The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

John Dabell

Preparing for SATs: what works?

It's the time of year for preparing Year 6 pupils to be 'SATs-ready'. John Dabell offers suggestions for success.

Every Year 6 teacher in England has the unenviable task of preparing pupils for the highlight of the year: the Key Stage 2 SATs!

SATs preparation can be emotionally draining, and we don't really consider the impact it has on our wellbeing. However, it can also be a creative and relatively enjoyable experience, depending on who steers the ship.

Here is my advice for making the next few weeks count.

Nothing to fear

Each school will have its own approach to SATs, but the most important consideration is always the pupils themselves.

If spreadsheets rule the roost in your school, try not to compound pupils’ stress by telling them everything about the data, targets and what good SATs results mean to a school’s reputation. It’s counter-productive: creating hysteria around SATs in a poorly-managed classroom will only make pupils more nervous which, in some cases, will negatively affect their performance on the day.

This is not to say that you shouldn’t keep an eye on the calendar and have a timeline for revision and preparation. Some schools will have adopted a plan for each month from January to May, spreading revision across that time. This is only sensible if the plan doesn’t become all-consuming and make school a SATs experience.

After all, SATs really aren’t that important in the grand scheme of things, but your Year 6 pupils’ social, emotional and mental health certainly is.

A well-rounded approach to SATs preparation could include:

  • inclusive high-quality teaching
  • targeted interventions
  • booster sessions
  • SAT attack clubs (breakfast, lunchtime and after-school)
  • parents’ meetings
  • regular newsletters to parents
  • mock SATs
  • practising exam techniques (or ‘learning the language of tests’)
  • revision advice (for pupils and parents)
  • sharing mark schemes with pupils
  • formative assessment tasks (such as mind maps, posters and concept cartoons)
  • internet support (recommended websites)
  • relaxation techniques (such as mindfulness sessions, yoga and structured play).

Past papers, past answers

Preparing for SATs will inevitably involve looking at previous papers, and accessing unofficial papers written in a SATs style. We are spoiled for choice too, with hundreds of papers available (some free, others at a cost, but all quite similar in quality).

Although it is important for pupils to practise with SATs papers under test conditions, it’s not imperative to get through as many papers as you can. Not only is this unfeasible, it’ll tire your pupils out!

An alternative way of familiarising pupils with the language of tests would involve creating and sharing fictitious answers from past years. You could present the answers in three or four different ways, then ask pupils to decide who they think might be right. This is a good way to:

  • discuss different methods of interpreting and answering a question
  • address common clangers and classic mistakes.

If pupils make similar blunders then they can take comfort in knowing they are not alone, nor are they getting something wrong.

Deeper learning

Looking at previous questions and answers isn’t something that pupils have to do alone. In fact, they are better approached in small groups of two to four, so that pupils can talk together as there may be more than one correct answer. This isn’t about hot-footing through example after example though but taking the time to think and view each question as a pit stop. A problem shared is a problem solved.

Discuss this example question in small groups and see what pupils think.

Which two of the following numbers multiply together to make 10,000?

0.1, 1.0, 10, 100, 1,000, 10,000, 100,000

Crucially, this task will get pupils to discuss a problem together, translate it into their own words and link it to something memorable.

Spinning similar style homemade questions with a personal touch is worthwhile and examining ideas in greater depth slows things down and deepens learning. If this all sounds like too much, then access a multiple-choice online diagnostic question site and adapt those.

What works?

Is there a best way to revise? Apparently, there is.

According to Dave Taylor (2017), teachers should avoid encouraging ‘bamboo’ revision techniques because of their ‘pitifully low neurological value’. ‘Bamboo’ strategies include rereading notes, highlighting key details and summarising information. Instead, we need to re-evaluate what we assume works, and have followed unquestionably for years.

Taylor isn't the first to have made a case for going off-piste. In 2013, Prof John Dunlosky et al. of Kent State University reviewed 1,000 scientific studies that pertain to 10 of the most popular revision strategies. They found that ‘students most often endorse the use of rereading and highlighting, two strategies that we found to have relatively low utility’.

Strategies with ‘moderate value’ included elaborate interrogation (explaining why a fact or concept is true), self-explanation and interleaved practice, but distributed practice and practice testing came out on top as having the most value.

It’s not imperative to get through as many past papers as you can

Another article by Dunlosky, ‘Strengthening the Student Toolbox – Study Strategies To Boost Learning’ is a great source of practical revision advice and tips for effective study. It’s something I’d highly recommend you share with teacher colleagues.

The 'higher level' techniques Dunlosky et al. recommend are by no means a magic bullet, but ‘when used properly, we suspect that they will produce meaningful gains in performance in the classroom, on achievement tests, and on many tasks encountered across the life span… so teachers should be encouraged to more consistently and explicitly train students to use learning techniques.’

Tips to share with pupils

Don’t dwell. Pupils can get so bogged down with particular questions that time runs out and valuable marks are lost elsewhere in the paper. Getting stuck also means they can become disillusioned. Remind pupils to circle any questions they find difficult and move on. You might ask them to focus on two- and three-point questions first, as not all questions need to be answered in a strict order.

Show and tell. Evidence is key when answering a question and this means pupils must show their working out and make their thinking explicit even if they ‘know the answer’. For reading questions pupils must refer to the text and find direct evidence to support their answer.

Make your mark. Pupils should underline or draw a box or circle around important words and what is being asked of them. Cross through anything that is redundant or superfluous.

Leave no stone unturned. Time management is crucial as many pupils say they ‘run out of time’ but they must strive to answer everything, making an educated guess.

Always double-check. It needs to be clear to pupils that getting to the end of a test doesn’t mean relax and close the paper. ‘Good housekeeping’ is important and this means revisiting questions and also checking for missed questions and missed pages.

Pupils will inevitably make mistakes, some out of confusion, some in the mental smog of doing the SATs and others through carelessness. A few mistakes can be minimised though and the odd mark gained here and there can mean a big difference. Encourage them to reread all their answers more than once and check for and clangers and careless slip-ups.

While providing pupils with much needed practice in reading and using past SATs papers, revision can soon become stale, dry and soul-destroying if it is the only thing on the menu.

Going off-piste is the way to go not only to review work but also address common misconceptions and obstacles. Remember to get plenty of fresh air and make time for learning outside the classroom to keep pupils positive and motivated.

More from Optimus

How to stretch the more able: go off-piste, define differentiation and avoid time-wasting marking

KS2 SATs: exam preparation for Year 6 teachers (available to Optimus members)

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