What is special about these students?
They all got straight A* grades across all their A level subjects. But what is special about them that enabled them to do that? And what is special about the other 80 who got a mixture of A and A* grades?
Are they super-humanly intelligent? Is there anything the rest of us ‘mere mortals’ can learn from them?
I have been thinking about them and their achievements. I believe that they are not super-people, not geniuses, and it is not just natural intelligence that gave them their A*s. In fact, I believe that any of our students could emulate their success and achieve at least straight A grades.
There are three factors, I think, that contributed to their success:
1) They are into their subjects. They want to know more about the subject, soak up new knowledge, interested in connections between different topics. They read relevant articles and books, watch TV programmes or videos, undertake additional reading just out of interest. Being into your subject looks different for different subjects (in my subject – maths – it doesn’t involve much reading!), but you get the idea.
Now the key thing here is that we can all be into our subjects in that way, because it’s a frame of mind. After all, let’s be honest, every single subject is intrinsically interesting; there are legions of people who follow every subject as a hobby or passion or job. How could anyone say that history, for example is boring? Millions of people read books of history, watch documentaries, visit websites to find out more: how can it be boring?
My partner loves museums. More than I do. When we are on holiday, she always wants to visit museums, and I am often not keen. For example, in the Lake District one time, she wanted to visit the pencil museum in Keswick whilst I wanted to go walking (although, to be fair, we had been walking for five straight days at that point). But seriously, a pencil museum? So, when we visited the museum, I might easily have closed my mind to it, determined that it would prove to be dull, keen to uphold my self-image as the kind of person who doesn’t find pencil museums interesting. But actually, on that day, we had been having a good time and I was feeling positive, so I went in with an open mind, prepared to be engaged. And – of course – it was great. You can learn a lot about the history and culture of people through pencils. There were loads of fascinating exhibits (like the WW2 airman’s pencil where the rubber at the end screws off to reveal a miniature compass on the inside and a map of Europe smuggled inside in case they get shot down). In a sense, it came down to my choice whether to adopt a frame of mind to be interested or bored; on that occasion, I chose to be interested, on another I might have chosen to be bored and I would have missed out.
A level subjects are the same – it’s about your attitude. If you find it boring, it is actually you that is being boring, you who have closed your mind, you who have decided not to be engaged. Being into your subject might look and feel different in different subjects, but in all subjects it is a matter of your attitude.
2) A* students work hard. They do all their work to the best of their ability in the appropriate time frame. They don’t leave things to the last minute. If they are absent, they catch up. They work hard for tests and assessment because they see them as an opportunity to gauge where they are. They do extra work, extra reading, extension materials, and they use their free periods well. They regard themselves as a full time professional student and their academic work is their priority. This doesn’t mean they do nothing but work; it doesn’t mean they don’t have an active social life and other interests; they are not perfect people. But they have a desire not to fall behind, an internal drive to make sure they understand everything and are confident and on top of their learning. All this is a matter of attitude.
3) I was talking with one of our straight A* students, and she said that she reckons about 50% of the work that most students do is not actually helpful to their progress. They are wasting their time and not concentrating on the most important types of work. Successful A* students don’t run away from challenge, and they don’t spend their working time doing easy stuff inside their comfort zone. They know that if they are not thinking hard, then it is not valuable work. So when they find something hard (which they often do), when they don’t do as well as they wanted in a homework or test, when they identify a topic as a weak point, they concentrate their time and energy on it. They do extra work on it. They go over the homework/test questions again. They don’t just read, and highlight and copy out notes; instead they test themselves against hard questions, they write essays and essay plans; they do past paper questions, concentrating on their weaker areas.
I teach maths. Every homework, I get some students who hand in their work with some questions missing. When I ask, they say they couldn’t do it. So they give up, they hand it in incomplete. I explain it to them, they nod, and move on. Such students will never get a high grade. A and A* students don’t give up; they spend hours or days on a single question. They look in the text book (or elsewhere) for extra questions on that topic to test that they have truly got it. They are like many of us adults who do crosswords or sudukos for fun – we enjoy the challenge and we don’t easily give up. We get satisfaction from that eventual light bulb of enlightenment. This intellectual resilience – not giving up, trying different strategies, determined to get there in the end – has a cumulative impact that means they become better, more effective learners and they rise on a steep curve of progress, whereas those who give up just flatline. This is also a question of attitude.
So, what marks our A* students from the rest? Not intelligence, attitude.
It’s not easy to change and to adopt the right approach. I have been trying to lose weight; it’s very straightforward, I know what I have to do: eat less, drink less and exercise more. Easy. But actually doing it, that’s the challenge, and it’s proving harder than I would like. So knowing what you have to do is one thing, doing it is another.
If a student is motivated, if they want to go to a particular university or course, if they want their family to be proud, if they want to be proud of themselves, then they have to get it together find the motivation, to commit to the right attitude, the right approach. They have to walk the walk, all year.
I believe every single one of our students can get straight A grades next summer. I say that based on 30 years teaching experience: every one of our students has the intelligence and ability. So I say to all our lower sixth and upper sixth students, if you want straight A grades, you should believe in yourself; you can do it. You will need to:
– make the decision that you are going for it
– be clear exactly what you need to do
– get on and do it
Years later, we look back and remember our days at school and sixth form.
And what do we remember?
We remember …
- The embarrassing moments. Those toe-curling, bottom-clenching moments that still make us shudder years later.
- And we do remember the bad times, the sad times and the mad times. The stress, the ups and downs.
- But most of all, we remember the good, the fun, the friends, the jokes and the laughter. We remember the exuberance of being young and living life full on.
Of course we remember our studies too. A bit. Not much, if we are honest, about the content. We don’t remember how to solve a quadratic equation or the date of the liberation of the serfs. But we remember working hard, and we remember with some pride the grades we achieved when we worked hard and we also sometimes remember with regret the grades we achieved when we didn’t work so hard.
And, we know, actually, that the secret of A levels is nothing to do with the content or the knowledge or the skills. The real value is the sheer bloody hard work it takes to do well in them, harder for most people than a degree, harder than a masters.
So you do remember the grades that you get and you are proud of them even years later.
But it is the people that you remember most. Your friends. Those who inspired you, or supported you when life got tough, the bonds you forged. Your funny, kind, caring friends.
People have asked me: please Mr Rubinstein, we are going out now into the cruel world out there. We are going to be adults, living an adult life. Have you any words of advice? How should we live our life?
So, if you insist, here is the best advice I can offer – in the full knowledge that no general advice can be right for everyone, and that it’s the old people who got the world into the terrible mess it is today, so maybe you need to do something different.
But for what it’s worth:
Keep hold of your friends. Sometimes you will have to work at it, sometimes you will have to roll with the punches and forgive them. Don’t lose touch out of laziness. And be open to making new friends. Be generous and warm.
You are going to need all your people skills when you start sharing accommodation at university, sharing bathrooms, sharing kitchens, with people who have a different approach to cleanliness, people who don’t do their fair share around the house, people who take your food from the fridge. And you will sometimes need to keep perspective and remember who you are and your common humanity.
Stay the generous, loving, supportive people you are now. Don’t rush to judge others; don’t be quick to take offence. Don’t divide the world into two camps, us and them, whatever us and them are. Be wary of certainty, of anyone who says they have all the answers, of a fixed and uncritical mindframe.
Don’t be that person in the car getting so upset by the traffic, hooting your horn and making hand signs to other people. Be the person who cheerily lets others in, relaxed and good humoured.
Be on the side of the underdog. Support those fighting for justice or a better life. Don’t blame the victims for their lot, you might be one too. At work, join a union – all the advantages people have today, all the rights, all the entitlements, they all come from union action in the past.
And lastly, look after yourself. Keep fit. You are going to universities, most of you, with brilliant subsidised sport facilities. Use them. Use the gyms and the swimming pools. Eat half-way well, and go easy on the drinking.
I have been talking all week with students about what they will remember from their time at Woodhouse, the things they will miss (Mr Martin’s emails and curly fries) and the things they won’t (the girls’ loos).
One student, a while ago in somewhat philosophical mood: … What will you remember most from your time at Woodhouse? – “the crippling dread of impending adulthood that prepares us all for monotonous and insignificant lives”.
Actually, I disagree. I think that Woodhouse students are heading for extraordinary lives. We the staff think that Woodhouse is a special place. Special because the students are special. Special in that the students are smart and funny and they care for each other and look after each other; because they volunteer and they take part; because they are good people special people, extraordinary people.
In fact, the College is full of extraordinary people. Swimmers and athletes who get up in the small hours to train every day before College; musicians and artists and models already working at a professional standard. Students who have blogs or youtube channels that are followed by thousands of people. Students who care for sick family members or younger siblings, or who have to work hours and hours each week to contribute to the family income. Students who are abused or who are homeless or who are ill, students who have suffered trauma but who have nonetheless had the grit and determination to carry on. Students who are shy and quiet and perhaps think they are less worthy of admiration that their louder peers, but actually are quiet centres of stillness, the real rocks on whom everyone else depends. The College is full of extraordinary people.
And today, we are going to celebrate all of you. We are going to present awards to a few students – those who have worked hard, really made the most of their talents; and those who help other people and contribute to the College in many ways. But they are representing you. And in applauding and celebrating them, we are really applauding and celebrating all of you.
Finally, one more word: as we say goodbye and farewell, we obviously wish you all the best of luck in your exams. We will be here for you throughout the exam period, and we will be here for you at results day and afterwards to help with university places, and we will be here for you next year when some of you come back to do applications and exam retakes, and we will want to hear from you in the years to come, and we will want you to come back and tell us how and what you’re doing, and we will want you to be in our alumni organisation and be forever Woodhouse. As far as we are concerned, once a Woodhouse student, always a Woodhouse student. On behalf of all staff I want to say it has been a pleasure and a privilege having you here these two years. Good luck in the exams, and we will see you on book return day and at the prom.
It is early March. There are four weeks left of term before the Easter holidays. What do we expect of our AS and A2 students and what should they expect of themselves in these final weeks before exams?
The answer is that we expect a lot. This is the moment. No more putting off until later; later has arrived.
Students should now be stopping other things, giving up part-time work, suspending their social life, prioritising their academic work. And now is also the time to start looking after yourself too. Stop the late nights; make sure you go to bed at a reasonable time and get enough sleep. Make sure you eat properly and get enough to drink. Wean yourself off your virtual life and excesses of social media.
Of course, you don’t have to be a complete hermit, you will still need to have a bit of fun in your life, see your friends a little, do some exercise, listen to some music, watch some TV, whatever. But you need to re-design your life for the next couple of months, so that everything is based around your work schedule.
You should be working in all your free periods at college, working every evening, working every Saturday and every Sunday. Does that sound tough? Well you have a long summer holiday coming up shortly when you can rest and play.
Get a diary or a calendar and divide up the days into periods, and plan which subject you are going to work on each slot in each day. And for each subject, break it down into chunks and allocate topics to slots in your diary. Try to interleave, so that you come back to topics and reinforce your revision.
Make sure you give yourself the occasional day off, the occasional evening off. If you work well the other times, you can have a day off without feeling guilty or worried.
The heart of good revision should be doing the things you need to do in the exam. Solving problems, writing short answers, writing essays or at least planning them. You need to test yourself on what you are expected to do in exams. Reading, highlighting, making notes are the least effective thing you can do. Talk to your teachers about good revision practice in that subject.
Use pen and paper for revision. Get off the computer – you won’t have a computer in the exam. Don’t watch videos on how to solve a problem or present an argument, at least not until you have spent a long time trying to do it yourself. Don’t give up too easily or quickly. For example, giving up on a maths question and looking at the solution is usually the way to guarantee you won’t be able to do the question in the exam. Stick with it, think about it, try this or that, find a similar one in your notes, think about it some more. Remember – good learning is when you are thinking hard; conversely, if you are not thinking hard, you are probably wasting your time.
When you are revising, turn off your phone, shut down any social media, get rid of distractions.
You might feel stressed out. People tell me they are stressed out. Okay, you’re stressed. Concentrate on what you have to do – make a list or a schedule or a plan. And then get on with it. If you are working really hard, if you are busy, you will be less stressed. Stress is often a feeling people get when things are out of control – so take control. Work out what you have to do, and do it.
Reflections on AS Results
Woodhouse has many students who are celebrating this week with excellent AS results, strings of high grades in line with their expectations. In some cases, students are happy with three of their grades but one is less good – the subject they had already decided to drop and consciously or unconsciously put less effort into. If this is you, you should be reassured that universities don’t really care about that dropped fourth subject, and there is no point thinking about retakes to improve the grade.
But we also have a number of students who are disappointed with their AS grades. Life is not over if your AS grades were less good than you hoped – see below for discussion of UCAS implications. It is not uncommon to underachieve – many students up and down the country do not get the AS grades they hope for. National A level grade profiles are much higher than AS grade profiles. Why is this the case?
It is partly because Year 12 results don’t actually count for as much as those in Year 11 or Year 13, which determine progression options. In the old days, of course, the ‘lower sixth’ was a year in which students took their foot off the pedal and explore other things, and that is still a bit the case.
But at Woodhouse we have two types of students who underachieve, and it is important for students to understand if either of these generalisations apply to them and what to do in response.
‘Last Minute’ Workers
Firstly there are those who just didn’t do enough work through the year. Despite the chivvying from their teachers, despite the progress grades, despite the reports and words at parents evening, they left it to the last minute to revise for their AS exams. After all, that’s what they did at GCSE and it worked for them then. But AS levels are not the same as GCSE, and last minute revision only really works for superficial knowledge-based learning. It especially fails in hierarchical subjects like maths and science and languages, and these students never achieved the depth of understanding to obtain the higher grades.
If this is you, then you know what you have to do differently next year: work hard throughout the year; stay on top of your learning, and make sure you never shy away from difficult or challenging content; test yourself on past paper material; revise as well as you can for every test; ask for re-tests where you don’t do well.
Then there are those who do stay on top of their work, file it all neatly, and everything is highlighted nicely, no homework undone. They do everything they are told to do. But they work well within themselves and often rely on memorizing and other ‘lower’ learning activities. They don’t like taking risks and they aren’t assertive in seeking out challenge to test the limits of their understanding. Such students will often get B instead of A, or A instead of A* at A level. Again, they don’t really understand why because these strategies worked for them at GCSE.
Such students need to remember that if you are not thinking hard, if you are not finding it challenging, then you are not doing the right kind of work. You need to stop re-writing and highlighting notes, which is usually a waste of time, and start seeking out more challenging material, often synoptic or problem solving.
You can retake any AS units that you want to next summer – except coursework units. You don’t have to retake all of an AS subject. Some will be easier to retake than others: for example in maths after you have done C3 and C4 you will find that you are much better at C1 and C2 without having to do much revision for them. Discuss it with your teachers. Too many retakes might take up too much revision time, but it depends how many exams you have and what you are aiming to achieve. You don’t need to decide on retakes until January.
Implications for UCAS
For most students, we will predict a higher grade at A level than you achieved at AS. This might be enough to get the offers from the universities you seek. But if not, don’t worry, anything is still possible.
If you are able to achieve excellent A level grades next year, then even if you have no offers at all (or offers only from ‘lesser’ universities) then you will be able to get a place through clearing or adjustment in the days following A level results. That was the experience this year – even most Russell Group universities had places in clearing for most courses.
There are some courses (like medicine) and some universities (Oxbridge) that won’t have places in Clearing. But if you get the grades, you can always apply again with those grades and take a gap year.
So anything is possible if you get the A level grades at the end of Year 13. But to get those grades, you will need to do something different next year. AS retakes will help, but that is not a sufficient strategy. You need to work out what went wrong this year, and what you are going to change. If you are aiming for an A grade, you need to be an A grade student week in, week out. You need to work like an A grade student. How are you going to use your free periods next year and what work will you do? How will this be different from last year?
How to Get an A* at A Level
Some of you will be applying to universities where you need an A* to get a place. You need to be clear how to achieve an A*.
Technically, in all subjects except maths, you will need to achieve 90% average over your A2 units as long as you have at least a B at AS level. So if you are aiming for an A* and you have a B or A at AS level, there is no point doing AS retakes because it all depends on the A2 units. In maths, you need 90% average over C3 and C4.
But you need to know more than just the technical requirements. You have to be clear on whether the A* just means knowing your stuff and getting everything right or whether it means extra reading and a deeper, wider viewpoint. It varies from subject to subject, and that’s not something you can leave until later in the year.
As we approach the Easter holidays, it is time to get into full revision mode. I know it is tough, and much easier to find distractions or reasons to put it off, but the time has come to get serious. We sometimes talk about the sixth form as the time when you start to become the person you want to be. Well, don’t you want to be the kind of person who does what needs to be done? There are no excuses anymore.
Before getting full into it, you need to spend a couple of hours planning your time. You could start by drawing up a timetable for the Easter holiday period. Give yourself the odd and/or half-day day off. Plan to work 7 or 8 hours a day. Best to work ordinary school-day hours, because that’s when the exams take place, so work 9-5 or 8-4 and have the evenings off.
Plan your schedule in as much detail as you can. List particular topics not just subjects or units. Make sure you give a rational allocation of time to each. Educational researchers have shown the interleaving or spacing out revision is the most effective technique. What that means is this: revise topics in bite-size chunks, then mix it up between subjects. It works because you return to topics several times rather than just the once.
In the past, we have had some students who ran out of time with revision because they spent time writing out all their notes again, or reading and highlighting notes. These activities are the least effective thing you can do. What is worth doing is to create your own summaries for each topic – perhaps a mindmap or spider diagram or just a very concise summary of key points and things you need to memorise for that topic. It is worth doing it yourself rather than copying/using someone else’s. Then you need to go through the summary, make sure you understand it and test yourself on it.
Some students, especially in maths and sciences, go straight for the past paper questions and miss out the actual revision – going over the key facts, concepts, methods and understanding the basics. Best to use questions from textbooks, past homeworks and tests at this stage and leave the exam questions for when you have completed a whole unit.
In essay subjects, you can test yourself by constructing essay plans with bullet points.
Ask your teachers for advice on revision specific to that subject.
Finally, make sure you look after yourself. Get enough sleep. Eat well and drink lots of water. Put distractions away whilst revising – turn your phone off, don’t play music, don’t have any screens on. You are kidding yourself if you think they don’t distract you. Use the local library or the College library (open every week day over Easter except bank holidays).
We ask students at this time of year to start thinking about and to give us an indication which subject they are likely to drop when they progress into the A2 year. Many change their mind after AS results and we do our best to accommodate all requested changes.
Some students will want to continue with all four. This is allowed as long as you get a mixture of grade A and B in each of your four AS levels. You should think carefully, however, before deciding to continue with all four: your grades might suffer, and there are hardly any circumstances in which there is any benefit. Even Cambridge University has said that there is no advantage to applicants who are taking four A2. However, LSE does not accept a combination of three A2 in which two of them are maths and further maths, so that is one context in which four A2 might be sensible. A very good student, the calibre to try for one of the very top universities, ought to be able to cope with four A2 without dropping grades.
Which one to drop?
This is a tough decision for many students. Things to take into account:
- The requirements of your likely degree course. Now is the time to start your research. A good place to start is http://search.ucas.com/ For example, if you enter Economics and scroll down to Queen Mary (a popular London Russell Group destination), you will find under ‘entry requirements/A level’ that A level mathematics is required.
- How well are you doing in your subjects and how much do you enjoy them? It is an obvious point that you should choose your best subjects to carry on to A2. The grades are more important than anything else, so it simply doesn’t make sense in most cases to choose a subject you are likely to get a lower grade in.
- What are your subjects like at A2? Are they similar or different than AS? Ask your teachers. Also, what is the assessment like? For example, if you choose History, English Literature and Art, you will have a massive coursework burden – which is okay if you enjoy coursework. But with that combination, you might not want to add an extended project on top!
- Listen to advice from teachers, tutors, parents and others. BUT everyone has their own perspective and their own hang-ups and everyone is wrong or misleading some of the time. For example, some people might tell you to take maths instead of Sociology because maths is more highly regarded by universities: but actually, that is mainly rubbish. An A grade in Sociology will serve you better than a B in maths, unless maths is a requirement of the degree course. All A level subjects offered at Woodhouse are ‘good’ subjects and will take you where you want to go: for example, we had a student two years ago accepted for Cambridge History and one of her A2 subjects was Theatre Studies.
- The so-called facilitating subjects can be a misleading guide. They are called ‘facilitating’ because they facilitate progression in a number of different directions. But once you have decided your particular direction, then they are irrelevant: the only thing that matters is the course requirements and the grades.To spell that out a bit more: a subject like Classics, say, is not a facilitating subject but it is a well regarded, academic A level and will be just as good as any other subject at A2, so if you enjoy Classics at AS there is no reason not to take it at A2.
An extra course?
Some of you might want to add an additional course. The main ones that students consider are:
- AS Further maths – this is a good idea if you want to take maths or a maths-based subject at one of the top universities
- Extended project – we will send out further information on this later in the year.
Requirements for A2
At Woodhouse, you have to pass each subject in order to take it at A2. The full policy is on our website.
Nationally, Maths at AS level has one of the lowest pass rates. Only 84% of students pass at AS level in English schools and colleges, whereas the pass rate is 10% higher in English. Is that because English is easier? No. It is because to pass maths requires a different type of work habit, which some students never fully acquire. Success in Maths is not about being ‘brainy’, it’s about your attitude and commitment.
How to succeed in A Level Maths
Listen well in class, and ask if you don’t understand. Make good use of your class time.
Go over your notes after each lesson, and check you understand them. Re-write key points in clearer/different or more succinct form to be useful for revision. Finish any class work/exercises questions that you didn’t complete in class.
Just because you understood it when the teacher explained it doesn’t mean you understand it properly and can do it yourself. Practise.
Make sure every homework is your best possible work. Start it early, not the day before it’s due. Present it well, even if you have to write it out again. Don’t leave any questions undone.
Learn from every completed homework. What did you get wrong and why? Do you fully understand why you went wrong? Do those questions again and seek out some similar questions until you are confident.
At the end of every topic, compile a revision summary; practise some ‘skills’ questions from the textbook; do the MEI chapter assessment and/or some past paper questions on that topic.
Seek out some harder questions on every topic, questions at the end of the exercises or past paper questions that you don’t like the look of.
Get a little study group together, and explain things to each other. Having to explain something forces you to understand it better.
Spend most time on the topics/questions you don’t like or find hard.
Never give up on a question. If you can’t do it at first, try:
- Look for similar examples in your notes or the textbooks;
- Check and double-check your working for errors;
- Try a different method;
- Sleep on it and try it the next day;
- Ask a friend or your teacher or go to maths tutorial – but don’t ask until you have spent lots of time on your own struggling with the question. You won’t improve your ability to do harder problems if you ask for help too soon.
Much of this advice goes for other subjects too, especially science and related subjects.