When Schools Become SATurated...

Hello everyone! 

This week, I was scrolling through Twitter and something caught my eye:

My ears tend to prick up whenever the SATs are mentioned and this tweet hit a nerve. So, if you're reading this, @WhistleblowingT, this one's for you.  I hope it helps.

To get the most out of this week's post, you'll need to know that the Key Stage 2 SATs are the national English and Maths tests that children in England sit at the end of their Primary school career when they are either 10- or 11-years old. They are standardised, externally marked, and written by a government body.

SATs have been criticised for putting children under too much pressure and increasing test-related stress and anxiety[1]. They have also been criticised for narrowing the curriculum - but that's a can of worms addressed in previous blog posts (here, here and here)! 

In this post, I will be looking at booster classes. These are additional revision sessions run by schools in an effort to increase the children's - or rather, the school's - results. They are often held as after-school 'clubs' with a quasi-obligatory attendance requirement (schools can't legally demand that the children attend but they can heavily recommend it). 

I say usually after school but increasingly, schools are holding week-long revision sessions during the Easter break and requesting that the class teacher give up the same amount of time to deliver the revision sessions.

Is this a good idea? Well, it depends on how you view these booster sessions. If you see them as additional support as part of an overall long-term structured delivery of the curriculum, then there is evidence to suggest that they may actually serve their purpose. The only problem then is the moral one of pressuring teachers to essentially work for free.

But what if it's not a part of an overall long-term structured delivery of the curriculum? What if, actually, it is a hastily assembled list of children who might just achieve a higher mark if they are given a solid week of intensive revision in a series of school-sanctioned cramming sessions?

Well, then you've got a problem.

Some Research

Two literature reviews - the Cambridge University Review of Primary Education in English Schools[2] and the Evidence for Policy and Practice Information review[3]  - suggest that focussing too heavily on SATs (like, for instance, establishing 'SATs Clubs over the Easter break?) is damaging for learning, motivation and self-esteem. A concern shared by many others[4] (interestingly, the conclusion of this paper was that some children find SATs stressful and some don't; the only constant was the teachers' assumptions that all children find tests stressful. It was suggested that this concern was being projected onto the class, in part, due to the pressure being placed on the staff). Whereas revising over several sessions usually leads to better retention (and subsequent application) of the information taught[6,7,8,9]

In the learning literature, this phenomenon is called the “spacing effect.” This was further explored in a study was conducted in 1967[10] where a group of college-aged students were given a set of nonsense syllable/adjective combinations ('lum', happy). Everyone was given eight revision sessions to learn the words but one group had to use all eight sessions in one day, whereas the other group had morning and afternoon sessions for four days.

Twenty-four hours after the final revision session, everyone was tested and the cramming group did marginally better (a mean of 5.9 words remembered versus a mean of 5.5). However, when the students were tested again after a week, the results were shocking. The crammers were able to recall just 2.1 words on average compared to 5 in the spaced-learning group. So the benefits of cramming are very limited. If a school is claiming to proudly produce 'life-long learners' but are also insisting on running densely-packed revision sessions, this seems to be a contradiction.

Cramming for a test, and I would argue that SATs sessions hastily put together over the Easter break is exactly that, has been described in the past as 'a period of neglect of study followed by a concentrated burst of studying immediately before an exam.' [11]. I don't know of any school that would happily associate with the term 'neglect' when it comes to education! 

Having said that... 

In 2001, Howard Schuman’s team of researchers[12] found that, at least for college students studying for a chemistry final exam, cramming had no detrimental effect at all. In fact, it was argued that cramming allowed students to better balance work and playtime. There was also research that concentrated revision helps children to achieve 'flow'[13] (a mental state where a person is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment)

But that is short-term.

The study by McIntyre and Munson[14] found that long-term ability to apply what had been learned was much better when cramming was avoided in favour of spaced learning. They acknowledged that cramming before a test would absolutely help many children for that one test on that one day but that the information was too easily and too quickly forgotten shortly after completing said test.

This brings us back to whether or not schools are touting 'life-long learning' as a value. I would argue that you can't claim to promote a 'love of learning' and host SATs boosters. They are too contradictory.

Anyone remember levels?

A paper from America’s National Bureau Of Economic Research[15] looked at the accountability side of tests (which is the purpose of the KS1 and KS2 SATs - see my posts on this). It was argued by these researchers that students learn study methods from their teachers and schools, so a focus on booster sessions could result in the children assuming that cramming for tests is better because that's what their teachers encouraged. This was also true when it came to subject focus. If a school essentially drops all subjects except for those tests in the SATs, the children learn that those other subjects are less important. Perhaps I should have a chat with some Secondary Art teachers?

This study was a) conducted in America and b) focused on college-bound children, it is still relevant to this post because they used a school that had an eerily similar approach to accountability as schools in England. 

The school's old accountability system was concerned more with performance on low-level basic skills tests but then shifted to one that was more interested in meeting proficiency targets of a standards-based curriculum. Sound familiar? To me, it seems very similar to pre-2014 SATs.

From the mid-to-late 90s all the way to 2014, Key Stage 2 SATs resulted in National Curriculum levels, of which, level 4 was considered an adequate pass (although a level 3 would do), 5 was great and 6 was outstanding (and the equivalent of a D grade at GCSE). This system, much like the old system in the study, allowed for a more laissez-faire attitude towards those children who were guaranteed to score at least a level 4, and teachers tended to focus on the 'cuspies' - those children who could achieve a higher level with a little extra push. Needless to say, more able children were often at the risk of being sidelined in favour of those less able. This tracks with college research. The accountability of the school is to ensure that the majority of the class achieves at least the lowest grade.

Post-2014, everything changed. Levels were gone and the KS2 SATs became pass/fail (or 'Ready for Secondary School' / 'Not Ready for Secondary School', because heaven forbid we call a spade a spade in education!). Now the accountability has shifted to getting as many children above the 100 points threshold for all subjects. The result, it's a shame to say, is that many children who may have scraped a level 3 passing grade eight years ago are now somewhat doomed to be 'Not Secondary Ready' because there simply isn't the time to prepare them for the tests adequately enough. Don't get me wrong, the focus is still on the cuspies, but the cuspies are now the children who are on that 99/100 borderline - a borderline that represents a higher level than it used to (if you can equate the new levels with the old, which, I admit, it a bit naughty).

Basically, the focus in both situations shifted from ensuring the majority of children achieved a grade they could be proud of, to ensure that enough children achieved a passing grade so that the school could be said to have been successful. The focus has switched from child-focused to school-focused.

But surely that's a post for another day? Aren't we talking about cramming and SATs boosters? Well, don't forget that cramming via SATs boosters are a way to ensure that more children pass the immediate test, which looks good for the school. It's not great for long-term retention or application, which would really benefit the children as they enter the next key stage of their education. But who cares? That's the next school's problem. It boils down to immediate accountability. Cramming will get better results more quickly.

Is all this research making you sleepy?

Here's a fun little tidbit I discovered in my trawl through the literature. An exhaustion of scientists (that's my collective noun for scientists - 'team' is just too dull) decided to explore what was better for learning: cramming or napping[16]. They discovered that napping for one hour provides as much benefit as cramming for one hour. Thirty minutes later, the benefits of napping actually being to outweigh cramming, and a week after that, the students in the cramming group needn't have bothered at all.

To be fair, this tracks with the slightly more academic studies and I am, in all honesty, reluctant to believe that simply sleeping can improve achievement, especially when we have already seen that spaced learning is probably the key to it all. If you think I am being too harsh, the researchers also found that napping resulted in test subjects being 'significantly less sleepy', so we're not exactly shattering expectations with this one!

On a more serious note though, it does suggest that the time spent in a SATs booster class, over a break, would be better spent resting, relaxing and having a lie-in.

So what, they're just bad?

While there is research that discusses the links between higher anxiety levels resulting in lower achievement[17], a point of view echoed repeatedly by Dr Alice Bradbury, UCL Institute of Education[18], booster sessions need not be conducted in such a way as to increase anxiety.

To be fair to the schools and Headteachers who are encouraging booster sessions, in my experience, the sessions have always been advised - never compulsory; are usually attended by only those children who want to turn up in the first place (often the very children who don’t need to be there at all); and are pretty non-prescriptive in their approach. When I was asked to lead them, I was given totally free reign. Yes, I have led SATs booster classes. I have led them both when I was teaching in Year 6 and when I wasn’t teaching Year 6. I led them after school; I never took a register; I focused on how to approach question types, not the questions themselves; and… I had a lot of fun.

However, I have never led them during the school holidays. I was asked once but I politely declined to acquiesce. It wasn’t easy or comfortable and I did feel a certain amount of pressure (I had been told by a previous Headteacher that teaching Year 6 meant saying goodbye to weekends - trust me; it does not) but I stood my ground and explained that I had done all I could for the children. If the Headteacher or SLT felt that I had not done a good enough job, then they were welcome to step in for those two weeks and we could discuss it at my next performance review but could they please let me know when that would be because I would need to make sure a union rep could attend. 

I was hastily reassured that I had indeed done a wonderful job and that that was not what they were saying at all. I was to have a nice Easter break (and birthday, by the way) and they would take care of it. They were actually looking forward to doing a bit of actual teaching.

In a nutshell...

The research suggests that booster sessions are: 

  • Completely pointless if they are held more than a week before the exams.
  • Fairly pointless if they are held a day before the exams
  • Linked to heightened levels of anxiety
  • Less effective than student-led revision for homework, doing nothing at all, or napping.

Some schools may argue that revising during the Easter break is part of spaced learning because it’s meant to enhance the learning and maintain the frequency of in-class learning, preventing gaps from emerging in the first place… and they may even have a point…

However, the school terms are broken up for a reason, children can only learn so much for so long and even the adults need a rest. Additionally, you, as a teacher, are only contracted for 195 days of the year. If your school wants to add an additional ten days to that, they’ll have to make adjustments elsewhere or pay you an agreed salary that you feel is worth your freelance time. According to OECD, that’s around £45 per hour[20] (adjusted for inflation - I know teachers’ pay has not been adjusted for inflation but you’re freelancing now).

I would ask for more than double that.

Carl Headley-Morris

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References for this post

[1] Putwain, D. W., Connors, L., Woods, K., & Nicholson, L. J. (2012). Stress and anxiety surrounding forthcoming Standard Assessment Tests in English schoolchildren. In Pastoral Care in Education (Vol. 30, Issue 4, pp. 289–302). https://doi.org/10.1080/02643944.2012.688063

[2 ] Tymms, P. & Merell, C. (2007) Standards and quality in English primary schools over time: the national evidence. (2012). In The Cambridge Primary Review Research Surveys (pp. 455–480). https://doi.org/10.4324/9780203121672-29

[3] Harlen, W. & Deakin Crick, R. (2002) A systematic review of the impact of summative assessment and tests on students’ motivation for learning (EPPI-Centre Review, version 1.1)Research Evidence in Education Library Issue 1 (London, EPPI-Centre, Social Science Research Unit, Institute of Education).

[4] Harlen, W., Crick, R. D., Broadfoot, P., Daugherty, R., Gardner, J., James, M., & Stobart, G. (2002). A systematic review of the impact of summative assessment and tests on students’ motivation for learning. http://storre.stir.ac.uk/handle/1893/19607

[5, 14] McIntyre, S. H., & Michael Munson, J. (2008). Exploring Cramming. In Journal of Marketing Education (Vol. 30, Issue 3, pp. 226–243). https://doi.org/10.1177/0273475308321819

[6] Bahrick, H. P., & Phelphs, E. (1987). Retention of Spanish vocabulary over 8 years. In Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition (Vol. 13, Issue 2, pp. 344–349). https://doi.org/10.1037/0278-7393.13.2.344

[7] Bloom, K. C., & Shuell, T. J. (1981). Effects of Massed and Distributed Practice on the Learning and Retention of Second-Language Vocabulary. In The Journal of Educational Research (Vol. 74, Issue 4, pp. 245–248). https://doi.org/10.1080/00220671.1981.10885317

[8] Schmidt, R. (1983). Who maximizes what? A study in student time allocation. American Economic Review, 73(2), 9pp. 23-28).

[9] Willingham, D. T. (2002). Allocating student study time: Massed versus distributed practice. American Educator, 26(2), (pp. 37-39).

[10] Keppel, G. (1967). A reconsideration of the extinction-recovery theory. In Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior (Vol. 6, Issue 4, pp. 476–486). https://doi.org/10.1016/s0022-5371(67)80004-5

[11] Sommer, R. (1968). The Social Psychology of Cramming. In The Personnel and Guidance Journal (Vol. 47, Issue 2, pp. 104–109). https://doi.org/10.1002/j.2164-4918.1968.tb02901.x

[12] Schuman, H., Walsh, E., Olson, C., & Etheridge, B. (2001). Effort and reward: The assumption that college grades are affected by quantity of study. Sociology of Education, 74, (pp. 945-966).

[13] Brinthaupt, T. M., & Shin, C. M. (2001). The relationship of academic cramming to flow experience. College Student Journal, 35(3), (pp. 457-472).

[15] Van Note, K., (2009). Cramming and Test Performance: An Investigation into the Efficacy of A Common College Practice Department of Psychology, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, Minnesota 

[16] Donovan, C., Figlio, D., & Rush, M. (2006). Cramming: The Effects of School Accountability on College-Bound Students. https://doi.org/10.3386/w12628

[17] Cousins, J. N., Wong, K. F., Raghunath, B. L., Look, C., & Chee, M. W. L. (2019). The long-term memory benefits of a daytime nap compared with cramming. Sleep, 42(1). https://doi.org/10.1093/sleep/zsy207

[18] Culler, R., Holahan, C.J., (1980). Test Anxiety and Academic Performance: The Effects of Study-Related Behaviors, University of Texas at Austin

[19] Dr Alice Bradbury, UCL Institute of Education, University College London. (2019, September 1). Pressure, anxiety and collateral damage: THE HEADTEACHERS’ VERDICT ON SATS. More Than a Score. https://www.morethanascore.org.uk/evidence/

[20] Saul, Heather (2013). Youngest and the best paid: Report shows teachers in UK earn one of the highest salaries, https://www.independent.co.uk/news/youngest-and-the-best-paid-report-shows-teachers-in-uk-earn-one-of-the-highest-salaries-8673616.html