New Specification A Levels – Waiting for the First Results

This post was originally written the week before the 2017 A Level exam results were released (hence the reference to 17th August on the image). I then updated it with the postscript once the results were published. I also re-posted my post on UCAS clearing.

I teach psychology (among other things) and last year I wrote about the Summer 2016 AS exams which were then the first test of the new specification, my teaching of it and interpretation of the assessment criteria. You can read that post here.
  

This year we’re waiting for the first results for the full two-year Advanced Level exams. While we had a good experience with AS, all those concerns about the first run-through of a Specification are still in my mind as I wait for the Advanced psychology results: 

  1. How will my students perform in the actual exams as opposed to our own assessments based on specimen materials?
  2. Will performance nationally vary widely from the usual norm, with a large consequent adjustment of grade boundaries (either up or down)?

  

1. Performance in the actual exams

One of the reasons I opted for the AQA specification was the support this board offered for the new specification including sample assessments, Mark schemes and commentaries. The last time the specification changed the actual exam papers had contained some questions very different in style from the somewhat sparse sample papers. Support from AQA in advance was much better this time, there hadn’t been the same differences in the AS papers, nor were they in the A Level exams this Summer.

There were quite a few widely-reported errors in exams this season, and more recent reporting of the possible impact on students, for example this article from The Guardian on ‘the stress of sitting new untested exams’. Whether or not there were more mistakes than usual, this publicity does seem to have shaken the confidence of many students in the exams process itself.  

Although there were no errors in AQA psychology papers, one thing my students did have to contend with was errors in their brand new text books, particularly first print runs of first editions. I’ve seen this before when publishers rush to get texts out for new specifications. There are often mislabelled images, errors in tables, or inaccuracies in the indexing (i.e. mistakes arising in the production of pages, rather than the authors’ text) but this time there seemed to be several factual errors. Much as it gives my ego a boost to be able to show through reference to primary sources that I was right and the textbook was in error, it doesn’t help students (except perhaps to question everything) and shakes their confidence in their reference materials.

  

2. Will performance vary nationally with unpredicable consequences?

This is a question we will only be able to answer when the results are out. As I wrote in by post about the AS results, such probes have occurred in the past when new specifications have changed, most notably in 2011 (DFE, 2012). This did not seem to be the case for the 2016 AS exams, although more A grades were awarded in psychology. Hopefully this is an indication that Ofqual are on the ball and ensuring a smooth transition between specifications so that students sitting the first year of a new exam will not be penalised.

Nevertheless, whatever the speculation, it’s the actual results that matter. So, like my year 13 students, I’ll be awaiting the A level results a little more nervously than usual this year. I’ll also be hoping that their results, and everyone else’s, will be a true indication of each student’s performance.

  
Postscript – 18th August 2017

It’s seems that now the results are available that there was not wide variation nationally compared with the 2016 results (see this Ofqual infographic), although the media made much of the fact that more boys than girls received top grades.  A* and A grades for the new A levels were slightly down on 2016, with Ofqual stating the changes reflected differences in prior attainment. The proportion of top grades in (unreformed) languages increased as had been previously agreed to counter skewing of results by native speakers. I find it interesting that Ofquals analysis focussed on the top grades.

As for psychology, the proportion of A*/A grades fell 0.3% to 18.8%. There weren’t any shocks as far as the results of my own students went, although a couple did a bit better than I predicted and a couple missed out on a grade. It’s a small number to draw valid conclusions from, but if there was a theme, I think it was that those who worked hard did well, irrespective of their starting point, which must be a good thing.

Lessons from a Ransomware Attack

This isn’t my usual kind of blog. It’s about how our school responded to a ransomware attack and what we learned. As it turns out, not everyone talks about this so malware attacks on schools may be more of a problem than many of us realise. 

We first noticed attack on The morning of 17th July when we found that several documents on our fileserver were encypted. It seemed at first that only some files on one server were affected, then it became apparent that files on another were also encrypted. We decided to shut down all our servers to halt any spread of an infection. This of course meant that the school had no ICT facility: teachers had no acesss to lesson resources, and there was no access to our information management system.

Our excellent ICT team identified the ramsomware as ‘.Aleta’ and discovered that the infection had occurred at around 6.30am on the previous Saturday, 15th July on a server used by all the schools in our academy group, despite our use of security software. The finance serWe later learned from the police that this type of malware is most frequently spread by remote desktop access protocols.  Our ICT team worked all that day and the next to wipe the system clean and restore files from a full backup made on Friday 14th July. As a result we were only without ICT for a day, although some facilities were only restored on the second day. 

We warned the schools in our Multi-Academy Company and other local schools. We weren’t using email, so we did it the old fashioned way, by phone. It was quite hard to talk to a human being at some schools!  We reported the incident to Thames Valley Police who also urged us to report it to Action Fraud, who coordinate with the National Fraud Intelligence Bureau. In reporting this attack, I learned from the police that not everyone does so, or chooses to report the details to Action Fraud. I can only speculate as to why this is – perhaps they don’t want adverse publicity, or to indicate that there may have been a vulnerability in their systems. Presumably a proportion of victims pay, or why would such attacks continue?  It seemed to us that adding our small piece of the jigsaw to the database of such attacks was the only way we could help tackle them. Action Fraud told me that the perpetrators would undoubtedly be based overseas and there was little chance of bringing them to justice in the short term, but thanked us because every piece of additional information helps build a picture of this type of criminal activity, providing insights into how to counter it. Reporting the details of the crime also enabled the police to give us specific advice on how to deal with it. We didn’t need this help because we had a recent backup we could use to restore our system, but the police do have a database which can be used to decrypt many files affected by such attacks.

We did not contact the authors of the malware and we certainly didn’t pay a ransom, nor would we. Quite apart from the obvious moral argument about paying criminals and so helping fund and encourage their further activities, to do so seemed foolish in the extreme, We didn’t open any of the ‘ransom’ files placed on our network, but found screenshots of the instructions they contained on the internet. We weren’t asked for a specific amount but told that the fee, in bitcoin, would depend on how soon we responded. In exchange for payment, we would be sent a file to unlock the encrypted files. Deliberately launching an executable file sent by criminals didn’t sound like a good idea!

  

Lessons we learned

  1. This is what a critical incident plan is for! It’s essential to have a plan in place to cover the network going down – for example hard copy contact details for pupils, so you can contact home, and of the timetable so you know where everyone should be. Think about how often you access school information on a computer – how would you get that same information without a network?
  2. It pays to back up your network. For our school, a regular backup protocol meant that we could restore our systems and suffered only minimal loss of data. For teachers, the message is to also back up your own files, and keep the copy away from the network and the school premises. We all know this, but do we all do it?
  3. Remote access is used by many schools and can be a real help to staff. Remote Desktop Protocols are a known chink in the armour of network security, however, so how confident are you that you are protected? It’s worth checking.
  4. If it happens, it’s really worth reporting it. It helps tackle this kind of fraud, assists others, and also allows you to access help and support.
  5. We were fortunate in having a team with the expertise to deal with this situation. Are your IT team prepared? Is there any training you need to provide?

I hope that this doesn’t happen to your school and there’s no reason to think schools are particularly being targeted (who would think schools have money?!). It’s best to be prepared though, so I also hope this account of our experience will help others. I’d be interested to hear from other schools who have had similar experiences.

    Action Fraud can be contacted on 0300 123 2040 or via their website www.actionfraud.police.uk which also has a wealth of up to date information on Fraud and cybercrime.

    Top Ten Tips for Parents and Carers on  Helping with Homework

    In the feedback we got from a recent survey of parents and caters we had the question ‘how do I help my kids with homework when it’s above my level?

    It’s a question parents often ask when their children move up to secondary school. Homework may become a more prominent part of school life and aspects the curriculum will have changed (several times!) since parents were at school themselves. We don’t of course want parents to do the homework for their children, but looking around at websites offering help to families, some of the advice seemed a bit too generic.

    I wrote this piece for our school bulletin. If you feel it’s useful, Please feel free to use and adapt as you wish. The first point refers to Show My Homework which we use to set tasks. Parents can monitor it using the website or app.
     

     

    How do I help with homework?

    This is a question parents often ask when their children move to secondary school. Here are our top ten tips on how you can support your child:

    1. Keep track of homework at http://www.showmyhomework.co.uk or by downloading the app. You can see what tasks have been set, when deadlines are and when your child has submitted it.

    2. Help your child organise their time: keep an eye on deadlines and encourage them space work out, rather than leaving it to the last minute.

    3. Make sure they have space and somewhere quiet to work. If that’s difficult at home, our library is open before and after school each day.

    4. Make sure they have the right equipment to tackle a range of tasks: pens, pencils, ruler, sharpener, eraser, coloured pencils or pens, scissors, glue stick, protractor, drawing compasses, calculator, and a dictionary. If money is tight, contact school: we can often help.

    5. Limit distractions – no screens or TV. Check that any online research is directed at the task. Some people feel that music helps them to work, but there is good evidence that it can impair performance.

    6. Take an interest in what your children are studying and the homework they are doing. Talk with them about school, and encourage them to try their best, and ask them to share the feedback they get from teachers.

    7. Insist on the basics of good presentation: titles underlined, work dated, neat, legible handwriting, answers in full sentences, good punctuation and spelling.

    8. Encourage regular reading: well-read students develop better communication skills and knowledge across a range of subjects. Reading should form a part of homework each day.

    9. Ensure that your child acknowledges sources of information. From year 7 they should list the books or websites they have used. This good habit will help avoid plagiarism later and make the move to formal referencing of work easier.

    10. Encourage reflection, resourcefulness,  and resilience. If  your child has difficulty with a question or exercise, ask what they have already learned that could help them. Prompt them to use resources like a dictionary, for help. If they are still unable to complete a task, please write a note to the teacher in your child’s planner. When work is returned, help them learn from the feedback their teacher has given and apply this next time. Learning from mistakes is a valuable part of both class work and homework.

     
    I hope others find this helpful. I’d be interested in examples from other schools, or suggestions for advice I could add.

    Image: pixabay 

    Ten tips to avoid exam stress (revisited)

    Exam season looms large on the horizon and we teachers must balance appropriate motivating of our students with awareness of likely stress or anxiety.

    I wrote an earlier version of this post in April 2016. In 2017 there seems to be even more uncertainty, for teachers and students alike. In the new GCSEs we can’t guide students with any real certainty as to which grades they will achieve. For A levels, it’s the first time any of the new Advanced exams have been set, and only the second for new AS qualifications. Such uncertainties are likely to add to the anxiety of some students. Teachers need to be especially careful not to project our own worry on to those we teach.

    Here, then, I am revisiting ten helpful things students can do to keep motivated and stay healthy too. The list originates from an (old specification!) A level psychology task I gave my students to do when they studied a unit on stress. The aim was to use what they had learned to write advice for fellow students. I have developed it over the years and this latest version is influenced by advice from our School Health Nurse, the NHS, and the charity Mind. 


    Ten tips to beat exam stress

    1. Get Organised. Make sure you know what exams you have, what kind of questions they will have and when they are.
    2. Manage your time. Your time is precious, so make the best use of it by drawing up a revision timetable. Make sure you build in breaks between sessions.
    3. Stay In control by sticking to your plan and using it to review what you have achieved and what is coming next.
    4. The right Environment. Work somewhere that is light, has enough space and is distraction-free. Music may be OK (you’ll know what works for you) but visual input from TV, screens & social media will just distract you. 
    5. Boost your confidence. Use a revision journal, recall things that have gone well in the past and visualise your success.
    6. Eat Healthily and stay hydrated. Avoid ‘energy’ drinks: they may give the illusion of alertness but actually impair your performance (that’s why you never see an advert saying ‘Drink Red Bull: it helps you revise.’ Because it doesn’t.
    7. Get enough sleep; don’t stay up late revising, a tired brain does not work well, either at the time, or the next morning.
    8. Friends & family. Let them know you have exams and need to revise. Keep in touch during those breaks you planned into your revision.
    9. Avoid life changes. Now isn’t the time To start a new relationship or plan to run away to the circus (however tempting that may seem).
    10. Understand your body and the signals it sends you. Recognise that signs of exam nerves like ‘butterflies in the stomach’ a dry mouth, or sweaty palms are nothing to worry about. They are just symptoms telling you that your body preparing for action. 

    We include a version of this list in the revision advice we give to students and share it with parents through our school newsletter. This year we have also run special sessions on tackling exam anxiety this year which have proved popular. 

    Students can get more help and advice on student life from the Student Minds website and  these pages on the Mind website where you can also download a PDF document. Advice directed at parents and carers can be found on this area of the NHS Choices website.

    I hope you found this post useful. Please feel free to use and adapt it as you wish. I’d be interested in which resources other schools use.

    Ten things to look forward to in the Summer term

    The weeks between Christmas and Easter may have seemed a long haul and the new term will bring the challenges of revision and exams for many, but there’s plenty to look forward to at the start of the Summer term. Here’s my top ten list:

    1. For some of our students, the holidays can be difficult and, although they might not always show it, they’ll have been be looking forward to the new term. Make it a good one.
    2. Easter isn’t over! It isn’t just a bank holiday, it’s a whole season and the biggest festival in the Christian tradition, so keep on celebrating!
    3. Easter and Spring are traditionally times for thinking about new life and new beginnings. What aspects of your practice could you revitalise? Is there something new you could try?
    4. We’re now well into British Summer Time – no more waking up before sunrise and coming home darkness: the days will be getting longer and (hopefully) warmer. Take some times to soak up those rays. Even on overcast days natural sunlight will do you good (remember sunscreen though).
    5. While you’re out and about, take some time to connect with nature. Look out for the signs that spring is turning into summer. Take notice of small changes and you’ll soon see that no two days are alike.
    6. How did you do with any New Year resolutions? Now is an ideal time to commit to your own wellbeing, making those resolutions not just a one-off but part of a healthier, happier lifestyle.
    7. There are plenty of holidays and festivals during the Summer term including the May Day bank holiday (1 May), Spring Bank Holiday (29th May), Shavuot (31 May), Pentecost (4 June), Fathers’ Day (18 June), Summer Solstice (21 June), and Eid-al-Fitr (26 June).
    8. You may have pupils taking exams this term, but you don’t have to sit them! I always hated exams and while I’m proud of my qualifications I’m also glad that I no longer have to sit exams! We all survived the process – use your experience to help students be successful too. I’ve written about avoiding exam stress here. The article also contains links to useful websites.
    9. Some of the best bits of school happen in the Summer term: school trips, outdoor education, Summer concerts, PTA barbecues, sports days, proms, end of year awards. These and more enrich the curriculum and help build communities.
    10. At the end of this term… Summer holiday!

    So, what are you looking forward to this Summer term? Why not share with a comment? 

    Festival dates from timeanddate.com

    Storm Doris: Do windy days wind children up?

    This is a perennial topic for the staff room or playground duty and this week many a veteran was predicting that the sting winds brought by storm Doris would  lead to some challenging behaviour. 

    But is there any evidence that high winds do affect children’s behaviour? I’ve often wondered and a took the opportunity to collect some data on wind speed (published by the nearest weather station) and the behaviour incidents logged at our school over the last two school weeks, one of which featured lower wind speeds, the other higher speeds as Doris passed over the UK. 


    I’m not sure what that shows, and it isn’t a lot of data, but It doesn’t look like any kind of convincing correlation. On the other hand it isn’t a precise measure (‘incident’ covers everything from homework not handed in to having to be removed from a lesson). Another interesting point is the positive side of behaviour – we gave out 12% more achievement points in the Doris week than when wind speeds were low. As for every week the, the number of achievements recorded exceeded the behaviour incidents, with teachers giving out over ten times as many positive achievement points as negative behaviour ones.

    In Oxford we were only on the southern edge of the storm, maybe the effect would be greater further north. Anyone want to share some data? 

     
    What does published research tell us?


    I had a brief look at the range of research on this topic (incidentally, best to avoid typing ‘wind’ and ‘children’ into a search engine unless you’re researching flatulence). There are several ideas as to how high winds could affect behaviour including change in air pressure associated with storm fronts, extra-low-frequency atmospheric pressure oscillations,  increased sensory stimulation, and an increase in positively charged ions. I didn’t explore this last one because the ions are created by hot, dry winds and that doesn’t apply to February in the UK.

    Bill Badger and Eric O’Hare of The University of Lankester researched the effect of weather on the behaviour of students at a secondary school in Cumbria in 1989. They found that behaviour was affected by weather but by changes in the prevailing conditions, rather than the type of weather itself. You can read the abstract here. In a US preschool study in 1990, Eva Essa, Hilton & Murray found that stormy, unsettled weather caused children, especially girls, to interact more with other people than toys (abstract here and paper free if you sign up). A small lab-study by Delyukov and Didyk in 1999 showed that artificially produced pressure oscillations reduced attention. Lovely controlled conditions (abstract here) but a long way from Year 9 on a windy wet  Wednesday lunchtime.

    So, research suggests that changes in weather and atmospheric pressure do affect children (and adults), but there isn’t a clear link to increases in ‘wild’ behaviour at school.

    If you’re interested in involving students in the topic the Met Office have produced a maths investigation for use with their Weather Observation Website.

    Making the most of working memory capacity

    “My problem is that I have been persecuted by an integer.” That’s how psychologist George Miller began his groundbreaking account of short term memory capacity in 1956 (read his original paper here). That integer was 7, the “magic number” that kept appearing in research on our ability to process incoming information. 

    Short term memory stores information collected from our senses. This may be transferred to our long term memory, or may be lost. From his own research and that of others, Miller concluded that the capacity of our short-term memory is limited to 7 +/- 2 items. The reason why we lose some information before it can be transferred to our long term memory is usually because it is displaced by new incoming information. 

    Cognitive psychologists Alan Baddeley and Graham Hitch then developed the model of a simple memory store into the concept of working memory, but the principle of a limited capacity remains. Teachers need to be aware of this in presenting students with new subject content. A feeling of being overwhelmed by new information isn’t because our brain is ‘full’ but rather because the capacity of our working memory to process new information is being exceeded. An understanding of the limits of working memory can help teachers plan accessible learning activities for all students and also recognise those who have poor working memory.

    In general, we should think about how much information is presented at once and how many items, or instructions in a sequence, students have to recall without prompts in order to complete a task. Most of us would struggle beyond 7 for an unfamiliar task, and some students will not readily recall this many. Examples where teachers should consider this in the design of resources and tasks include:

    • The layout of presentation slides and the number of items on each
    • The number of options or menu items in electronic / online resources
    • The layout of activity sheets – how much information is presented at once
    • The number of steps or stages in a sequence of instructions. Should some steps be broken down further into sub-stages?
    • The number of verbal instructions, repetition, and availability of non-verbal memory aids.
    • What assumptions do instructions for practical activities make about students’ recollection of previous routines?
    • How much do students have to remember in order to complete homework?

    Much of this would be considered good advise for general planning. We have to give additional consideration for children who may have more limited working memory capacity.

    Characteristics of children with poor working memory (Susan Gathercole)

    • Children have good social skills but may be quiet or reserved in collaborative learning activities.
    • May appear forgetful, inattentive or easily distracted in class
    • May not follow through instructions or complete tasks
    • Forget key content of messages, instructions or homework

    If you’re like me, when reading that list you will recall children you teach who have these characteristics. It is well worth considering that the ‘inattentive’ or ‘distracted’ child may be experiencing difficulties with working memory. This can often result in poor academic progress over time. Research has focussed on reading and mathematics, but other areas of study are also likely to be affected. 

    On recognising these signs, there are a number of things that teachers can do to help students, including:

    • Reducing the working memory load by decreasing the number of items that need to be remembered at one time, particularly by restructuring complex tasks
    • increasing the meaningfulness of new material by placing it in context and the familiarity by making explicit links with prior learning and similar information of tasks that the student has encountered before
    • Repeating key information frequently, using different formats
    • Using memory aids as appropriate for the student, these could include key vocabulary, visual scripts, framing tools to break down tasks into stages, number lines or grids, literacy  place mats, etc.
    • Helping the child to develop specific strategies such as devising their own memory aids, confidence in asking for help, ‘3 before me’ resourcefulness strategies ( e.g. ‘Brain, book, buddy’), and improved organisational skills.
    • Providing specific support for students in collaborative tasks, providing context and making roles and outcomes clear. I’ve written more on this in my post on ‘Making group work work’.

    It is also worth recognising that our working memory capacity increases throughout childhood. For some children, the issue may be a developmental delay and with support they will catch up with their peers.

     

    Can training improve working memory?

    A considerable amount of research has been conducted into whether is is possible to train children (and adults) to improve working memory. The results are mixed, but overall this research indicates that training methods can improve short-term performance in specific tasks, but these improvements are not generalisable to other tasks or skills. This evidence suggests that our efforts as teachers may be better placed in helping students make the most effective use of the working memory they have, rather than attempting to increase their capacity.

     
    Further reading

    Miller, George A. (1956) The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on our Capacity for Processing Information. Originally published in Psychology Review 63: 81-97. A transcript of Miller’s lecture on short term memory capacity mentioned at the start of this post. 

    Gathercole, Susan & Alloway, Tracy (2007) Working memory and learning: a classroom guide. Harcourt Assessment, London. A very accessible short practical guide for teachers.

    Melby-Lervåg, Monica & Hulme, Charles (2013) Is working memory training effective? A meta analysis of over twenty research studies. Developmental Psychology vol 49, 2:270-291. A meta analysis of the effectiveness of working memory training.