I have been a teacher for 27 years, a Headteacher for 12 years and, at the age of 51, this much I know about the merits of students copying from the board.


Re-reading is a key element of the writing process. When writing at leisure, as I am now, most of my time is spent re-reading what I have already written in order to know what to write next. In an examination, the processes of writing and re-reading happen almost simultaneously. The only way to coordinate those dual processes effectively is to have memorised your content thoroughly, to the point where you have to make minimal effort to recall it, and then write and re-read and write and re-read and write and re-read quite deliberately, within an intense blast of neuron-energy. In over 26 years of teaching I had never taught students explicitly how to write model answers at the speed required to do well in examinations, until recently.

oliver cag illustration

With love and thanks to Oliver Caviglioli for the illustration!

Writing and thinking at speed is a skill which needs modelling. The lessons which had more impact than any other upon my students’ AS Economics examination outcomes last summer entailed, essentially, copying from the board. Our students rarely use pens outside of school work, but when they are examined they have to write and think under time pressure. I used my visualiser to talk through writing a model answer to question 8, the 18 mark essay question, in the precise time – 35 minutes – allowed in the examination. I spoke out loud what I was thinking as well as what I was writing, almost simultaneously. The students had the same examination paper as me and they had to copy down from the projector screen, in real time, exactly what I was writing. The students had unique access to what was happening in my brain as I was writing.


It’s all about the Golden Thread! OCR’s Question Level Analysis data suggests that my visualiser/board copying lessons had a positive impact upon my students’ examination performance. Overall, question 8 was one of our best answered questions against the comparative national data:
comp national
Closer analysis reveals a great deal more. These three students all had B/C minimum expected grades yet look at their question 8 scores:
The numbers make for interesting reading, especially the marks for the two six markers, questions 6 and 7. Between the three boys, each question offers a total of 18 marks. For question 6 the boys gained only 7 of the total 18 marks available, and for question 7 they again scored 7 of the total 18 marks available. Yet, they each gained 17 out of 18 marks for question 8.
The results were relatively similar for these students who had C/D minimum expected grades:
17-18 2
It’s about teacher learning. This year, as we approach the mock examinations, I will model how I write and think when I attempt six mark questions too.
People of a certain age have a lump of hard skin on the top/side of the middle finger on their writing hand, the result of writing intensely over hundreds and hundreds of hours. When I wrote non-stop for 35 minutes and my students followed suit, they complained – a lot – amidst a great deal of hand-shaking and grimacing. The thing is, we might be onto something if we can get our students to cultivate their own middle-finger writer’s bump…


Postscript: The fountain pen is a magnificent invention. I use a modest, black Parker since I mislaid my Mont Blanc, a loss almost too grating to recall. The nib of a fountain pen is shaped irrevocably by the owner’s writing style, as my colleague Kate discovered when she inherited her father’s Waterman.

Different Strokes
for Kate
His choice of pen remained the same
From undergraduate Cambridge days
To signing his headmaster’s name –
A Waterman in mottled beige.
The cursive blacksmith’s art had honed
The ink-filled gold into a tool
For use by him and him alone –
His hand made them inseparable.
Gold outlasts all. The pen was left
A legacy, bequeathed to her
Whose writing pleased the family most:
But straining through the unknown curves
It snapped, to leave the nib’s new host
Mourning afresh, doubly bereft.

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This post has 13 Comments

  1. John,
    I read your latest blog with interest as I have also just read the editorial by Ann Mroz in this weeks TES and also the comment by Sugata Mitra, on page 20. Both of these question the whole nature of how schooling is about aquisition and testing of knowledge. This method of “educating” our future generation has been the focus of all or the vast majority of schools in the past few decades, certainly since the advent of the SATs and league tables.
    I have long struggled with this whole idea, despite having been a teacher, headteacher and adviser for my 43 year career. In your blog you point out the most effective way to get students topass the exam or at least get the answer correct. As Sugata points out, in his article,”millions of learners are being examined, we need thousands of examiners. These examiners each need to evaluate each answer in exactly the same way. A question that has many answers orcrequires an informed opinionas its answercannot be asked in an exam. The need for standardisation dumbs the whole system down.”
    What a massively expensive way to “prove” that someone is “educated”! And what a waste of highly intelliget and “educated” teachers to teach students to answer the question to which the answer is so defined! Future generations will look back and question the whole vast exoense to prove the obvious…or maybe we will need tomwait for advanced ailiens to laugh at our ignorance!
    Best wishes!

    1. Oh, I know, I know, I know…is it education? Is it learning? All I have shown is the metacognitive processes to do as well as you can in an examination…

      1. My point being it is the examination which is at fault! Students have to comply to this system I know but that does not mean it is right! How many gifted pupils are let down by an irrelevant exam system? 18, 20, 30%?

  2. When I began teaching in 1973, I was determined to NEVER have students copying from the board. My reasoning at the time was simple but unscientific (I am a scientist) in that I had huge writing problems (I’m left-handed) and could not write very well (in fact I was useless). Probably because of this I began researching the effectiveness of copying throughout the seventies. By the start of the eighties I was Head of Department and provided ALL THE NOTES the students would need at the start of their course! In the early eighties,I soon became ‘famous’ for having ‘remarkable exam results’ (chemistry & science). Since all my students always provided written and verbal feedback on their experience of their teaching it became clear that ‘copying notes’ was a ‘waste of time and effort’. Considering this research occurred over 30 years ago, why is it that I have seen so little research since then to support this (remarkably obvious conclusion)?

  3. Modelling is a key teacher strategy and what you (and many teachers did throughout the years) have done is ingrain the HOW and in my opinion that will stay with them for a long time and be useful in many other spheres In their future lives. In the business world, many copywriters have written out long-hand, the greatest direct sales letters of all time; by doing so, they learn the style of the greats in order to develop their own. I think it’s more than just learning an isolated process.

    1. Yes writing does engage memory as it is a physical neurological link. That is how I remember passwords too. But that physical link can be done on a key board too. So different callouses I guess

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