Exam technique is the hidden key to securing top grades at GCSE and A level, says the Director of tutoring company ESPD Jaspal Kalsey

I’m sure every teacher has at least one student who always puts their hand up in class, consistently impresses with his/her answers, demonstrates excellent subject knowledge in conversations outside of lessons, yet still secures average grades. By the same token, parents might see their child work incredibly diligently at home and wonder why they are still sitting on C grades.

One of the biggest reasons for this academic plateau is because students aren’t focusing enough attention on exam technique. The days of obtaining the best grades by regurgitating accurate knowledge are long gone. As I have told students hundreds of times, the technical demands of examination papers on students today are greater than when I was at school. Students must first be equipped with the understanding to know exactly how to decode exam questions (the vast majority of which at GCSE and A level would baffle most adults). Once students have done that, the second task is always to be clear on exactly how to present knowledge and understanding in a way that is acceptable and credit worthy to examiners – in other words, using the right technique. 

“As I have told students hundreds of times, the technical demands of examination papers on students are greater than when I was at school”

Like all challenging processes – especially ones carried out under time pressures and with genuinely life changing consequences – a person can only excel if there is explicit and regular emphasis on these skills and if opportunities to try out these skills are seized. These things considered, here are some points for students and parents to consider in deciding if exam technique is up to scratch.

First up, are you familiar with the range of command words in exam questions? Secondly, do you also understand what you are being assessed on for each question and how marks are distributed?  Thirdly, what are the best sentence starters for the different parts of an essay and how can do you signpost to examiners that you are hitting the different assessment objectives? Finally, if there is a source in the exam question, what is the best way to use it in the answer? 

ESPD on the importance of teaching exam technique
Good students don’t always get the best results if they don’t focus on the technique for answering exam questions, says online tutoring company ESPD

Deep subject knowledge fused with impeccable exam technique enables students to secure the very best grades. This is why ESPD’s first YouTube tutorial focused on the best questions students can ask their teachers to unlock grades. It’s also why I always ask these questions when I interview teachers for potential roles at ESPD. In my view, if a teacher is not crystal clear on technique for GCSE and A-level success, then they are not well placed to guide students to their best exam success. 

If you are a parent reading this and you see your child studying or have a conversation with them about school and their subjects, two fantastically beneficial questions to ask are: What question types do you get in this subject and how are marks awarded? Also, what is the technique for answering these questions? 

If your child cannot answer, encourage them to ask their teacher in their very next lesson. This is the great litmus test to determine whether your child will simply be a student who knows a lot or a student who knows a lot and secures the kinds of grades their knowledge and hard work deserve. 

ESPD espd.school

Further reading: How to help your child deal with GCSE exam stress