High-stakes assessment can feel intimidating to young people, especially when they have little prior experience of it. Strong Pastoral Leadership can pave the way for students to adapt and cope with the pressure. Amy-May Forrester explains how…

One of the greatest challenges Key Stage 4 students face lies in the form of their GCSE exams. Given the disruption that they have all faced over the past two years, this feels more important now than ever before.

Now, more than ever, Pastoral Leaders have a real challenge on their hands in preparing and supporting KS4 students effectively. As we look towards a new academic year, now is the time to turn our attention to long-term plans to do just this, giving our students the best possible chance of achieving success for themselves.

How should Pastoral Leaders approach a long-term plan?

The first thing that you need to account for is how well your school has already laid the foundations for your students, in terms of their knowledge of learning and in how best to systematically approach revision for their exams.

The transition point between Year 10 and Year 11 is the ideal opportunity to begin working on this, if you havent done anything like this previously. Even where you have, we know that students need regular retrieval practice to create long-term learning. This is exactly the same as what we might think of as more traditional, academic learning.

There are some key concepts that it is vital that students understand, to maximise their potential in their future exams.

Ebbinghausforgetting curve:

When we teach students about memory, and about learning, the study of memory, and of forgetting is a crucial part of the work that we need to do in this area.

In my experience, studentsperceptions of forgetting can become something that they fixate on, and use to create a self-fulfilling prophecy of failure. This is because our brains naturally forget a lot of what we know, encounter, or learn about in any given day.

Unless students understand this and are suitably reassured that this is a normal foible within the human brain, they can risk fulfilling a narrative that leads them to failure, simply because of how easy it can be for them to assume that their weakness means they are stupid.

Ensuring students know this and can appreciate the regularity at which our brains forget things we have learnt, is a vital part of helping them to overcome the natural difficulties that we all face when trying to create long-term learning.

The route to empowering them lies in the way that we educate them about learning and memory. Once they realise that we forget things quickly, and that recalling them helps us to strengthen the memory, they can understand the value of recapping learning or in revising regularly.

Teaching them specifically about Ebbinghaus’ Forgetting Curve can really help them to understand how to work more effectively with their own learning and revision. Not only is understanding this important, but the most crucial aspect that our students need to take from this lies in the way that we strengthen our memories, our learning, through regular recap and retrieval practice.

Retrieval Practice

This goes hand-in-hand with teaching students about The Forgetting Curve. As students begin to understand the concept of forgetting, and how recapping learning helps to strengthen the duration of the learning, they also begin to see the value of it in helping them achieve longer-term retention.

After this point, as students begin to understand the science of learning, its important to explicitly teach students practical methods of retrieval to help them play a more independent role as active participants in their own journey towards long-term retention of learning.

It is also helpful at this point to bring onboard your subject-experts from within departments. Retrieval practice looks different in different academic disciplines, and we need to incorporate the expertise of classroom teachers to further help students know what to do specifically in each subject.

Furthermore, it is also helpful at this point to make use of the findings from Cepeda et.al 2009 which explores the regularity at which the recap of learning should be done, broken down by the period of time that we need to learn something for.

Time before test

Optimal interval between study sessions

1 week

1-2 days

1 month

1 week

2 months

2 weeks

6 months

3 weeks

1 year

4 weeks

The way that we talk about this with students needs careful thought. It can, if delivered clumsily, lead to some students viewing it as a tool from which they can cram revision in the short term.

With this in mind, its helpful to use this to underpin your message that long-term learning is the goal that we are all aiming for, and that learning in and of itself is a wonderful thing.

The findings from the Cepeda paper also helpfully highlight just how regularly we need to remind ourselves of subject knowledge and content if we are to retain it. This needs to be the message that you craft when educating your students; learning is a long-term commitment, not a short-term activity.


The concept of effort, when it comes to schools and students, is a complex one. Its something we might talk about regularly with students, but its meaning and what it means in practice can often mislead teachers and students.

If I asked you whether youd ever told a student to put a bit more effort in, would your answer be yes? Im willing to bet it would be. In the same vein, if I asked you if youve ever had a student say to you that they know they need to put more effort in, Id also be willing to bet that your answer would also be yes. Its easily done.

Now, if I asked you what that meant, what would you say? How would you define effort? And, crucially, does it even impact learning as much as we might think?

Defined as using more mental energy for any given unit of time – not just using more timeby renowned expert in the field Professor John Dunlosky (2020), effort, it seems, is simply a measure of the energy that we might exert on a task.

Crucially, as Dunlosky explores throughout his research, it may not be the case that effort, in and of itself, makes any discernible impact on learning. In fact, it is more so the case that it is students’ actions, and the things that they are thinking, which are what matters, and what, crucially, makes the most impact on learning, according to Dunlosky.

He argues that it is what students are doing that has the causal impact on their learning, not the effort that they invest in it. In practice, this means we need to train students to understand that it is not their effort that will directly impact their progress – the real success lies in ensuring that they are doing the right things.

In our role as Pastoral Leaders, we have a duty to ensure that students not only understand this concept, but also to ensure that they also know what they should be doing, that are the right things. We are uniquely placed to bring together their different subjects, with expert input from subject teachers, to ensure that every child is appropriately supported to work independently in the most effective ways possible. They should very clearly know what they should be doing in each discrete subject, to revise effectively.

In bringing all of this together, Pastoral Leaders can create a Pastoral curriculum which directly addresses the knowledge that students need, including the knowledge of the inner workings of their minds, that empower them to be active participants in their own success.


Cepeda, N.J., Vul, E., Rohrer, D., Wixted, J.T. and Pashler, H. 2009. Spacing effects in learning: A temporal ridgeline of optimal retention. Psychological Science. 11. Pp 1095-1102.

Dunlosky, J., Badali, S., Rivers, M.L., Rawson, K. 2020. The Role of Effort in Understanding Educational Achievement: Objective Effort as an Explanatory Construct Versus Effort as a Student Perception. Educational Psychology Review, 32, pp. 1163-1175


Amy is Director of Pastoral Care (KS4), Head of Year 10 and an English teacher at Cockermouth School.

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