How to do brilliantly in controlled assessments

Apart from a few select students who participated in the pilot scheme for the new GCSE English, English literature and English language syllabi (which is the plural form of syllabus!) which started in 2009, this year's Year 11 students are the first to experience the impact of the controlled assessment system, which replaced coursework for all students in 2010.

Teachers have largely welcomed the move away from endless drafts of coursework, and the disheartening amount of plagiarism which coursework seemed to encourage, but there are challenges in this new syllabus. One of the challenges for students and teachers alike, is that unlike the old coursework, with the controlled assessment there are no second chances and there is absolutely no feedback allowed from the teachers.

It's important to remember that it is also the first time that most teachers have experienced teaching towards controlled assessments, too, and since they are also human, they also can find it hard, since feedback on coursework was one of the main tools teachers could use to motivate their students. "You need to go into a bit more detail here," they could say, or "this is very close to an A grade - just remember to check your punctuation". But now, all they can do is try to make sure that their students are really learning by giving lots of homework and marking it as quickly as possible.

The best way students can do well is to make sure that they ask as many questions as they need to in class, so that they have a set of notes which makes sense to them, and which will form the basis of their controlled assessment.No question is too stupid, whether it is "Why do yu need a semi colon instead of a comma?", or "what's the difference between connotations and collocation?".

The controlled assessments typically take between three to four hours. How and when these hours will occur depends on many things, and so it can vary dramatically between schools. One boy I have been tutoring has to go in on Saturdays and spend three hours writing out one essay. One of my girl students has English four times a week, so in controlled assessment weeks, she does the first quarter of the essay on Monday, the second on Tuesday, the third on Thursday,  and the last hour on Friday. If there is a bank holiday, she has to do the first hour on Tuesday, and the fourth hour on the following Monday! After every hour the coursework has to be securely locked up in the teacher's workroom and they are not allowed to start marking it until it is complete.

The idea of having to write for three or four hours straight is quite daunting to most students, especially if they have to hand write the assessment, and are more used to using a keyboard for doing homework. Private schools let the students use laptops as long as the school owns enough laptops, but without the benefit of spellcheck, grammar check, thesaurus or any other tools. For the majority of students, they will have to hand write, and the length is expected to be anything from 1,600 to 2,000 words, which is around eight pages f average sized handwriting.

So one way you can help yourself is to get into the habit of writing for an hour at a time without a break. this will improve your handwriting, your spelling, and strengthen you finger muscles so you can survive the three or four hour marathon.

Another way to ensure success is to make sure that your notes are truly meaningful. The notes will be checked by your teacher as part of the invigilating process, and they WILL confiscate any notes that have ANY sentences or anything that is almost a sentence. So learn how to use bullet points effectively before your first controlled assessment.

The new band system might be quite hard to get your head around, even if you are a teacher. Band 4 in English needs to satisfy the assessment objective of "detailed perceptive reading". What exactly does perceptive mean? How detailed does it have to be? These are questions asked by teachers in training sessions.

Below I attempt to explain the difference between Band 4 and Band 3.

Take a look at this quote: " She lived in a mean little house"


Band 3 level analysis:

This means the woman was probably quite poor because "mean" might mean small so she must have been poor because she couldn't afford a big house. Because she is poor she is very upset when her only son died as she had no one and nothing else in her life except for the "mean little house" and her dog.


Band 4 analysis:

The word "she" implies that the woman had no name and therefore no real identity, and perhaps that is why she lived in a "little" house, because she had never succeeded in her life enough to be able to achieve the status of a large house. On the other hand, the description of the woman's house might be a subtle way for the writer to criticize the woman herself, rather than her house. This is especially arguable because the woman is so vengeful, and many people might think that to be vengeful means that you are small minded.

Can you see the difference? Try to work out why the first analysis is not as good as the second analysis, for yourself, and if you need to, ask your teacher. If your teacher doesn't know, or can't explain it, then maybe it's time for you to think about getting a tutor!


Laura Pasternack A-level English Tutor (West London)

About The Author

Teaching is my third and final career and I love it. I get on extremely well with students of all ages and abilities and enjoy watching their confidence and competence develop quickly. I like helping people achieve their dreams.

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