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What is the correct balance between learning for exams and learning for understanding?

Updated: Aug 17, 2023

Exam season is upon us. At this time of year students and teachers are rightly focused on revision, exam strategy and past papers. This is the time for students to focus their attention on the assessment itself – to ensure that they are able to translate their knowledge and understanding into high scoring answers and problem solving.

There are two questions that I often hear around this time of year:

‘What’s the point of this?’,


‘Will this be on the exam?’

As a tutor who works as a specialist in exam preparation, I feel it’s important to address both questions.

In my own teaching the goal is always to balance the rigours of the syllabus and exam success with a well-rounded and relevant approach. With geometry problems in Maths for instance, we spend time looking at the real-world applications in design and engineering. In the study of rhetoric in English, we look at advertising, news and political speeches. Students do want to know why they are learning what they are learning in school: ‘What’s the point of this?’ is an all-important question. Fortunately, at GCSE and A-level it's easy to find many real-world examples of how a student’s learning relates to industry, society and general life.

Regarding how much exam-specific preparation a student should do – it depends on the exam and how close a student is to the exam. If the exam is a KS1, KS2 or KS 3 exam, students should be learning to develop skills without a great deal of thought about the assessments: perhaps a week or so of specific preparation for assessments is enough. For large public exams such as the GCSE and A-level, students should be focused on learning for understanding for about 70% of the course, with the final 30% of the course becoming more exam specific. Generally, this balance is one that most students feel motivated by.

It might surprise some that one of the most common complaints I hear from students is that their exams were too limited in their scope and in fact they weren’t able to explore things in much depth. I see this as a good complaint – it means that students know more than they are able to communicate within the scope of their exam. It’s not something that students should worry about – it’s actually rare that you can produce your best work in the exam itself This is perfectly normal; we’re not looking for perfection, just a solid performance displaying the relevant knowledge and skills.

An under-discussed issues that students sometimes have is timing. This is something we work on in the weeks leading up to exams. The most common issue is spending excessive amounts of time on questions that are simply not worth many marks – this applies particularly to the early questions on the English Language papers. On the Maths papers student can sometimes spend too much time on questions that they’re unable to answer fully. There is a balance to be struck between giving yourself enough time to attempt a challenging question and getting bogged down on a problem that you can’t solve.

Overall the balance between learning for understanding and learning for the exam is a question that needs to be carefully considered for each individual student. There is also something of a false dichotomy at play here – this isn’t an either or scenario: broad general learning will only assist you in exams, while in depth revision for assessments will improve your knowledge and appreciation of a subject.

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