Exams in a BTEC?!

Education has progressed dramatically over the last century. The traditional methods of teaching where the focus was on teaching, not learning, are long gone and the role of the teacher has evolved. This evolution has brought out many changes within the education sector, with things such as teaching styles, facilities and methods of assessment changing to suit the changing philosophies. Formative assessment is considered the most effective tool for assessment for learning (Scales, 2008) but, historically assessment was carried out through exams. Upon the discovery of learning styles and the introduction of less ‘classical’ subjects being introduced into educational institutions, vocational courses started to emerge. Awards such as the NVQ, City & Guilds and BTEC’s were offered as an alternative route to GCSE’s and A-levels, a revolutionary way of assessing learners. Nowadays, students on vocational courses make up a large amount of the 14-19 year olds in education and it was reported by Sheppard (2011) that since 2003 the number of students in vocational education has jumped from 66,000 to over 700,000. Although this method of learning is growing it has many sceptics and has been heavily criticised because of its method of assessment. The public image of vocational courses which assess through coursework has suffered recently due to some high-profile comments made by the Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove. Gove ordered a thorough review of the UK’s vocational education system. As part of this review, Alison Wolf (2011) suggested that thousands of 14 to 16-year-olds are taking vocational courses that are encouraged by league tables but do not help the pupils’ prospects. Since then, in an address to the House of Commons, Michael Gove has branded many of the vocational courses on offer as ‘Mickey-Mouse’ courses, a comment which has dented the ever-declining image of vocational qualifications These arguments have led some awarding bodies to restructure their provision of vocational courses to incorporate both exams and coursework. One example of this is the BTEC Level 2 Diploma in Business; Starting in September 2013, Edexcel have introduced 2 exam based core modules. In this essay I am going to research into the theories supporting the use of examinations, I will do this by researching literary theory behind the advantages and disadvantages of each method of assessment and will also discuss the impact it will have on my teaching practice. Based on this independent research I have set the following learning objectives:
1. To identify the factors for/against assessment through coursework
2. To identify whether examinations are an effective method of assessment
3. To identify the impact on teaching methodology within the classroom
From the survey I have carried out (Appendices – Survey) it is clear to see that one of the reasons that BTEC’s have grown so rapidly is the fear of exams. 100% of the students who initially applied for the BTEC Extended Diploma in my institution did so because of their fear of exams. The fact of the matter is that a lot of students do not work well under pressure and can ‘crumble’ during the examination process. The survey supports this comment by showing that 65% of students surveyed said that poor exam results were caused by pressure. In a report by Garner (2012), Mary Bousted, the general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers states that “children in the UK remain among the most tested in the world. This creates huge pressure on young people, with many whose progress has been outstanding on a personal level feeling like failures following exam results.” Kuhlmann, Piel & Wolf (2005) back this up by suggesting that the stress created from the pressure of exams can impair memory retrieval. It could be argued that this increased pressure has caused the increase in demand for vocational courses. Another argument against the implementation of exams in vocational courses is the inferior level of feedback. This lack of feedback can have a negative effect on student motivation and therefore learning. With coursework, assignments can be marked quickly. Reece and Walker (2007) state that effective and timely feedback maximises student motivation, suggesting that assessment through coursework could be the more effective method. Rust (2007) supports this by stating that students benefit from opportunities to improve, something that does not happen when an examination is graded with one letter or a percentage. Although feedback from examinations is generally limited and slow, there is still support for examinations which is based around the theory of the independent learner. Glasersfeld (1989) supports this by arguing, ‘that the responsibility of learning should reside increasingly with the learner.’ As well as Glasersfeld, constructivists, such as Slavin (2000), believe that encouraging students to become independent learners allows them to learn at their own pace. Philip Candy quotes Forster (1972, p ii) to define independent learning/study:
1. ‘Independent study is a process, a method and a philosophy of education:
in which a student acquires knowledge by his or her own efforts and develops the ability for inquiry and critical evaluation;
2. It includes freedom of choice in determining those objectives, within the limits of a given project or program and with the aid of a faculty adviser;
3. It requires freedom of process to carry out the objectives;
4. It places increased educational responsibility on the student for the achieving of objectives and for the value of the goals’.
The key phrases that echo throughout all definitions are ‘responsibility on the student’ and ‘acquires knowledge by his or her own efforts.’ On the current BTEC programme, the students do have an element of taking responsibility for their learning but, they also get a lot of supervised time with the teacher and the amount of ‘independent learning’ is minimal. When this change comes in, the approach to teaching will need to change dramatically so that the learners become ‘responsible’ for their own learning and this learning is based on ‘his or her own efforts’. Scharle and Szabó (2000) recommend that over time a teacher changes their role from a teacher to a learning facilitator. No longer will they be able to raise a hand in lesson and ask the tutor to read a sentence to make sure it is correct, they must be fully prepared and know the unit content so that they can achieve the highest grades possible. Pintrich and de Groot (1990) support this in their study which found that there is a direct correlation between the level of student autonomy and high grades.
It is important to consider the impact of examinations on the learner when judging whether exams are an effective assessment method. Not only will the students be subject to the pressure mentioned earlier, they will also experience a change in the way they are taught. Teachers will not only teach the unit content, but also teach wider skills such as revision skills, the correct way to answer exam questions and how to time questions efficiently. This is commonly known as ‘teaching for the test’. McNeil (2000) argues that students are spending too much time learning the process by which to pass a test rather than the curriculum making examinations a less effective assessment tool. It could also be argued that examinations affect the retention of information. Weimer (2010) suggested that examinations cause students to ‘cram’ in the days leading up to an assignment. His research identified that up to 50% of students attempted to learn large quantities of information in short time periods before exams. When these students were retested 6 months later, they had only retained 27% of the information they had learned. This could suggest that examinations as an assessment method may not have a positive effect on learning. Snider (2006) also suggests that continuous projects and activities in lessons are the most effective methods of assessment. She argues that students do not need to be formally assessed as the ‘process’ of learning is much more important than the ‘product’ (exam results).
To conclude, there are many advantages and disadvantages for both coursework and exam based courses. It seems to be that a combination of the two could be the most effective way to ensure that a course is not only fair on the range of students that will be on the course, but also it could enhance the reputation of the qualification. This hybrid of exams and coursework could bring about the need for a change in teaching practice and will have a great impact on teaching and learning styles within the classroom. Tutors on the Level 2 BTEC Diploma in Business will need to adapt their lessons so that they are creating and developing independent learners. This is to ensure that students are taking responsibility for their learning and that they are being taught the relevant skills to get them through their exams successfully. The success of this change of assessment methods is solely down to how well the tutors react to the change.

• Sheppard, J; 2011, ‘Vocational courses waste of time, says government adviser’, The Guardian, 3 March 2011, viewed 01 April 2013.
• Scales, P. 2008, Teaching in the Lifelong Learning Sector, Maidenhead: Open University Press
• Garner, R; 2012, ‘Teachers admit fiddling results as pupils crumble under pressure of exams’, The Independent, 2 April 2012, viewed 01 April 2013.
• Henry, J; 2012, ‘No-exam university courses fuel rise in first class degrees’ The Telegraph, 25 November 2012, viewed 01 April 2013.
• Reece and Walker, 2007. Teaching Training and Learning: A Practical Guide
• Rust. C. (2007). Principles and purposes of assessments. Oxford Centre for Staff and Learning Development. 1.
• Glasersfeld, E. (1989). Cognition, construction of knowledge, and teaching. Synthese, 80(1), 121-140
• Slavin, R. (2000). Educational Psychology. 6th ed., Boston: Allyn and Bacon.
• Scarlet, A. & Sabot, A. (2000) Learner Autonomy. A guide to developing learner responsibility. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
• LLUK, (2007), New overarching professional standards for teachers, tutors and trainers in the lifelong learning sector
• Pintrich, P.R. & de Groot, E.V. (1990). Motivational and self-regulated learning components of classroom academic performance. Journal of Educational Psychology, 82(1), 33-40.
• McNeil, Linda. 2000. Contradictions of School Reform: Educational Costs of
Standardized Testing. New York: Routledge
• Kuhlman, Piel & Wolf (2005). Impaired Memory Retrieval after Psychosocial Stress in Healthy Young Men. Institute of Experimental Psychology, University of Duesseldorf, D-40225 Duesseldorf, Germany


How I Plan An Excellent Lesson


Ladies and gentlemen, I achieved a 1 in my formal observation. I’m sorry if I’m coming across as smug or arrogant but I’ve worked bloody hard for a long time and it feels great to finally get the recognition for it. For those of you who don’t know, most observations in the UK are graded from 1-4 (1 = excellent, 2 = good, 3 = satisfactory 4 = unsatisfactory, or along those lines). The meeting with the observer was really positive and as you can tell I came out feeling happy and relieved. As I entered the staff room, I was greeted with the expectant faces of my colleagues who were full of praise upon hearing the result. After a few “congratulations'” and “well done’s” I was asked an interesting question…

“Got any tips for getting a 1?”

We had a great chat and my colleagues said that I should put my advice into a document, so, here goes.

How I Plan An Excellent Lesson

The following is a general structure that I follow when creating a lesson. The main things an observer is looking for are:

  • Is learning taking place?
  • Does the lesson show differentiation?
  • Does the lesson promote inclusivity?
  • Are the students engaged?

1. Starter – Every lesson should have a starter that settles the students in. It should be engaging and provide a basis to the start the lesson. Starters can include simple things like a word-search or a crossword, but I prefer starters that are not so common or something that can set the tone for the lesson. One method I use is to print out a recent news story that applies to the subject we will be learning in the lesson. Once the students come into the class, they read the news story and the group can then debate a set of questions set by the tutor. Another starter that is popular with my students is a lesson by lesson current affairs quiz. With subjects like business, economics, politics and law it can be a useful way of getting the students engaged with the subject in the real world.

2. Recap – Its important to recap, one thing that an observer looks for is that you, the teacher, are checking whether each student is learning. By doing a recap you are showing that the students have learnt what was taught in the lesson before and it also sets the starting point for learning in this lesson. The most obvious and arguably the most effective way to recap is to simply ask questions based on previous lessons. To ensure that you are promoting inclusive learning, try to direct the questions at a variety of students to ensure that the stronger students do not keep answering. Differentiate your questions to each students, giving the harder questions to the more able students and vice-versa.

3. Activities – There are a million different theories on teaching activities but I just follow some simple rules

  • No activity should last longer than 20 mins – I try to use a PowerPoint presentation for the whole session that is embedded with a variety of activities e.g. pair work, class discussions, team tasks etc.
  • Get the students moving – one technique that my mentor passed to me that I try to incorporate in every lesson is to make sure the students don’t stay in their seat for the whole lesson. I find this works a treat and observers love it as it combats boredom and adds an element of fun to the lesson. There are a couple of good ways of doing this, you could get students writing on the whiteboard or use teaching tools like triptico (see previous post). In my lesson, I used the ‘FindTen’ activity on Triptico and invited students up to the board to identify the correct answers. By doing this, the observer can see that I am assessing the students, you can also get the students to explain their choices to the class so that they are doing the teaching as well as you.
  • Vary the activities – if time allows, try to use a variety of activities e.g. don’t make students do pair work twice, use pair work once and then a class discussion.
  • Show differentiation – observers want to see that you have planned a lesson that stretches the strong students as well as catering to the needs of the less able. Make sure that any activity you use has extension tasks so that able students are not left sitting around doing nothing. A good technique to use is pairing strong students and weak students together so that they can help each other, or, if a strong student finishes an activity quickly, get them to help out someone who is struggling.
  • Always be assessing – never just deliver a PowerPoint and bombard the students with information. As a teacher it is your job to ensure students are learning and an observer will want to see that you are checking on learning. This is simple, throughout the lesson make sure that you are questioning the students on the content.
  • Never give up on a student – one thing that stopped me from getting a 1 in the past was that I allowed a student to not answer a question. When they couldn’t answer a question I directed at them, they didn’t know so I passed the question on. What I should have done, what you should do, is to help the student, encourage them and steer them towards the answer to help build their confidence.

4 – Plenary – Once the activities have taken place it is important to summarise the lesson so that the students realise what they have actually learnt! Again, the most obvious way to do this is to use simple questioning techniques.

5 – End – For me this is the most important part of any observation. The observer basically wants to see that every student has learnt and they cannot mark you well on this unless you test every single student in the room. Here are my favourite methods:

  • Exit quiz – ask questions based on the lesson, students cannot leave until they have correctly answered a question. It is good because every student gets a chance to prove themselves but is sometimes hard for the tutor to make fair.
  • Head to head – Set up a ‘competition table’ at the front of the class and put the students into pairs (try to pair up similar ability students). Each pair comes to the table and goes head to head on a question. They are given mini-whiteboards each and must each answer a question. This provides an element of competition which the students love and it also gives one student the chance to explain to the rest of the group why they chose a particular answer.
  • Mini-assessment – You could just carry out a mini test that you can mark out of lesson time.

In my opinion, this structure can be the basis for an excellent lesson, but it must be delivered with passion and energy. You can plan the perfect lesson that has the best activities but unless you create an environment that encourages and inspires students, your lesson will never be ‘excellent’.

Remember, I’m no expert but I hope this helps…..


God Bless Triptico!


For those of you following my twitter account (@truthofteaching) you will know that this week is my formal observation week. I had my observation today and I’m pleased to say that it went well (I’m confident in saying this because I got a good wink from my observer as they left). The lesson had a good pace, the students learned, but most importantly…the students were engaged. In my institution the grade awarded during an observation is heavily influenced by the feedback given by students – so if you can keep the students happy then you keep the observer happy. One tool I use to make sure that my learners are engaged and having a bit of fun is cool piece of teaching software called ‘Triptico’. According to the company who developed the software, it is “a simple desktop app, packed full of innovative resources to enable you to quickly create engaging interactive learning.” 

It does exactly what is says on the tin

Once you have downloaded this FREE app to your desktop you can use any of its tools to spruce up your lessons. There are a range of useful activities including a simple group selector, word games, moving tiles in the correct order and picture games. Each activity has a fun and interactive template that can be easily personalised to match any subject. My personal favourite is the activity called ‘findten’. 


Above is a ‘findten’ activity I used in a recent lesson, as the teacher I set the students the task of identifying the correct 10 answers and to avoid the 5 incorrect answers. Not only do the students enjoy getting up and showing off that they know the answer, but the software also plays a lovely ‘bling’ sound with a correct answer and a funny incorrect noise that is impossible for me to describe when an incorrect tile is selected. The students enjoy it and it’s also great for lesson observations because it engages the group and is a great method for assessing that learning is taking place. One thing that strikes you about Triptico is the quality. All of the tasks are ‘clean’ and easy to use and they give the impression that a lot of time has been spent on the activity, when in fact you can create a task in less than 5 minutes. I’ve asked the students what they think of it and the general consensus is that they like the activities and they learn more when I use Triptico rather than a PowerPoint

I think it is a great tool for teachers and it’s made my lessons better. I have a meeting with my observer booked for tomorrow so I will find out how much impact it has! If you would like to download Triptico, visit their website http://www.triptico.co.uk/ amd follow the instructions. 

  • Have you used Triptico before? Do you find it useful?
  • Have you come across any other useful teaching tools that you would like to share?




PGCE, GTP, DTLLS – Are they really useful?

I was browsing the education pages on BBC news and came across this news story…Image


The third paragraph in particular caught my attention. “The government wants more teacher training to be delivered ‘on the job’ instead of in university-based courses”. So should the conventional, theory led teaching qualification be scrapped in favour of an apprentice-style award?

If you ask anyone who is currently doing their teaching qualification, they will all say one thing – there is so much theory. Now ask them if they think it is useful and the majority will state that its all useless. During my studies I thought that the whole process was just a box-ticking exercise and a real teacher doesn’t need to know what behaviourism or the process model is – they can just teach. I had already been teaching for 6 months in a FE college so I believed that I was a natural born teacher and spending hours with Petty, Scales and Tummons would not change a thing. But I was wrong…

This afternoon I sat down with my team and my manager explained to us that our formal observation week would be in a few weeks time. The format would be the same as last year, one observation at any point in the week. My manager then went on to pass out a 2-sided A4 sheet of paper with everything the observers would be expecting to see in the observation. I was one of the last to receive the handout and I was seriously worried watching the faces of the ‘old guard’ as they read through the list. The handout finally reached me and I was surprised…..pleasantly. The list demanded lesson plans with differentiation, class profiles, assessment records, schemes of work with employ-ability skills and reflection periods. So whilst my esteemed colleagues were quaking in their boots, I was thanking my teaching qualification for teaching me all about professional practice. Now I am starting to realise that my teaching qualification really has helped me become a better teacher. If the process moved out of the classroom and did become more ‘on the job,’ I doubt I would have been prepared for the observation week coming up. 

Don’t get me wrong, there’s no point learning all the theory if you don’t have the natural ability to teach. We need to have an element of learning on the job so that we can put any theory we learn into practice. For those of you sitting through countless lessons on curriculum theories, hang in there. It may seem like what you’re doing is pointless, but it is sinking in and it is affecting your professional practice in a very positive way!

Lets hope I can make my teachers proud by getting an ‘outstanding’ in my obs week!

changing students mindsets with no help from the Arctic Monkeys

I suggest you listen to a song. It is by the Arctic Monkeys and it’s called ‘Don’t Sit Down ‘Cos I Move Your Chair’. In the song, the ‘Monkeys take you through a list of things you shouldn’t do. From listening to the song I now know that I shouldn’t ever “find a well known hard man and start a fight” and I definitely shouldn’t wear a shell suit on bonfire night. But the Sheffield boys missed out one key lyric from their song….

…don’t give back marked work at the end of a college day…

I’m not sure what you would rhyme that with, I’m not sure whether it would sound any good sung along to drums and guitars. But I do know that giving students their marked assignments back at 3:30 on a Thursday afternoon is a definite no no….especially when it hasn’t passed. I can understand my learners points of view. They have to attend around 4 hours of lectures of a course they signed up for and they even had to go to McDonald’s for lunch. So why now is this teacher who spends hours marking their work telling them they have to do work?! Bless them, they are naive. They think they can half-ass an assignment and pass it first time. Once I had explained to the students that the ones who had passed could go home and the ones who hadn’t were staying to complete it, I knew I had done my job! No I’m not being sadistic, my job isn’t making students life hell. Those students who did stay completely changed their work ethic and I swear I could of heard one of them say “I’m gonna work harder on it next time”. Giving students these small life lessons is why I do the job. The reason I am a teacher is not only because I want to pass on my knowledge, I also want to improve each student as a person. In my eyes, it is my job to make polish the rough diamonds I have and to make each student more employable. When you see a students mindset change, it makes it all worthwhile 🙂

Schemes and Dreams


You cannot put down any of my students for thinking big. My first 2 lessons today involved setting business students the task of and running an event. I gave the students the added incentive that if they make a profit from this event they can keep the majority of it as long as a portion of it was given to charity. Suddenly my room was full of Alan Sugar’s and Richard Branson’s. I’m going to place a wager with you – First, ask any 16 or 17 year old to organise an event that aims to make a profit. I bet you my job that every single one of them will come back with the same idea – a party. 

“Let’s do a project x!”

Lets not! After setting out some ground rules on the events (no alcohol, gambling, fighting, nudity) the students really got their creative of juices flowing and came up with some great ideas. Unfortunately, the were some that were not so good. You have to worry about the future of business when one student claimed that “if we hire a field, put a bouncy castle in it and charge £20 or summin” I had serious doubts that my students would pull this off. Other not so great ideas were – selling sugar (not really sure how that is an event), teacher UFC and a strip club in college (“dont worry sir, it will be classy”). Eventually with a little bit of guidance, the students have settled on some good ideas and I was really proud when the majority of them said that they would donate all of their profits to charity. It’s not something you would expect from kids that age to give away hard earned money so it surprised me – well done guys!

I also spent the evening interviewer school students who had applied to start my course next year. I’ve got to say that the students I met this evening where polite, courteous and gave a great account of themselves. Each one of them expressed an interest in learning more and developing their skills and they shared their dreams and aspirations like any naive 15 year old would. I really cant wait to get them in my class and teach them.