Helping Students Get an A*

Becky Kleanthous  · Dec 13th 2021

Year after year, students and teachers wince as they endure the crotchety old grumbles that “exams are getting easier”. Perhaps they are, if by “easier” they mean that we don’t wallop the kids with a stick every time they do badly in their mocks.


But on the inside (of the staffroom, that is), we know differently. The actual subject content seems to be growing exponentially, to the point where it has to be lubricated with WD40 and sat on by a hippo to fit into the allocated teaching time. Oh, and there’s the small matter of ever-increasing grade categories. An A grade, not too long ago, was top of the range. Now, the A* sorts the wheat from the chaff - or rather, the ultra-premium wheat from the ultra-premium-luxe wheat. But what exactly can we do to help students harness that extra prestige, the figurative (and literal) gold star?

The Nature of the Beast

Q: When’s an A not an A?
A: When it’s an A*.

Students who achieve A grades are likely to be confident and highly accurate in their subject knowledge, be able to create and follow a line of argument, and offer sophisticated and skilful responses to questions. The icing on the cake - or the star on the A - is an impressive flair, originality or imaginative approach when demonstrating all those skills above. It’s a kind of je ne sais quoi, a seasoned maturity that’s hard to fake: big readers will have the intertextual capital to make insightful connections in English that less passionate readers would not; students who have taken the time to know France as a country and a culture will feel a greater level of familiarity in their chosen topics and more authenticity in their speech style than someone who has just studied their French vocab notes really carefully.

So what do they do? They see subtle details. They make links within and between subjects. They have a critical eye, evaluating rather than accepting or regurgitating. They go the extra mile with personal research to cultivate a wider understanding of what and why the subject is what it is.

Chalk and Talk

Wouldn’t it be hilarious if our only advice was to just, like… teach… really well? Go on! Just go out there and teach your little heart out. Alright?

Before you defenestrate your laptop, just quickly scroll down the article to reassure yourself: we do realise there’s more to it than that. Oddly, much of the responsibility of securing the grade rests on the shoulders of the (*hushed whisper*) student whose ability is being assessed. Strange but true. And especially with the A*, more than any other grade, as it seems to measure something very particular to the student, a fire for learning that can’t really be faked. It can, however, be lit, if the kindling is already there.

There’s a lot you can do to coax the greatness out of those budding stars, so always remember to consider the most-able students in your differentiation plans alongside the least able. There are a number of ways to challenge and nurture high-achievers, so make it part of your classroom culture. Offer trips, extra-curricular clubs and activities, extension tasks, and freeform project work. Maintain the kind of collegiate, academically enthusiastic environment where you can come in on a Monday morning and before launching the lesson proper, discuss how your subject’s been out there living and breathing in the real world lately. Something happening with the Higgs Boson? An all-female version of Hamlet coming out? Whale found dead with 50 carrier bags in its stomach? Make it real, bring it to life. If the students are interested, they will learn. If they’re switched on to the real world, they’ll go and find out more. They’ll read, ask questions, dig deeper. So light that fire.

Oh and just to backtrack: the previous paragraph used that phrase ‘extension tasks’ that you’ll remember from your teacher training years. Do you still do it? It shouldn’t ever be a case of, “You’ve finished the task, so fill time by doing it all over again with a minor difference”. Don’t simply give more work, but raise the bar and help students reach sophistication in their subject knowledge. Have a bank of activities to hand, pitched at a higher level. Create a glossary of technical vocabulary that degree students would be using in this subject. Have a list of research questions handy, along with a laptop. Whatever you decide, you have to push them or they’ll coast. And it’s quite rare to coast into an A*.

Questions are huge, as you already know. Asking questions is really important. There are a few exceptions, of course (indeed, most educational establishments quietly permit firing a ship’s canon for the following: “Sir, are you married?”, “Miss, can we watch a video today?” and the big favourite, “But is this going to be in the exam?”) Omitted from that list, to the horror of many a teacher, is “Why are we learning this?” OK, it’s rarely offered up as a genuine philosophical enquiry, but if you can ignore the accompanying scowl, then it might actually be a very important question. If it’s a thrilling thing to learn, this whinging query won’t even crop up. And if it’s not thrilling, then why are they learning it? Why are you teaching it? Why do YOU think this matters? You chose to study this subject, after all. Make it real. Maybe it’s dull but important. Tell them why. Let them ask questions; encourage them to pick holes in Plato, to interrogate Picasso. Allow them to ask questions of each other, and of you. And ask them back.

Out of your Hands

Here’s the stuff you can encourage, but not force. It’s the stuff that passionate students will do for fun, without being asked or directed. And it’s the stuff that other students might do with some prompting, and could really benefit from. In short, it’s all good, baby.

  • Read widely. Wider. No, a bit wider still. Crime fiction, classics, gossip mags, blogs, autobiographies, plays, non-fiction, TV scripts, poetry, political flyers, cereal boxes…
  • Do some research. Have they heard about an interesting new type of beetle? Seen a picture of a badly eroded cliff? Learned about an unsolved maths puzzle? Excellent! Don’t just sit there. They need to check it out.
  • Pursue hobbies and interests. If these are closely aligned with their subject, students will be learning through self-directed fun all the time. What could be better?
  • Look outwards. These days, the kids call it ‘being woke’. They should be accessing news and world events through TV, radio and social media. What’s going on outside their bubble?

Back in your Hands

It was all so nice for a while, all this talk of passion for a subject, wider reading and wokeness. The word “exam” hadn’t even cropped up for a few paragraphs. Did you almost forget that’s what we’re getting back to?

Yeah, loads of the ‘star’ part of A* is out of your hands. But for many students, the potential is there if they’re given the tools. It’s your job to coach them to harness their skills effectively, and while exams continue to be the main currency of education (as dictated by government), you’ll need to show them which hoops to jump through (as derided by government). Makes sense.

This means trawling the archives for past papers, model answers and examiner reports. It means mock exams with strict timings, over and over until the same skill that’s discernible in a typical lesson can be distilled and demonstrated in stressful, stingily-timed conditions. Share A* responses with the class for every piece of work you mark, always allowing them to see how it’s done. Dissect the examiner’s report for gold-dust tidbits where they literally spell it out for you: every year, students screw up on question X because of Y. This is the stuff they need to know!

Make a handy list summarising the topics you’ve covered, and the subheadings within them. Diligent students can use this as a satisfying tick-list to work through, alongside a revision timetable to keep things productive but manageable.

Play the long game. Don’t start thinking about exams in April. Start thinking about exams the minute those bums hit the seats on the first day of term. You can set homework throughout the whole course to produce revision materials (posters, flashcards, presentations, videos…) as you go along, so that they’re ready to use come exam-season, with no flapping or faffing necessary.

You may still be traumatised by your suspension from St. Winifred’s, aged 14, for committing arson in the canteen, but this is the chance to right those wrongs, to star those As, as it’s the kind of fire-lighting that your current Headteacher will most definitely approve of. So grab your petrol and matchbox; see you in the classroom.

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