Newsletter 163 - NEEDU - Schools That Work II - Exam Preparation

BEST PRACTICE 6.5—EXAM PREPARATION: Teachers expertly prepare learners for the NSC examinations in ways that do not detract from real learning such as “teaching to the test” As Langer (2001) found in her study, data in the present study also suggests that teachers use both integrated and separated approaches to prepare learners for the NSC exams. In many schools, teachers use an integrated approach, which means that exam preparation is integrated into the ongoing class teaching throughout the year, as part of the curriculum. In majority of schools, exam preparation is allocated its own space in class time, often before exams start, apart from the rest of the year's work. Langer (2001) calls this the “separated approach”. In schools where teachers follow the separated approach, exam preparation mostly starts after teachers have completed the syllabus— between May and September. Few schools use a combination of both approaches, either with a slant towards separated approach or towards an integrated approach.


Schools following the separated approach tend to be data-driven in that they are driven by what results would look like in the NSC examinations. For this reason, teachers focus a lot of energy on teaching a strand that is heavily emphasized in the exam. In data-informed schools, on the other hand, the primary focus is the infusion of the exam preparation into the curriculum throughout the year (an integrated approach).


Extensive research-based exam preparation practices can be grouped into four categories: teaching the content domain, providing practice tests, giving timed tests, and preparing learners to deal with test anxiety. The extent to which high-performing schools in this study prepared learners for the exams is consistent with effective means of exam preparation reported in the literature. How schools in the present study used each of these research-based exam preparation practices is discussed below.



Although there is pressure on schools to engage in extensive exam preparation to prepare learners for the NSC examinations, most schools in this study adequately and appropriately prepare learners for the NSC examinations without detracting from real learning and without emphasising the objectives from the content domain that are sampled in the NSC examinations or “teaching to the test.” These schools focus on learning rather than just raising exam scores.


The integrated approach is not about the NSC examinations per se but teachers align the curriculum and assessment by integrating appropriate exam preparation practices into regular classroom teaching and, in the end, this helps learners to do well in the exams. In order to integrate the skills and knowledge  that are to be tested in the NSC exams into the ongoing curriculum implementation, schools that work.

· Teach to the curriculum (not teaching to the test) and use various assessment approaches and formats from previous NSC examination papers to assess if learners have mastered concepts or skills teachers have taught;

· Routinely practise those skills and knowledge taught in class (e.g., giving learners “warm-up” assessments, homework and class assignments) so that learners are familiar with the content when they write the NSC exams;

· Analyse learners’ scores and use the analysis results to identify where learners are strong and where they need extra support, and to gain a deeper understanding of what learners need to know and be able to do to achieve various levels of performance; and

· Change school timetables into longer blocks of time to give teachers in critical content areas more uninterrupted time.



Schools use different ways to prepare learners for exams and taking exams less distressing and depressing to learners.  Applying the old adage "practice makes perfect," most schools collect NSC exam papers from prior years that are administered within a province and, sometimes, administered in other provinces and use them as practice tests. Schools use different approaches to practise past exam papers: an integrated approach or a separated approach or a combination of the two approaches. The purposes for providing practice tests also differ among teachers. Following are purposes that teachers mentioned for using practice assessments:

· To help learners understand the exam structure and format for each subject so that they know what to expect in the exam question paper;

· To teach learners test-taking strategies and examination techniques, e.g., how to carefully read instructions, how to look for key words in the instructions (e.g., differentiating between ‘discuss’, ‘analyse’, and ‘explain’), how to scan the exam for easy questions for which they may immediately know the answer, spending the first five minutes of any exam reading the instructions carefully before writing.

· To acquaint learners with what the markers are looking for when they are marking.

Teachers and learners go through old exam papers and discuss what each question is testing.

· To discuss the quality of answers with learners—analysing learners’ answers to identify appropriately those that would earn learners good marks and help learners hone their answering skills, so as to maximise getting the possible marks.

· To use the results of the periodic benchmark practice assessments diagnostically to guide their teaching and to monitor learner performance over time as they engage in a number of practice tests.

· To drill as a way to help students solidify problematic or difficult skills and concepts and gain a full understanding of the material taught in class

· To give learners tests with time limits to enable them to manage time properly in the exam and be able to answer all questions adequately.



Following integrated or separated approaches (or a combination of both), some schools give learners different questions, one topic at a time, from a set of past exam papers and set a timeframe very similar to what it should be in exam conditions. For example, learners are given the same amount of time they would have during the actual NSC exam to practise answering a question. In every practice, teachers monitor not only whether learners improve their time management skills, but they also check the quality of answers.


Other schools give much longer timed tests covering different topics. In these schools, learners are given a couple of practices to write a full-length paper—two or three-hours depending on the NSC requirements for each subject. This is discussed further in the next sub-heading. Expressing the sentiments of most teachers, one teacher explains why her school gives learners opportunities to write full-length papers. Teachers find this strategy helpful because it gives learners an opportunity to practise writing an exam paper under the same NSC exam conditions. Teachers also feel that this strategy helps learners to understand the criteria necessary to write quality answers within strict time limits.



Teachers give learners practice tests under the same strict conditions that are similar to the actual NSC examinations to help them reduce exam anxiety. That is, learners take practice tests in exactly the same way and under the same conditions as it would be on the day of the exam. These conditions include making learners write practice tests and:

· Use the same room where they would write the NSC exam;

· Use the same seating arrangement they would use on the exam day;

· Follow the same strict rules prescribed for the NSC exams; and

· Write full-length exam papers using past NSC papers, as discussed in the sub-heading above.

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