests. I will attempt to publish my first blog post on using your modelled paper technique next week. Need to get hold of a bloody visualiser! Thanks for sharing – will let you know how many years you have saved me if it works with the younger kids…

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  3. Lewis Fenn Griffin says:

    I tried this with a few questions with my AS Biology class a few weeks ago, I have struggled to get them to communicate all year. When I asked them last lesson if they had any prefrences about what they’d like to me to provide them with in their last few lessons before the exam, they asked for more of the questions ‘where I write down what I’m thinking’. it seems to work!

  4. dodiscimus says:

    Modelling is really important in helping students to improve because it allows students to see what a very effective approach looks like, as opposed to whatever personal and perhaps sloppy approach they develop whilst working independently. I think most teachers do modelling when they are introducing something but at that point children don’t have enough understanding to take it all in – they’re just building a basic idea of what they are trying to do. Maybe that’s why it works well as a revision tool because the children do have a reasonable understanding at that point. I think, to get the most from modeliing during ‘normal’ teaching it needs to follow, not precede, the activities to develop understanding. There are some other difficulties with modelling (bear in mind that I work with trainee teachers). Firstly, I think it can take quite a bit of experience to be clear about the ‘right’ way to tackle a particular type of question – inexperienced teachers need good guidance here. Secondly, you need good behaviour because it requires sustained concentration and quietness. Thirdly, it requires children to have a lot of confidence in the teacher, particularly some of the higher achieving ones who might already be getting good marks and might not think they had anything to learn. Fourthly, the main reason my trainee teachers tend to shy away from modelling is that they worry about making mistakes themselves. Finally, and it’s perhaps just a maths/physics thing, it can create a problem if students have been taught different approaches e.g. at different primary schools. For example, as a physicist, I would have done that simultaneous equation by substitution, not subtraction; if I had a shaky understanding of my substitution method and was unfamiliar with the subtraction method, modelling of the subtraction method might not be helpful.
    I’m keen to get trainee teachers modelling more but many of them definitely struggle with it so it’s good to think about what the barriers are as well as the benefits. Best wishes.

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  12. Reblogged this on Time-Travelling Teacher and commented:
    Excellent idea.

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  25. Josie M says:

    Thanks very much for this post. I’ve recently taken on the role of Lead Learner under my colleague Phil Stock and am currently delivering a series of sessions to staff on Metacognition. This post was very useful this week when demonstrating the value of think-alouds / verbalising thought processes to colleagues. I will blog about it soon so will send you a link when it’s up if you’re interested!
    Thanks again,

  26. Josie M says:

    Great. Yes, it’s quite common currency in our conversation around professional growth with staff now. Will be in touch! Josie

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