The long and winding road: how factual recall tests can effectively support linear examination courses

Wimbledon High History

By Emily Anderson, Head of History.

Think back, if you can, to your own History studies at school, whether these were months, years or perhaps decades ago. For most, the content covered becomes, over time, increasingly hard to recall. My current grasp of the French Revolution, for example, which I studied at AS Level, is embarrassingly basic now, almost 15 years later, as it is something I have rarely had need to revisit. At Parents’ Evening, parents smile wryly at vague memories of the Corn Laws or the Spinning Jenny (not meaning to undermine their importance, but their ubiquity in the collective memory of British adults is truly extraordinary) and voice envy at the breadth of opportunities available in the current History curriculum.

Instead, it is the broad conceptual understanding of, say, the nature of power, as well as the skills that remain, and these which lie at the heart of the purpose of History education for our department here at WHS. Empowering our students to participate in the academic discourse of History is our core aim, to enable them to engage critically with the world around them in their future lives. It is, however, impossible to participate in this discourse without what has been termed ‘fingertip knowledge’ as well as more conceptual ‘residual knowledge’: to secure meaningful progress in History, both need to be developed (Counsell, 2000). As argued recently in Teaching History where dialogue around cognitive psychology is increasingly evident, ‘fluent access to a range of types of knowledge is what enables historians to participate in some of the more sophisticated forms of historical discourse’ (Fordham, 2017).

Recent changes to A Levels (AL) have brought how we secure this fingertip knowledge into focus. The nature of the new linear exams mean there is more demand for a greater volume of content to be retained over a longer period of time. The importance of detail is evident both from reviewing past papers and from our experience in examining at AL last summer.

To approach this, we reflected on our experience of nurturing fingertip as well as residual knowledge at GCSE, where the linear model is, of course, long established, as is our practice of setting factual recall tests at the end of each topic. Our evaluation of the latter is below:

Advantages Disadvantages

It is classic retrieval practice, which results in stronger storage and retrieval strength (Fordham, 2017).

It encourages an extra stage of revision early in the course before more high stakes testing kicks in for mocks and terminal exams, reducing the pressure on Year 11.

It helps lead to great results (above 75% A* in the past three years).

Our tests were much too challenging – becoming notorious amongst our students and sapping morale.

They were no longer fit for purpose – pupils would never need to recall such specific detail, especially after the reform of the CIE IGCSE Paper 4 in 2015 which removed such questions.


Therefore, we have changed the structure of our tests to open ended questions. At IGCSE these are in the style of 4 mark recall questions. At AL I am experimenting with questions taking the form ‘cite two pieces of evidence which could be used to support an argument that…’, or similar. To try to tackle the issue of relevant but vague answers, I have awarded bonus marks at AL for detail to encourage both a conscious choice in selecting evidence (as pointed out by Foster & Gadd (2013)) and in-depth revision. All are now out of a uniform mark – 20 – to encourage comparison across topics and at different stages of the two years.

Furthermore, we have used the new AL structure to rethink when we test, in order to support maximum recall over the two years. Here, we currently have two approaches: retaining end of topic testing at GCSE in order to keep the advantages identified above, but utilising spaced tests at AL (the benefits of which are argued by, amongst others, Laffin (2016) and Fordham (2017)) by revising and testing existing knowledge on a topic before the next stage of it is covered. This lends itself particularly well to the unit on the British Empire from c1857-1967: in the past few weeks, my Year 13 class have sat tests on the increasing independence of the Dominions and on India, both in the period from c1867-1918, before studying inter-war developments. Students then complete their own corrections, consolidating the learning and identifying areas for development. During the revision period at AL, they can also undertake the same test several times citing different evidence. My 2017 cohort had, at their own suggestion, a star chart to record how many times they had undertaken a test for each area of the course, broadening their evidence base each time.

Whilst I hope that this gives a snapshot of the department’s current and very fledgling thinking, I would be mortified if it was taken to show that we are overly focussed on factual recall testing in the department. We are not. Tests of course never can and never will be the ‘be all and end all’ in terms of assessing student progress, but approaching them critically can only be a good thing.

References and further reading

Counsell, C. (2000). Historical knowledge and skills: a distracting dichotomy . In James Arthur and Robert Phillips, Issues in history teaching (pp. 54-71). London: Routledge.

Fordham, M. (2017). Thinking makes it so: cognitive psychology and history teaching. Teaching History, 166, 37-43.

Foster, R., & Gadd, S. (2013). Let’s play Supermarket ‘Evidential’ Sweep: developing students’ awareness of the need to select evidence. Teaching History, 152, 24-29.

Laffin, D. (2016). Learning to like linear? Some ideas for successful introduction of the new A Levels. Historical Association Conference workshop.