5 Ways to Use Past-Exam Papers With Your Students

An article by Richard James Rogers (Award-Winning Author of The Quick Guide to Classroom Management and The Power of Praise: Empowering Students Through Positive Feedback)This blog post is illustrated by Pop Sutthiya Lertyongphati.

Accompanying podcast episode:

Past-exam papers provide teachers with the opportunity to train students in time-management, exam-technique and key skills, since they provide students with exposure to the same style of questions that they will encounter in their final exams.

Think about anything at which you’ve become proficient: be that riding a bicycle, martial arts, painting, yoga or anything – it was practice (and lots of it) that made you proficient at that thing. Natural abilities will, of course, contribute to mastery, but ultimately the greatest way to achieve superiority in any endeavor is through practice.

Past-exam papers provide students with the vital practice they need to succeed in the final exams, and today I would like to go through some ways in which we can use past-papers in the classroom with our students.

Tip #1: Create end-of-unit assessments from past exam paper questions

Whenever I reach the end of a topic I use past-paper questions to test my students’ knowledge and understanding of what they have learned. These questions can either be pulled off pdfs through screen captures, or they can be built using question banks. Currently, I teach KS3 Science, Edexcel IGCSE Physics and Chemistry and IBDP Chemistry – and all of these courses have great question banks for teachers to use: namely Testbase for KS3, ExamWizard for Edexcel, and the IB Questionbank for IB subjects.

Of course, these question banks are not free, but they are worth the slice into the school budget in my opinion as they provide teachers with a very quick way to build test papers from past-paper questions. Another massive advantage of question banks over full pdf past-papers, other than speed and efficiency of test-building, is that questions are categorized by topic or syllabus statement too. Question banks will also automatically add up the question scores for you, saving you further time as you calculate how much the test should be out of.

And on that point: total marks – make sure you calculate your mark-to-time ratio too. For Edexcel IGCSE Chemistry, for example, students have to complete 110 marks in 120 minutes – i.e. about 65 seconds per mark. This means that when I am assigning a 1 hour test for this subject, it needs to contain 55 marks of questions. Any less that this and I’ll be giving the students too much time to complete the paper, which won’t be an effective ‘model’ of the real exam.

Tip #2: Use past-paper questions for in-class structured revision

Create special test papers that are built from past-papers and give them to your students to complete during normal lesson time. This, of course, works great when students are preparing for an imminent end-of-unit test or terminal examination (e.g. an end of year exam). Consider the following:

  • Students should receive quick feedback during these sessions, and should know exactly where they have lost marks (and why). Include enough questions to be completed during the lesson, along with enough time for checking through the mark scheme in a final peer or self-assessment exercise. In my case, for example, most of my lessons are 1 hour long. This allows me to create a 40 minute paper, with 20 minutes left over for marking and feedback.
  • Always provide the official mark schemes, so that students become familiar with the language and skills needed to gain top marks.
  • If possible, allow for a 5 or 10 minute discussion at the end of class to go through difficult questions, common misconceptions that are tested by the paper and even command terms like ‘evaluate’, ‘describe’ and ‘explain’.
  • During the final feedback and marking part of a revision lesson, tell your students to be VERY STRICT when checking the answers. If the answer that is written does not match the mark scheme word-for-word, then it could be wrong, and the student should come and seek your advice.

There are some nifty ways that you can make lessons like this more active, engaging and spatial for learners than they would be otherwise. Some ideas you might want to try are as follows:

  • Cut up the questions and answers (i.e. physically, with scissors). Give students one question at a time, and when they have finished they can come and collect the official answer from your desk.
  • Provide students with the official answers, one at a time, and ask them to write the question that each answer pertains to.
  • Consider using live quiz-based apps that have quizzes built from past-papers on them.
  • Play learning games with your students and use past-paper questions, key vocabulary and command terms to create the questions.

Please be advised that when students reach a certain age (i.e. mid-teens and older), their exams become very content-based and, therefore, revision lessons need to be quite intense in order to be effective. The odd ‘fun’ lesson here and there containing learning games and competitive quizzes can offer a nice break from the intensity of completing whole papers. However, ‘fun’ lessons like these tend to be less efficient at embedding high-demand content than, say, a lesson in which students complete a 40-minute assessment filled with past-paper questions.

#3: Create homework assignments from past-paper questions

This is a great way to train students in time-management. Make sure your learners know the mark-to-time ratio for your subject (e.g. 1 mark per minute), and specify how long they should spend completing the paper at home (e.g. if it’s a 35 mark homework assignment, then the students would have to time themselves for 35 minutes, if the ratio is 1 mark per minute). You may even want to share a Google Sheet with your students in which they can type their names and exactly how long, in minutes and seconds, it took them to complete the homework. The aim of this exercise would be to improve efficiency over time, with (hopefully) a downward trend being observed – the more past-paper homework the students get, the less time each one should take as the weeks go by. Another adaptation of this, is that you could ask the students to write down how much time it took them to complete the work on the paper itself (if you’re collecting it in and marking it by hand).

#4: Use ‘reverse questioning’

I mentioned this briefly earlier – provide the answers, and ask the students to write what they think the questions are.

This is really good for getting students to think deeply about the knowledge and skills they need to master for the exam, along with deep consideration of command terms and the key vocabulary requirements of their upcoming assessment. For me personally, a common command term that comes up is the word ‘explain’, and it takes time for many students to realise that they need to state why something happens when they are told to explain something. I train my students to always use the word ‘because’ when the question asks them to ‘explain’. For your subject, you may have similar challenges that only be solved by regular past-paper practice and a heavy focus on key vocabulary and command terms.

#5: Use past-paper questions and model answers to create ‘frameworks’

Give students past-exam paper questions and model answers for them use as ‘frameworks’, or skeletons, for building:

  • Flashcards: A lot of research has shown that flashcards are a brilliant revision tool. They can be created digitally (e.g. on websites like Quizlet) or physically on paper. Make sure the students write/type the question on one-side of the flashcard, and the model answer on the other side. This could even be done as a group activity, with different groups swapping flashcards and testing their knowledge as a plenary session to a lesson.
  • Consider asking your students to choose a live quiz app and create multiple choice quizzes using past-exam paper questions and model answers.
  • Mind Maps: Do some research into this, as many educators think Mind Maps are something they actually aren’t. Mind Maps are a very well-defined psychologically favorable learning tool created by the late Dr Tony Buzan (with whom I was very lucky to have a one-to-one video call with just before he passed). Mind Maps need to be created in a certain way in order to be effective, so make sure your students know the rules. Once students know the rules, they’ll then need practice in order to put past-paper questions and model answers onto their Mind Maps. These will often need to be shortened in some way, and illustrated.
  • Learning Journals: This very popular blog post of mine goes through what learning journals are, and how they can be used as a great revision tool. When used correctly, they can be VERY effective.

Conclusion

Past-exam papers really are the bread-and-butter of effective revision and exam-preparation. Use them to:

  • Create end-of-unit assessments
  • Guide in-class structured revision
  • Create homework assignments
  • Create ‘reverse questioning’ tasks
  • Create ‘frameworks

Suggested further reading

Wade, N. (2022) Are past paper questions always useful? Available at: https://www.cambridgeassessment.org.uk/insights/are-past-paper-questions-always-useful-neil-wade/ (Accessed: 10th April 2022)

Tan, A., & Nicholson, T. (1997). Flashcards revisited: Training poor readers to read words faster improves their comprehension of text. Journal of Educational Psychology, 89(2), 276–288. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-0663.89.2.276 (Accessed: 1st May 2022)

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5 Ways to Prepare Students For Exams

An article by Richard James Rogers (Award-Winning Author of The Quick Guide to Classroom Management and The Power of Praise: Empowering Students Through Positive Feedback).

Illustrated by Pop Sutthiya Lertyongphati 

Accompanying podcast episode (audio version of this blog post, read by Richard):

Examinations really are the most visible culmination of what we do as teachers. They offer a no-nonsense assessment of student competency in particular subject areas and their results are still to this day considered to be the ‘gold standard’ of many schools: forming the basis of rankings’ systems, such as league tables, in many countries.

Whether we like it or not, the reality is that grades matter. They matter to parents; to the students taking the exams; to universities; to colleges; to employers and, unfortunately, to the teachers who are supporting the students (who may themselves be under pressure to raise attainment and get ‘good grades’).

I could have chosen to write about the great debate surrounding the real importance of grades, and the gracefully-aged topic of ‘skills vs knowledge’. That may be a good topic for another blog post, but today I’m going to get right down to the cold, hard-truth of what you really need to know: how to best prepare your students for their exams. So strap on your seatbelt: this is going to be a exhilarating ride!

Tip #1: Do past-papers under timed conditions

This is tip number one because, quite simply, it is the very best way to prepare your students for upcoming exams. Of course, you will have to have at least covered the content in-class before giving past-paper questions, but make sure that at some point your students do those questions!

Past-paper questions really give students the crucial experience of dealing with examination language and style – an experience that they can’t really get from any other source. You may wish to give past-paper questions covering a single topic for homework, or make your end-of-topic tests out of past-paper questions (highly recommended).

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One technique I have started using with my IGCSE Physics students is the 20-10-20 technique: the students do 20 minutes of questions (which equates to 20 marks, in my case), followed by 10 minutes of peer-assessment using the official mark schemes. After this, I do a 20 minute review of the questions, going through each part in-detail.

This technique works for me because my lessons are all 1 hour long, so I can fit a 20-10-20 session into selected slots each week. For you, you may have to adapt this strategy to fit the timeframe of your lessons.

It is crucial that, at some stage, your students start doing past-paper questions under the same time-conditions of the exam. This will train them to write quickly and concisely – a massive key skill, as many good students lose marks simply because they run out of time in the real exam.

Tip #2: Use exam-prep software and websites

We really have to take advantage of all of the EdTech tools out there: many of which are available for free! Here are some great generic websites that I recommend (these can be used for any subject area, and all are free to use too):

  • Quizziz: Try the ‘live quiz’ and watch your students jump with joy as they compete with each other to answer examination questions. Quizziz contains many pre-prepared quizzes so you may find that you don’t even need to create one from scratch.
  • Quizlet: This is really awesome for reinforcing key words and definitions, and has a number of integrated games within the system that students can play (Hint: Try the ‘Match’ and ‘Gravity’ games – they’re awesome!). Don’t forget to try out Quizlet Live, which can be done in teams or as individuals – again, just like Quizziz, students compete with each other for points by answering questions.
  • Kahoot!: This is a great multiple choice quiz-based system: another spin on the Quizlet and Quizziz concept, basically. Again, students can compete as individuals or as teams.
  • BBC Bitesize: An old classic for a good reason – it’s awesome! The site contains some of the best revision notes on the web, and topics often have a multiple choice test at the end which is usually out of 10 (allowing for a quick percentage calculation). BBC Bitesize notes now have questions integrated into the notes themselves, making the website more interactive today than ever before.
  • Seneca Learning: I love this website! It’s like BBC Bitesize but more interactive, in my opinion. Students log in to the site (it’s free, but sign up is needed) and go to the course they are currently studying (e.g. GCSE German). Notes will then be displayed on-screen with questions throughout to test knowledge and understanding. One reason I love Seneca is that notes are divided by syllabus section and Seneca’s database keeps getting bigger each year (they now have some IB Diploma courses on there, for example).

Tip #3: Project work

Give your students revision projects to do: such as creating a Google Slides that covers a particular topic, and then presenting that to the class. Just make sure that when you do this you specify a strict time-frame and assign roles: does each member of the group know what their job is?

I recently did such a project with my Year 11 Physics students. They had to create an audio clip, Google Slides, worksheet and model answers covering the Magnetism and Electromagnetism topic in the syllabus. Every person had a distinct role (e.g. one person made the audio clip, one person did the worksheet, etc.) and this was a great skill-building task, as well as a great revision activity.

Tip 4: Offer designated revision time with suggested techniques

If you have time, then you may wish to use the lessons on the run-up to tests and assessments as ‘revision lessons’. This can be time in which students make flash cards, create Mind Map summaries, record audio notes, quiz each other or perhaps work through a Seneca section (see earlier notes). You might want to give your students some training in effective revision techniques prior to the session, and supplying materials (e.g. for making flash cards) is a good idea too.

Tip #5: Do a practice exam before the real thing

This is an awesome idea which I don’t think is used enough for low-stakes assessments. Even with younger learners who have an end-of-topic test coming up, a practice test can be a great way to offer a stark ‘wake-up’ call: shedding light on areas of strength and weakness, as well as providing the students with essential ‘exam technique’ experience. Students should be relaxed during this process and should know that this is not the final test, but is still important as it will inform them of what to focus on in their revision. For students who don’t finish on-time, it will offer a good opportunity to discuss strategies to speed-up, such as avoidance of ‘waffling’ and the importance of reading each question thoroughly (so that they don’t ‘go off at a tangent’ in their answers).

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Using Data to Empower Students

An article by Richard James Rogers (Award-Winning Author of The Quick Guide to Classroom Management and The Power of Praise: Empowering Students Through Positive Feedback)

Accompanying video:

He sits in class quietly, fumbling through the pages of his end-of-topic test. He’s not used to achieving well academically. He tries to revise and study, but finds that distractions at home get in the way (e.g. online gaming). He receives validation and enjoyment from the superfluous, and has not yet learned to gain power from personal progress that is real and tangible, as opposed to intangible and virtual.

He leaves around 50% of the paper blank. I mark it, hand it back to him the next lesson, and he find out that he got a grade E. He’s not surprised. He’s used to this.

Then I decide that this simply cannot happen again. I decide to end the cycle of mediocrity.

I talk, at length, with Michael about what went wrong in his test. He tells me that he ran out of time. He tells me that he didn’t understand some of the questions (so we go though them, together). He tells me that he truthfully did not spend any time at home revising.

I tell him that he absolutely MUST get a grade D in his next test. Failure is not an option.

“What’s your target for your next text, Michael”

“A grade D, sir”

“Yes, and I know you can achieve that because I’ve seen your amazing work in class with me before” (I prime him – I tell him that I believe in him and, crucially, why I believe in him. And it’s not a lie I’ve made up. I mean it).

“What can you do to make sure you get that grade D”

“I can review the textbook questions on Google Classroom. Look at notes. Go through the BBC Bitesize material. Go through my past test again” (I make sure he knows what he can do to make this big change in his life – going from an E to a D)

His next test is not until 5 weeks time – perfect: this gives me the opportunity to work on his self-motivation, subtly (a process I call ‘subtle reinforcement‘).

I see him on the corridor infrequently, and I ask him “What’s your target for your next test, Michael”.

“A grade, D, sir”.

I see him in class as the 5 weeks pass by. I ask him “How’s your prep for the next test going”.

“I’m working on it”.

The test day comes. He gets a D (and is one mark off a C). He asks to see me at teh end of class. He can’t contain himself:

“This is the first time this has happened to me”, he says.

“You made it happen, Michael. We can all achieve what we aim for, if we do actually aim and work.”

For the first time in Michael’s life, he feels deeply (at an emotional level), what it means to make something happen.

We collect data, but do we use data?

My question to teachers this week is this: We’re all very good at collecting data, but do we actually use that data to enact massive change in our students? Do we use that data to initiate the momentum of self-actualization for our students?

Michael’s story is typical of hundreds of students I’ve had the pleasure of working with over the past 15 years. When a teacher truly and genuinely believes in a student’s capabilities, and then uses the leverage that data provides, amazing things really can happen.

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Good Teachers Are Also Good Students

An article by Richard James Rogers (Author of The Quick Guide to Classroom Management)

Accompanying video:

I have always loved mathematics, but I’ve not always been ‘good’ at maths. I got a grade A for GCSE Mathematics when I was 16 years old (a grade I worked really, really hard for) but I struggled with mathematics at ‘AS’ and ‘A’ – Level (the UK’s pre-university qualifications). 

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“An AMAZING Book!”

It just so happened that mathematics wasn’t a subject I needed as a prerequisite for my university course anyway. So, in a sense, I committed the cardinal sin of thinking that it ‘didn’t matter’. I was planning to study molecular biology at university, and my admissions tutors were mainly interested in my biology and chemistry grades.

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I achieved my goal of going to uni and doing my PGCE in order to become a fully qualified Science teacher in 2006. I was happy for several years, but my failure to complete my mathematics education at school kept gnawing at me like an annoying itch. I needed to do something about it. 

I decided to complete the Certificate in Mathematics course with the Open University in 2009, after three years of being a full-time science teacher. This course covered everything in my ‘A’-Level syllabus with some extra, university-level topics thrown in. It was challenging and offered me just what I needed: closure. As a distance-learning course, it also offered me the chance to study and work as a teacher at the same time. 

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As I started studying the course and handing in assignments (which had to be snail mailed to the UK  – I was living in Thailand at the time), I began to realise how much I had become disconnected from the student experience as a teacher. It had been around three years since I had ever studied anything seriously, and this mathematics course was teaching me how difficult it was to:

  • Meet deadlines
  • Seek help when in doubt
  • Have the self-discipline needed to study at a regular time-slot each day

These skills were, of course, things I had to do whilst completing my degree course and schooling earlier in life, but it had been a few years since I had been immersed in serious study like this. I was slowly losing empathy for my students: that was until this course gave me a wake-up call. 

Another big thing I took from this experience was just how stressful it can be to prepare for a difficult exam (and to complete it). I had to fly to the UK to take the end of course mathematics exam (a three hour beast), and along with the intense revision that came in the few days running up to the exam I had the misfortune of not sleeping so well the night before the big day. And then, once sat down and actually completing the paper, three hours felt like it went by in an instant.

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I guess I’m trying to make a number of points in this trip down Memory Lane – namely that by immersing ourselves in the ‘student experience’ we can, as teachers:

  • Regain, or enhance, our true understanding of just how many hurdles await our students on their race to the exam finish-line.
  • Learn new skills and concepts that can be applied to our roles as classroom managers, leaders and ‘purveyors’ of specialist knowledge.
  • Build self-discipline, and pass on the lessons learned to our students in our roles as mentors, homeroom teachers, form tutors and coaches.

One final point to stress is that, whilst we can study almost any subject we want via online platforms like EdX and Coursera these days, it’s also important that we take the time to thoroughly reflect on a regular basis. Keeping a journal of things we’ve done well, and things we messed up, can be a great way to have a written record to read over when we want to celebrate successes and remind ourselves of lessons we have learned on our journeys as educators. This video I made a few years ago goes into this in more detail:

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How a TEFL Gap Year Will Benefit Your Future

You may be doing your TEFL course and teaching abroad as a ‘gap year’ before starting a career which you studied for at university. Many people will ask you ‘Why do you want to teach English abroad? Aside from a so-called year off, how will it benefit you?’. Today, I’ve invited Rose-Anne Turner, Admissions Director at Destination TEFL, to share her thoughts with us.

A year of teaching abroad can benefit you in number of ways:

You’ll gain confidence 

So many parts of this experience will help you to gain confidence – from travelling alone abroad to a new place, to experiencing new cultures, to doing something new, to learning to speak in front of people.

Your communication skills will improve

Techniques learnt on the course and practiced in the classroom thereafter, will improve your general communication skills. You will be far more aware of whether or not you have been understood, and will adjust the way you speak and listen to people in general. You will also become more confident speaking to large groups of people, as well as on a one-to-one basis.

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Your time management skills will improve

You’ll become the master of checklists! There’s nothing like leaving behind your materials and wasting all your hard work and effort to make you more organised! Carefully planning your lessons according to a time schedule will also be great practice for time management.

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You’ll become more aware of other cultures

As you’ve moved to another country and are teaching students who are not from your culture, you will become acutely aware of the differences between cultures, and the pitfalls of dealing with people from other cultures. These include misunderstandings, doing things in different ways, and knowing that what is acceptable in one culture, may not be so in another culture. In the corporate workplace one day, this will be a valuable asset to have, particularly in jobs where you’ll be dealing with international clients.

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Networking

You will make friends for life – after meeting people you would never have met back home. These could be your fellow classmates on the TEFL course, your fellow teachers while teaching, or neighbours and other locals, as well as your students. Having an international network of friends and past colleagues can also advance your career in ways you may never know – as you never know where the future may take you.

You’ll mature and grow as a person

All the challenges and hardships of living abroad will give you a tough skin and mature you in ways that staying at home in a familiar environment won’t do. Moving out of your parental home is testing enough for many young adults – but doing so in a different country really challenges!

Well there you have it. There are many more reasons to sail away from familiar shores, but these reasons are ones that you can proudly mention in interviews and cover letters. So what are you waiting for? 

If you’re thinking of getting a TEFL qualification and teaching overseas, then Destination TEFL can help you!

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Online Learning: A Risk-Assessment List for Teachers

An article by Richard James Rogers (Author of The Quick Guide to Classroom Management, The Power of Praise: Empowering Students Through Positive Feedback and 100 Awesome Online Learning Apps)

Accompanying video:

Teaching online can be a very productive and worthwhile experience for both the teachers and students involved. However, at this time of widespread school closures due to COVID19, many teachers have had to quickly adapt their skills to teaching online without full knowledge of the heightened risks involved. 

This blog post aims to educate teachers everywhere about the things we can do to protect ourselves when teaching online. I believe that this list is so important that I’ve included it in my upcoming book for teachers: 100 Awesome Online Learning Apps (Release date: 8th April 2020 on Amazon globally). 

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Available on Amazon from 8th April 2020 onwards

‘The List’: What do we need to be aware of? 

  1. Anything we say or do online can be recorded, stored, edited and forwarded without our knowledge. Google Hangouts Meets, for example, can be set to autonomously record your meetings and auto-generate a transcript of what was spoken and by whom. We must keep every interaction with our students professional and clean. The same high standards of personal conduct that are expected of us in the classroom apply even more when we are teaching online.
  2. Know when your camera and microphone are switched on. When you start doing video conferencing for the first time, you might inadvertently set your students on a task after a live stream video briefing and then proceed to make a coffee; yawn and stretch in front of the camera; or even chat casually about how messed-up life is with your spouse who’s also working from home. Be careful. This is a very easy trap to fall into (I’ve come close to doing this myself on several occasions!). Make sure your camera AND MICROPHONE are switched off when you no longer need to engage with your students in real-time. In addition, be equally aware of video conferencing apps that can auto-generate captions. If you switch your camera off, but fail to switch off your microphone, then that next YouTube video that contains expletives and blares out of your mobile phone will not only be audible to your students, but captions may even appear on their screens!
  3. Parents will watch you teach, so be prepared for that. In my experience, many students like to switch off their cameras towards the beginning of a lesson and, unbeknownst to you, a parent could be watching. This places us, as teachers, under even greater pressure to deliver high-quality lessons than when we are snug and comfortable in our respective classrooms. Be professional and keep standards high. If we aim to be clear, caring and professional, then our students and their parents will respect and appreciate our efforts all the more for it.
  4. Be aware of chat features that are built into apps. These can contain casual emojis that one can choose to use; but we must be careful not to chat casually with any student (even by adding emojis to our messages). Keep all communication conducted through integrated chat as professional as you would in the classroom. I expand on this advice in a separate blog post (How Should Teachers Behave on Social Media?). This section is well-worth a read if you want to see some real examples of teachers who lost everything because of their lack of alertness to this point!
  5. If you are not sure about an app’s appropriateness for use, then check with your school’s Senior Leadership Team or your line manager. Some schools like to keep all their prescribed online learning apps under the control of their domain (e.g. schools that use Google Classroom and Gmail may prefer to use Google Hangouts Meets as their video conferencing system, as opposed to Zoom). A great story that illustrates this point is a slight blunder that a former colleague of mine made several years ago. Knowing that Flipgrid was a popular video-exchange system used by many American schools, she recommended it to her colleagues in an upcoming collaborative teacher-training session. However, the school’s head of ICT followed up on that training session by e-mailing all the secondary teachers to tell them not to use Flipgrid – because it wasn’t a system under direct control of the school.
  6. Check student well-being on a regular basis. When students work from home they can feel lonely, extremely bored and anxious. At this very moment, for example, as I write this prose; the novel coronavirus pandemic has snared much of the world’s population with fear and confusion. This fear and confusion is certainly being felt to varying degrees by many of the students I currently teach. Check that your students are having regular breaks and are sticking to a routine. E-mail parents of the students you are responsible for to find out how things are going. Recommend any tips you can for working from home productively and maintaining a personal sense of happiness and wellness. Share any tips that your school counselor or Student Welfare Officer sends out. When interacting on a video-call, check how your students look and feel. Are they dressed properly? Are they tired or stressed-out? Are there any student-wellbeing issues that come to your attention? Is the technology working correctly for your students?
  7. Effective online teaching requires effective technology. This can be a challenge when using old hardware or software (or both) and when internet connections are slow. We must adapt: no matter what it takes. Set work via e-mail if video conferencing is not an option. Experiment with using the apps listed in my book (100 Awesome Online Learning Apps) on your phone if you don’t have a tablet or notebook/laptop. Figure out how your device’s integrated microphone works if you don’t have a headset. Go through the apps in this book that seem appealing and test the efficiency of each when setting tasks through the technology that’s available to you. Check-up on your students regularly – do they have the technology required to access and complete the tasks you are setting?

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Gender-Neutral Toilets in Schools: Some Research and Conclusions

An article by Richard James Rogers (Author of The Quick Guide to Classroom Management and The Power of Praise: Empowering Students Through Positive Feedback).

Accompanying podcast episode (audio version of this blog post, read by Richard):

Last week I wrote a short blog post about the issue of gender-neutral toilets, and how some schools in Australia and the UK are now forcing all students to use them. The reasoning that most schools give as to why these toilets need to be installed is that they are ‘inclusive’, and that they make transgender students feel more comfortable.

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Tremendous opposition to the introduction of gender-neutral toilets in schools has already been voiced by parents, students, local MPs and members of local communities. At Deanesfield Primary School in the UK, for example, parents launched a petition to remove the unisex toilets that were covertly installed over the summer vacation; with one main concern being that menstruating girls felt as though their privacy was being invaded. Many girls were refusing to go the toilet during the day and were at risk of picking up urinary-tract infections as a result. 

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“An AMAZING book!”

I made my opinions clear last week, and I still stand by them. I made the point that no school should impose new restrictions or radical changes on their students without first consulting with parents. This was a classic mistake made at Deanesfield, and it backfired dramatically (consequently, I did actually e-mail the school asking for an update on the situation but I have thus far received no response). I also questioned the underlying concept of a child being able consent to being ‘transgender’ (along with the surgery and puberty-blocking chemicals that go along with that), when that same child cannot consent to sexual activity, cannot drink alcohol, is not considered to be mature enough to vote and cannot legally drive.

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That blog post earned me some haters, with one individual commenting on my Facebook posts with expletives, profanities and explicit prose. That person was subsequently banned from the Teachers in Thailand Facebook group by the admin (and rightly so):

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So this is a very triggering topic, and rather than briefly summarize some of the more fashionable stories by citing news articles, I’d like to perform a brief investigation of some of the research that feeds into this topic. I won’t have time to cover absolutely everything, but I will provide a synopsis of some of the main findings.

The architectural approach

With privacy being cited as an issue for menstruating girls who are forced to use gender-neutral washrooms, one solution could be a functional one: change the architecture so that privacy is no longer invaded. 

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This is exactly the point that Sanders and Stryker make in Stalled – Gender Neutral Public Bathrooms [South Atlantic Quarterly (2016) 115 (4): 779–788. Duke University Press]. As a combined effort between a world-renowned architect (Sanders) and an LGBT professor of Gender and Women’s Studies (Stryker), this paper stands-out for it’s unique take on unisex bathrooms, with a suggested floor-plan included in the content (given below):

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Which areas would be on CCTV?

My conclusion: I have a number of issues with the architectural approach proposed by Sanders and Stryker:

  • The design still includes an area outside the cubicles where boys and girls have to mix and mingle. I think this removes the ‘communal’ factor of bathrooms, as girls and boys do like to use toilet areas for chatting and socializing with their own gender. I’m still not sure if menstruating girls would be happy mingling with boys outside the cubicle areas. 
  • Massive investment would be needed to change current girls’/boys’ washrooms in schools to the communal format shown above (for most schools). This investment seems superfluous to needs when one considers that less than 2% of American children identify as being transgender. In addition to this, it’s confusing to consider that transgender students cannot use current boys’/girls’ washrooms. If you are biologically a boy, but you officially identify as a girl, then you could use the girls’ washrooms. Vica-versa if you are biologically a female. But is the solution really as simple as that?

Public space is not a neutral space(?)

According to Kyla Bender-Baird, gender-segregated bathrooms are the result of “technologies of disciplinary power, upholding the gender binary by forcing people to choose between men’s and women’s rooms”

That’s some profound statement! I had no idea that I was being powerfully controlled and being forced to choose which washroom to enter. I thought I was consciously making a choice to enter the men’s! 

Kyla is a sociologist at the CUNY Graduate Center in New York. Writing in Gender, Place & Culture: A Journal of Feminist Geography (Volume 23 2016, Issue 7) she states:

The resulting lack of safe access to public restrooms is an everyday reality for those who fall outside of gender binary norms. Faced with a built environment that denies their existence and facilitates gender policing, I argue that trans and gender non-conforming people sometimes engage in situational docility. Bodies are adjusted to comply with the cardinal rule of gender – to be readable at a glance – which is often due to safety concerns. Changing the structure of bathrooms to be gender inclusive and/or neutral may decrease gender policing in bathrooms and the need for this situational docility, allowing trans and gender non-conforming people to pee in peace”

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It seems as though Kyla supports the functional/architectural approach then – advocating for the creation of washrooms that are built in such a way that anyone can use them.

My conclusion: I don’t agree with Kyla on her point that gender-segregated washrooms were invented as a human-control system (the official history certainly doesn’t support this).

One thing I will say in Kyla’s defense is that if an architectural solution is found that is cost-effective and satisfies the needs of the majority (men and women – that’s binary men and women who do not wish to change their gender), whilst also meeting the needs of the tiny minority (transgender individuals), then that could be a way forward. 

Potty Politics and the Ladies’ Sanitary Association

An interesting paper from the University of Massachusetts, Amhurst (The Restroom Revolution: Unisex toilets and campus politics) gave the timeline leading up to the gender-segregated toilets we have today. Here’s a brief summary:

  • 1905: First women’s bathroom installed in London after a tremendous effort and fight by the Ladies’ Sanitary Association and similar organisations, along with support from the famous George Bernard Shaw (This really surprised me, I have to say. I thought that women’s restrooms were a thing long before 1905). 
  • 1970s America: Court cases were still being fought over the segregation of black and white toilet facilities. Prior to this early ‘toilet-integration’ period, blacks and whites couldn’t drink from the same fountains or use the same toilet facilities. (Note from me: I think this was a humiliating and disgraceful period in human history. The fact that fully conscious adults penned policy to the effect of segregating toilets on basis of race is frightening and baffling to me). 
  • In the Autumn of 2001, several students gathered at the Stonewall Center (an LGBT educational resource center at the University of Massachusetts). They formed a special group to work on transgender issues on campus. Their efforts eventually resulted in gender-neutral restrooms being installed on campus through their ‘Restroom Revolution’, and they also succeeded in bringing transgender, ‘gender-queer ‘and ‘gender non-conforming’ issues into the limelight on campus. 
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Key takeaways from this paper are the very revealing opinions of both the Restroom Revolution advocates (a mix of gender non-conformists and ‘allies’ – straight people sympathetic to their cause) and their opposition.

In December 2001, the Stonewall students wrote a proposal to university administrators in which they stated: 

“As gender variant people, we encounter discrimination in our daily lives. The most pressing matter, however, is our use of the bathrooms in the residence halls in which we live. . . . We are often subjecting ourselves to severe discomfort, verbal and physical harassment, and a general fear of who we will encounter and what they will say or do based on their assumption of our identities.”

Olaf Aprans, a writer for the Minuteman (an on-campus student publication), expressed his strong opposition by questioning the foundational motives behind the Restroom Revolution: 

“The most probable motive for the Restroom Revolution is not the
need or want of transgender bathrooms, it is the desire for attention. Transgender students have been using gender-specific bathrooms for years without any complaints. Why the sudden outcry for transgender bathrooms? The answer is easy, the activists behind this movement are using a petty issue like bathrooms as a medium to throw their lifestyles in the face of every-day students.”

Biological identity, supported by irrefutable genetic evidence, is also cited by the paper as one of the modes of opposition: 

“There are only two things that make me a man and they are my X chromosome and my Y chromosome. . . . People have the right to feel that they should not be the gender that God gave them. . . . However, the fact that some people do not live in reality or that some wish reality were not true, does not entitle them to a special
bathroom in a public university.”

My overall conclusions

  • The concerns that transgender individuals have about their personal security and comfort when using restrooms seem legitimate. However, the concerns of women who do not wish to share washrooms with men are equally legitimate [and as we saw from the UMass article, women fought very hard for the right to have their own restrooms in the first place]. The issue of ‘washrooms for all’ seems to me to be a classic example of an old conundrum – that you can’t please everyone. We can, however, aim to please the majority. The minority will have to adapt. 
  • An architectural solution may be viable, but its application needs to be consistent (and this will require excellent international collaboration). It also needs to be cost-effective, and provide suitable privacy for everyone. I can’t see how this can be done, even when one applies Sanders’ and Stryker’s design, without invasive CCTV systems in place. 
  • An architectural solution may work in a shopping mall or other public place, but I’m not sure if it’s a feasible solution for a school. Children are not as mature as adults, and issues such as bullying, up-skirting, inappropriate use of smartphones, silly and disruptive behaviour, etc. are difficult to police in a gender-neutral facility without invasive CCTV systems, some form of staffed duty or an open communal space that removes comfort, rather than adds to it. 

I will end by saying that schools would be well-advised to avoid forcing all of their students to use gender-neutral toilets. The variables one has to deal with in such scenarios are immense and difficult to police/control. If needs be, provide adequate male, female and gender-neutral toilets so that students can at least make choices that feel right for them.

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Preparing Students for Mock Exams

An article by Richard James Rogers (Author of The Quick Guide to Classroom Management and The Power of Praise: Empowering Students Through Positive Feedback).

Mock exams offer an excellent opportunity for teachers and students to assess current knowledge and discover common misconceptions. They (should) provide a rigorous and thorough ‘trial run’ of the finals and may even act as a sharp and frightening wake-up call to some learners. 

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Considering the immense importance placed on mock exams (not least for providing a good basis for making final grade predictions), one would assume that the preparation of students for them should be organised like a well-planned military operation. 

That’s certainly what should happen, and the aim of this article is to cover the ‘battleground’ that your students will need to fight through in order to be well-trained for those all-important practice exams. 

Roger that! Let’s get right into it then!

Go through past-exam papers

These are by far the best revision materials for exam-level students. Rigorous past-paper practice, under timed conditions, offers a number of benefits:

  • Students become used to the ‘style’ of questions that will be asked in the real thing.
  • Frequent exposure to the ‘command terms’ that will be used in the real exam (words like ‘Deduce’, ‘Explain’, ‘Sketch’ etc.).
  • The level of challenge presented by past-paper questions will be at the level expected by students of that age-group. 
  • When taken under timed conditions, students can develop their time-management techniques too (ensuring that they don’t run out of time in the real mock exam – a common problem!).

Giving feedback

Some examination boards share their past papers for free (e.g. Edexcel), whilst others sell them them for a small fee. If you have the money (or if your school has the budget), then they are always worth the spend. Some ideas for saving money when purchasing exam papers include:

  • Keep any spare examination papers that you get sent each year by the exam board, and scan them to pdfs. Within a few years you’ll have a comprehensive bank of exam papers ready to share with your students.
  • Purchase a user account to an exam-board’s question bank and share the account with colleagues.

Make sure your students go through the model answers (mark schemes) when they’re done, and make sure they know how to actually use the mark schemes (Do they know that OWTTE means ‘Or Words to That Extent’, for example? Do they know what M1, M2, etc mean?).

Should your students be strict or lenient when marking past-paper questions? 

Always be strict, because the examiner will strict and the final exams will probably contain questions that the students will never have seen before. If the answer does not match the mark scheme, then mark it wrong.

What about handwriting?

If the examiner cannot read the answers given, then your students will be penalized. Make this point really clear, as it is an issue that does affect many students (especially when rushing under exam conditions – another reason to train students by exposing them to past-papers under timed conditions).

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Go through exam-style questions

These are a little different to past-paper questions and tend to be found within textbooks, on great websites (like BBC Bitesize) and inside revision guides and workbooks (like those made by CGP, for example). 

These provide much of the same benefits as a past-exam paper questions and are often organised by topic, allowing students to reinforce their subject knowledge in stages and target areas of weakness with relative ease. 

Make sure that model answers are provided and that students mark their work strictly (just like with past-papers).

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Provide a topic revision list

An obvious one I know, but worth mentioning. If students don’t know the topics that are going to come up on their mock exams, then how can they possibly prepare?

Share the official syllabus, perhaps through your school’s VLE, MOOC or even by e-mail if you have to. Make sure the students know which topics from the syllabus are going to come up in the mocks. 

Provide topic summaries

Summaries of key topic areas can really help students to grab the essentials in a short space of time. Share these as Mind Maps, bulleted lists, end-of-chapter summaries in textbooks and even, again, revision websites that you recommend.

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Share textbooks

A lot of schools cannot afford physical textbooks for every student. However, we should at least be recommending textbooks that the students can buy themselves if they want to. 

One way to solve the problem of textbook costs is for schools to build their own (e.g. from slide presentations that teachers create), get students to create textbooks for themselves by setting up a learning journals system and even paying for an online subscription through the publisher’s website (which is often cheaper than purchasing physical books).

Recommend revision websites

There are many great websites that offer excellent, free resources for revision. My personal favorites are:

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Exciting New Online Course for Teachers!

UKEd-Acad

The Fundamentals of Classroom Management: An online course designed by Richard James Rogers in Partnership with UKEd Academy 

I’m very excited to announce that I’ve been busy building an online course that covers all of the fundamental concepts in my widely acclaimed debut book: The Quick Guide to Classroom Management, in partnership with my good friends at UKEd Academy. Details are given below:

Course link: https://uked.academy/product/cmf/

Price: £30.00 (which includes a copy of my book) or £20.00 if you’ve already got a copy of my book (you’ll have to enter a discount code found within the book)

Launch date: October 21st 2019 (but you can start the course at anytime)

End of course certificate?Yes, endorsed by UKEd Academy and Richard James Rogers 

Course structure: Videos, quizzes, study notes, reflections and activities

Course schedule: Flexible (work at your own pace)

After successful completion of this course you’ll earn a certificate that will look very impressive on your C.V. and you will gain lots of knowledge, new techniques, tools and skills.  

I look forward to mentoring and guiding you through the key concepts that make an excellent teacher, well, excellent!

If you have any questions at all about this exciting course, then please e-mail me at info@richardjamesrogers.com

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The Disconnect: How Over-Rewarding Fails Students

An article by Richard James Rogers (Author of The Quick Guide to Classroom Management and The Power of Praise: Empowering Students Through Positive Feedback).

Illustrated by Sutthiya Lertyongphati

Accompanying podcast episode:

A dangerous culture has quietly found its way into a large number of American and British schools in the past decade. Like a wolf in sheep’s clothing that seems pretty on the surface but harbors malice within; over-rewarding continues to take hold like a malignancy to this day. 

Betty Berdan was an American high-school junior at the time of writing this excellent opinion piece in the New York Times. She eloquently summarizes her thoughts on over-rewarding as follows:

Like many other kids my age, I grew up receiving trophy after trophy, medal after medal, ribbon after ribbon for every sports season, science fair and spelling bee I participated in. Today the dozens of trophies, ribbons and medals sit in a corner of my room, collecting dust. They do not mean much to me because I know that identical awards sit in other children’s rooms all over town and probably in millions of other homes across the country.

Rewarding kids with trophies, medals and certificates for absolutely everything they do, including participation in a sports event, seems harmless at first glance: what’s wrong with encouraging kids to take part, right? 

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My thoughts on this are simple: the real-world doesn’t reward mediocrity, and if school’s are designed to prepare kids for the real world, then they shouldn’t be rewarding mediocrity either. 

Your boss doesn’t give you a pay-raise or certificate for turning up to a meeting: it’s a basic expectation. You don’t get instant recognition and brand awareness for starting an online business: you have to slog your guts out and make it happen.

The world is cruel, but it’s especially cruel to high-school graduates who’ve been babied right the way through their schooling and come out the other side believing that they’re entitled to everything: that they’ll receive recognition for doing the bare-minimum. 

Some teachers may feel that rewarding everyone, but keeping ‘special rewards for winners’ is a good way to go. But what benefits can be extrapolated from removing first, second and third place prizes at a sporting event, or even removing winner’s trophies completely?

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According to Alfie Kohn, author of Punished by Rewards: 

A key takeaway here is that awards aren’t bad just because the losers are disappointed; everyone (including the winners) ultimately lose when schooling is turned into a scramble to defeat one’s peers

Really, Alfie? So awards are bad because losers and winners feel bitter? I think school culture has got a lot do with that. In school’s where students are encouraged to celebrate each other’s achievements, and aspire to do their best, overall achievement and attainment increases.  A massive study by the University of East Tennessee, for example, found that classroom celebrations of achievement enhanced:

  • Group solidarity
  • Sense of belonging
  • Teacher’s ability to find joy and meaning in teaching

I don’t see much about bitterness there, Alfie. 

Here’s another one I pulled-up: A meta-analysis of 96 different studies conducted by researchers at the University of Alberta found that (look at the last sentence especially):

…….reward does not decrease intrinsic motivation. When interaction effects are examined, findings show that verbal praise produces an increase in intrinsic motivation. The only negative effect appears when expected tangible rewards are given to individuals simply for doing a task.

This confirms what teachers have known for years (at least those with brains in their heads): that awards have no value when they are given to everyone, but have lots of value when they have to be earned. This coincides with the Four Rules of Praise that I wrote about in 2018 (supporting video below). 

Conclusion

Teaching profession, some words of wisdom: Awards and rewards only work to improve motivation, attainment and achievement when the students have had to earn them. Foster a school culture of collective celebration when students achieve success (such as using awards assemblies), and articulate the skills and qualities needed to achieve success to those students who sit and watch the winners, hopefully with smiles on their face and pride in knowing that one of their own made it happen, and they can too. 

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