https://ofqual.blog.gov.uk/2015/03/18/gcse-english-literature-learning-and-understanding-not-memory/

GCSE English literature - learning and understanding, not memory

I am sure many of you will have seen comments in the media over the past few days about the benefits or costs, practicalities or need for students to memorise poetry as part of their secondary school education. This debate appears to have grown from a misunderstanding about the assessment requirements of the reformed GCSE English literature exam. So let me take a moment to set the record straight so that the debate can continue in a more informed way.

Some commentators are arguing that students will need to learn poems by heart to succeed in the reformed exam, but that is simply not true. Rather, it is a deep understanding and breadth of reading that will get students good marks.

The content requirements produced and published by the Department for Education require that students’ study ‘whole texts’. These can range from an anthology of poetry to lengthy novels. The Department also requires students be able to critically compare these texts using ‘relevant quotation and detailed textual references’.

In order to access higher grades students will therefore need to be able to show that they are familiar with the texts - that they have studied them – and their understanding be sufficiently developed to be able to compare them with other texts that might be presented. But there is no expectation that students should have to regurgitate paragraphs of text in the exam. Assessment is about learning and understanding, not memory.

Glenys Stacey
Chief Regulator

18 comments

  1. Abigail Day

    You argue that 'there is no expectation that students should have to regurgitate paragraphs of text' and yet ‘relevant quotation and detailed textual references’ are imperative to get a good mark. This seems a little contradictory. I don't see why clean copies of the text are not allowed in exams - it will still be abundantly clear whether the student is familiar with the text or not from their analysis! There is no way of getting around the fact that this will ALWAYS be a memory test until students have the texts with them to refer to.

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    • Heather Jones

      Abigail Day is completely correct in what she says and it is alarming that the Chief Regulator is unable to spot the contradictions within her own statement. I feel saddened and angry that any child with an excellent and well developed understanding of literature may be unable to show this in an English Literature exam because, under exam conditions and time frames, he or she is unable to recall the exact quote or detailed text required to prove a point. In what sense is this a test of understanding rather than of memory?

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  2. Joshua Turner

    Earlier this year I started a petition asking that GCSE English literature students be allowed the blank texts in their exams. So far, it has received over 18,000 signatures- showing that this is not my individual opinion, but that of many across the country. The government response, and this blog, clearly states that students are not required to know word for word the poems and plays we have studied. However, both the response and your blog also state that, in depth and sophisticated textual references will be required in order for candidates to achieve the top grades. Surely, the candidates memory is being tested if they must remember the "textual references" they are required to include in their answers. If the purpose of the GCSE English literature and language exams are not to test ones memory, then what is the intention in not giving students the texts they must refer to.

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  3. Francesca Gillard

    I'm sorry but that's completely wrong. In order to get the high marks yes you do need to be familiar with the text and understand it but you ALSO have to learn hundreds of quotes for people and themes. No matter what you say it IS a memory test because although you are given an extract of the text, you also have to write about the ENTIRE text as a whole and select parts which aren't in the tiny extract. To get grade 7 and above (A and above) you must insert quotes from the text into your writing, hence the "textual references" asked for in the mark scheme. Those then have to be analysed. Please, stop writing around what the problem actually is and just accept the fact that children are getting severe mental issues from the pressure of these exams. If we, the students, are asking for open book exams, its not because we're lazy, it's because it is needed. It shows a problem when the country's leaders aren't listening to the people who actually matter in this issue. YOU aren't the ones taking this exam WE are. I am a 15 year old student, terrified about my future because the government can't be bothered to take the time to think and come up with a decent response to this issue. I acknowledge that if something does change, it will probably be implemented for my year, but I don't want the younger years to have to go through this

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  4. Lucy

    I personally think this is unacceptable because it's us who has to go through the pain of learning all the poems and books off by heart. This was the technique used decades ago and why bring it back? This world is only becoming more modern and developed so why bring back the rules which were placed years ago? You complain about how England's GCSE students are getting low grades but have you considered that it's the government's fault to why we are at this place. You can be there at the parliament and discuss about our countries problems and how to change it but you never consider that it's us who has to put up with your stupid and irresponsible decisions. Absolutely appalling.

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    • Yumna

      I totally agree with you, this government is rubbish in the terms of not listening to the people who actually matter, and who are actually bothered to voice their opinions

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  5. Abbaas Shakil

    Even if the exam boards compromise and let us have the poem anthology while we have to learn everything else, it'll just ease the burden of revision so much.

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  6. Ash

    This is absolute nonsense. The entire post is a contradictory mess, and is a clear example of why students are struggling. It is ridiculous that you have decided to transition the exams at different years, and even more so that you make the exams harder. The students studying for the 2017 only have one sample paper to prepare for from, which is absurd.

    You claim that the exam is about understanding rather than memory, so how does providing the texts impact that? If I took the examination and understood the texts thoroughly, but forgot a quote to use, does that then mean that I lack complete understanding and should have my grade lowered? Or does that show that I didn't memorise the texts well enough? No matter what you say, memory clearly has a strong influence on this exam.

    I could memorise two poems for the Poetry paper, and if they came up, I could do better than someone who had struggled to memorise thorough details about the minimum 15 poems required.

    Students are already expected to study details for other GCSE assessments, such as all three sciences, Geography, History, Religious Studies, and more. The decision to remove open texts seems to be an unnecessary decision that will limit the capabilities of students taking the exam.

    Overall, your points are not clear. You contradict yourself, and have ignored the complaints of students. You are adding more pressure to an already pressuring situation, with students entering an exam that they are likely unprepared for (due to the lack of resources). You are the problem, not the students.

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  7. Ash

    This is absolute nonsense. The entire post is a contradictory mess, and is a clear example of why students are struggling. It is ridiculous that you have decided to transition the exams at different years, and even more so that you make the exams harder. The students studying for the 2017 only have one sample paper to prepare for from, which is absurd.

    You claim that the exam is about understanding rather than memory, so how does providing the texts impact that? If I took the examination and understood the texts thoroughly, but forgot a quote to use, does that then mean that I lack complete understanding and should have my grade lowered? Or does that show that I didn't memorise the texts well enough? No matter what you say, memory clearly has a strong influence on this exam.

    I could memorise two poems for the Poetry paper, and if they came up, I could do better than someone who had struggled to memorise thorough details about the minimum 15 poems required.

    Students are already expected to study details for other GCSE assessments, such as all three sciences, Geography, History, Religious Studies, and more. The decision to remove open texts seems to be an unnecessary decision that will limit the capabilities of students taking the exam.

    Overall, your points are not clear. You contradict yourself, and have ignored the complaints of students. You are adding more pressure to an already pressuring situation, with students entering an exam that they are likely unprepared for (due to the lack of resources). You are the problem, not the students.

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  8. Steve Campsall

    For a student to be able to show and exemplify their close knowledge of the effects created by a writer's linguistic choices, including those created by form and structure, key parts of each text will need to be memorised.

    Since the student cannot know which parts of any text will be relevant until the exam question is met with, it is, thus, very difficult, to limit a student's memory requirement. Considering that the new exam covers many complex texts, including Shakespeare and 19th century texts, this requirement is unfair and does not test any useful subject knowledge.

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  9. Hannah

    Its not just the poems we need to learn, we have three books and 15 poems. We are not allowed anything in the exam and that means we have to memorise too many quotes and also what the book is about and the analysis. I don't think any of the goverment would be able to get above a level 4 in the literature exam. It is too difficult to not have the book

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  10. Ross Jeffrey

    "relevant quotation and detailed textual references" and how do you do that? Oh yes, by remembering the quotes. We're not talking 3 or 4 quotes here, more like 10 or 12 from each main character in 3 different books as well as roughly 5 quotes from each poem. Not only, but also we must also have to talk about themes, methods and context in poems which will require more quotes to be learned. Now if we were simply given the books and poems in the exam, there would be no need for remembering but only analysis. The government seem to be forgetting that English isn't the only subject, I have 27 exams coming up! Mostly 2 or 3 a day! Maths now requires us to remember all the formulas because that was another funny idea the government came up with. For God's sake, give us books and make it easier. In the past, students have not been expected to remember all these quotes and themes and they've simply gotten their A' s through analysis. Why can't it be the same for us?!

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  11. Yumna

    I'm absolutely disgraced by this new syllabus; we as students have raised many signatures to show our concern, however as a result an email was sent simply stating what we already knew. As a result of this new syllabus, many of my peers have become depressed and stressed. When are the government going to understand that this syllabus is simply too much for the average 15-16 year old student to handle. We have expressed our opinions only to get shut down yet again. The UK is statistically not one of the best countries academically speaking. Bringing a harder, more complex GCSE syllabus into schools will definitely not improve this. Honestly I would not be wasting my time writing this comment, but I am fed up (as are many others 18,000+ share this view) of this new syllabus the government has simply dumped on us with ONLY 2 YEARS NOTICE. The grading system has not been released. Its in a shambles.

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  12. Ryan warren

    Even though you are not required to learn the poems off by heart, 15 quotes from 15 poems is still almost impossible to memorize, and that is minimum standard having one quote per poem, also the fact that if you mess up a single bit of the quote it's bad for the student, it is unnecessary for this change to be made, if students are doing bad in Exams don't make the exams harder, that just makes things even harder, the current examinations are already hard enough, so what is the need in making them even harder, I know several people who made it out by the tip of their finger with a C in their English exam. If standards are raised them all your going to get is A LOT of unqualified or lower than pass marked students and the extremely occasional very smart student, soon we'll all be working at McDonald's...

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  13. Henry Bird

    I am doing my gcses this year but actually I think it's okay. It's not 'unacceptable' people! It's the correct thing to do. Every test has a aspect of memory. Just like in biology or in maths and remembering those methods. Yes it's harder of course it is. It's the governments way of separating the talented from the semi-talented. It's bringing infuther division so that in employment, someone can differentiate a good solid A* from a low A*. Making it harder just does not matter. Everyone this year in year 11 doing GCSEs is taking the test. The SAME test. Grade boundaries are not just made up but after analysing how everyone does.

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    • Yumna

      Fair enough, its easy for you - but many others as, you can see from the 100,000+ signatures the petition has received, think otherwise.

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  14. Sidharth Nambiath

    As a rather competent student of GCSE English, I find it outrageous to see the Chief Regulator blindly trying to justify the problems with the exam. To a certain degree, memorizing quotes does show an understanding, but the premise that this is necessary is utterly ridiculous. When given an extract from a story, I, and many other esteemed colleagues can produce a fantastic analysis. Your argument, Chief Regulator has not answered the question but just raised the claim that this is not a memory test, when all evidence and experience points otherwise. I'd like to hear a valid reason as to why there is any need for memory when the exam is supposedly testing one's understanding and interpretations of a given test.
    Thank you.

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