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ATAR or: 'How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Exam'

If you pay attention to the news regarding education in Queensland, you would likely think that there are monumental changes happening in Queensland education at the moment. 2020 will bring the first compulsory, widespread external subject examinations in almost 50 years. With this development comes a lot of uncertainty, speculation and even mild panic. Since moving to Queensland last year I’ve heard all manner of comments about the external exams, in the news and from the people I’ve met.

While I fully understand the apprehension that naturally comes with change, it often surprises me just how unsettled people are with this particular change. Coming from New South Wales (don’t hold it against me), external exams were a part of my own education and have always been a part of my teaching experience. After almost two years in Queensland, preparing to implement the new science syllabuses, I have concluded that, broadly speaking, these monumental changes shouldn’t worry us.

An important point to consider is that all forms of assessment are tools used to measuring something. In education, these tools are developed to measure the depth of someone’s knowledge or their aptitude at certain skills. On top of this, while the external examination is new, examinations themselves aren’t.

Stepping back and looking at this new system, the learning isn’t changing dramatically and the mode of assessment isn’t changing dramatically. There are definite tweaks and important considerations to make, but in reality, teachers are still teaching and students are still learning.

For me, this means ‘business as usual’. What allays my fears and helps me sleep at night is the understanding that quality teaching and quality learning will be represented just as well in external exams as it was previously in internal assessment. Positive learning habits of students, coupled with evidence-based pedagogy of teachers will always illicit positive outcomes, regardless of the mode of assessment. Focus on the learning and the outcomes will follow.
That being said, below are some tips that are part of my ‘business as usual’.

Love Learning

Start small and build up learning habits. This will lead to a change in your approach to learning that will hopefully instil a love of learning. The biggest change with the external exam is that it assesses a full year’s worth of learning.
I regularly ask students what their favourite sport/team/game/show is. Then I probe further and further to assess their knowledge of said topic. Inevitably they give me huge amounts of information off the top of their head. Then when I ask about concepts they have learnt about for eight weeks they stare at me, nervously uncomfortable with the fact that they can’t reply to my questions.

Teachers are great at sparking curiosity in students. Too often though, once the concepts become challenging the students disengage. Psychology tells us that this is due to reduced confidence outlined in the Dunning-Kruger effect, a concept which in education is often called the Learning Pit. Understanding this can help students develop the love of persevering through challenges, increasing confidence and passion. Possibly, the most beneficial thing students can do is work hard to develop a passion for their learning.

Take Charge

Leading on from this, become an independent learner. Take ownership and responsibility for your own learning. The intimate knowledge that teachers have previously had of upcoming assessments has often led to students probing them to illicit hints for upcoming exams. This desire to be spoon-fed might pay off in the short term with one or two easy marks, but inevitably is detrimental in the long term.

The nature of an external examination means teachers won’t know the questions before the exam. This means that while they can prepare students by teaching the syllabus, they can’t give specific hints or target concepts they know will be assessed.

Students develop better learning habits through perseverance. Working through a challenge locks information into your long-term memory, whereas hearing the answer from somebody else will only lead to a fleeting visit in your short-term memory.

By taking control of your learning you also benefit from improved organisational skills and the ability to manage competing priorities. These skills will set you up for future success in your chosen careers.

Use what You’ve Got

While your teacher can’t tell you what specifics will be in the exam, there is a document which is used to inform the writing of the exam. It’s a secret document, known to few, known as a syllabus. The best thing about this document is that it literally tells you EVERYTHING that could be in the test! Truly understanding the purpose of a syllabus and having a deep understanding of what is inside the syllabus will improve your ability to take control of your learning and reduces the chance that you will get into the exam and blank on any question.

After mastering your syllabus, make sure to engage with all the resources at your disposal. Being a new system, numerous past papers aren’t available, however, many other resources are. Students all have access to textbooks, Education Perfect, resources curated on Seqta by their teachers, websites for students like the physics classroom or the school library website.

While this can be overwhelming, choose two to three resources and cover them comprehensively. This will expose you to different ways of interpreting the syllabus and give you a more consolidated understanding before the exam. When doing this, make sure to actually use the information, answering questions or writing summaries and extrapolations. Manipulating the information like this improves your retention and understanding.

Pace Yourself

The change to an external examination that assesses an entire year of content requires a slight shift in the way we work. Previously learning and assessing could follow what I call ‘cruise and cram’ cycles. With assessment rarely spanning over holiday periods, students became used to slowly applying more time and energy towards their studies as the term progressed, cramming most of their efforts at the end, then holidays would come, and the cruise would kick in again.

With a whole year exam, cramming 12 months of learning into a short study period before the external exam is near impossible. A better idea is a consistent and steady application across the year. This application should include designating time to learning new concepts and time for consolidating previously covered topics. The new syllabus is a long-distance endurance race, not a sprint.

Build from the Basics

You can’t build the top floor of a building until the bottom one is in. This becomes apparent in education as students move further through their schooling. We have thirteen years of schooling in Australia, and while the external exam only assesses the final year, these exams rely on the prior knowledge and skills developed in the preceding twelve years.

The external examination is marks based rather than grades. This means that if you can show some knowledge of each question you can accumulate marks throughout the exam. When taking charge of your own learning and accessing the resources available to you, start with the basics. Stick with it and persevere until you are confident in these basics, because if you move on too quickly you will continue to fall behind. As you become more comfortable with the basics, it becomes easier and faster to learn everything else. By slowing down, you actually save time.

All Roads Lead to Rome

Finally, take care of yourself. While these exams may be the most important and challenging thing you have done so far in your life, remember the adage that all roads lead to Rome. These exams are the first, and perhaps the most direct, path towards your goals, but they are not the only path. Other routes may take a little longer and may be more challenging but can still end at the same destination. Focussing on the process of learning, rather than the outcome, will help calm the fears and panic about ATAR.

Ben Rerden Head of Science – Senior School