Year 11 Exam Prep: The Staple Challenge

I’ve been tweeting about “The Staple Challenge” for a few months now, and the rationale behind it is really quite hard to fit into short tweets. So I thought a blog was in order!

What is it?

As the name suggests, it is about working on an exam paper “to the staples”. I use this term broadly, as what we tend to do is take the first 40 marks (approximately) and give them to the students.

The idea is to give students 30 minutes to complete these 40 marks, independently in exam conditions. This timing is roughly based on the ‘one mark a minute’ mentality, but knowing that the fact recall questions at the start often take a little less time.

We mark with students and then collect two marks:

  • The “half paper” total
  • The marks before a student dropped a mark

These Challenges are a regular feature of Year 11 lessons, and so help us and the students to build up a picture of where they are at, and how they can improve.

How does the lesson work?

Students come in to the lesson where papers are already out. The past couple of years we’ve also been able to have the formula sheet on the table and ask students to add to this with things we’ve noticed they often forget (another idea for another time!). I think this is somethign I will continue to ask them to do on the front of the paper or a “Blank Page” when we no longer have the formula sheets.

Students are reminded of the rationale behind the challenge and then I set a 30 minute timer. And off they go…

At the end of the 30 minutes, I do a ‘walking talking’ version of the paper, and tell students where the marks come from. They self-assess as we go along to give them immediate feedback. There are various set ups for this:

  • I have my own version of the paper ready to give a model answer, then explain where the marks come from on this model under the visualiser. (I often do the paper in the same time frame as the students to save on workload!)
  • I circulate the room and spot where students are making the most errors so I know where to focus my attention when marking.
  • For ‘chunky’ questions (4+ marks), I will often model a full live solution. I want to focus on the exam technique here, as many students find breaking these questions down quite difficult.
  • I have the mark scheme at hand to show alternative methods, or make the METHOD marks really obvious to students… particularly those that like to just write the answer!

Once the marking has been completed we collect two marks:

  • Total for the ‘half paper’ – this gives them an idea of their perfomance overall
  • The number of marks before making a mistake – to focus attention on accuracy and checking

The idea is that these challenges are a regular occurence and so students work to improve on these each time.We log this on a spreadsheet to allow comparison week on week, and also to show the ‘current grade’ against previous grade boundaries on the first half of the paper alone.

Why is it useful?

The biggest driver for this approach has been the “silly mistakes” we have all seen students make consistently in the first few pages of the paper. Rounding to the nearest 100, when asked for the nearest 10… Not reading the word “odd”… Giving a number thant is not in the given list… Mixing up multiples and factors…

But since I began using it, The Staple Challenge has many more positive impacts:

  1. Students get time dedicated to exam practice and exam technique.
  2. Students become used to seeing the exam paper and how to approach it, with less panic and stress.
  3. Students get more familiar with how their papers will be marked and what examiners are looking for.
  4. Students get a WAGOLL model for an exam paper – particularly if you do the paper at the same time as them, so they can see how to organise their thoughts to maximise their chances of success.
  5. Students get immediate feedback on topics they might need to focus their revision on.
  6. Teachers are given some insight into what topics students struggle with, and build these into their planning for the group.
  7. Attention is drawn to the ‘easier’ parts of the paper that students tend to rush, and they learn to slow down and check their work more closely.
  8. Comparing marks to recent grade boundaries can sugets to students what they need to do in the second half of the paper to get to the grade they want… often I can then phrase this as “So now you have 34 marks on the first half, you only need x marks to reach the 4 on this paper, out of the other 40!”


In the first department I used it in, we used a full set of “half papers”, once each week, to give a “half grade”in the half term run up to the summer exams. It was nice to get some mixed practice in, with some sort of routine but it felt like it could be better embedded. We then upped this to also include the 3 weeks before each mock session.

This year we began using them every fortnight through the year, and weekly in the run up to mocks. However we ultimately decided that this was not the best use of lesson time for us at this stage, as each set uncovered some re-teaching we had to do.

I think the set up of 3 weeks before a mock, and a few sets in the run up to the ‘real deal’ is the best compromise for us, but I would love to hear how it goes for anyone that tries to embed it regularly thoughout the year.

What about the second half of the paper?

I think this is one of the other highlights of the Staple Challenge… you are left with a second “half paper” to use in your teaching. I’ve used it in the following ways:

  • Set the second half as homework, then gone through it on the “due date” in lesson, similarly to the usual Staple Challenge lessons, but with more emphasis on live modelling under the visualiser.
  • Set specific questions for homework, and mark them myself.
  • Complete the second half in a similar way to the Staple Challenge lessons, giving students a number of minutes to complete certain questions (often working on the 1 mark per minute principle) and then reviewing. I ‘chunk’ this, so students feel less overfaced.
  • Full walking-talking mock style lessons. Often these include an element of “choosing” which questions to complete first, so students realise they can leave questions and return to them later for optimal results!
  • Stduents complete the second half in 40 minutes, then are given the mark scheme.
  • I sometimes stagger this approach and give them 20 minutes independently, 20 minutes in pairs, 20 mins with the mark scheme (each in a different colour to help guide their revision).


I am a great believer in these impact of these challenges. They are a great example of something low impact on workload, but high impact and retuen for our students.

They give both me and my students a focus for their revision; is it about focussing on learning new topics/revising old ones to be able to get more marks, or simply looking at the accuracy they execute the paper with? I also focus my questionoing when taking scores on asking if the issue/improvement today was down to their accuracy or knowledge.

I feel they have been a real motivational force for my students over the last 4/5 years too. Tracking the scores means stduents are in competition with themselves, and consistently ask “is that better than last time?” and always feel proud when they’ve upped one of the scores… it is a personal choice which means the most to them, and this changes over the year.

I really hope you’ll give them a go… please let me know if you try them out and how it goes!


Intro slides, pictured above (editable):

Staple Challenge Log – very basic and rough and ready – does what it needs to in the columns we have used this year! Formulae can be copied if needed.

Edexcel Papers

We have chosen to use the Edexcel Practice Sets this year (we wanted it clear cut which ones others could use in lessons etc). I have literally taken them from the Emporium and just deleted after approx 40 marks.
The edits I’ve made so far are here. I will try to remember to update this when I make more, but can’t promise I won’t forget!

AQA Papers

The lovely Brooke Hunter and Jennifer Tremble have kindly shared their AQA edits here. (requires a Microsoft Office log in)

4 thoughts on “Year 11 Exam Prep: The Staple Challenge

  1. I have started to use the staple challenge with my year 10 GCSE class who are working towards a grade 4/5 on the foundation paper.
    I am actually thinking of doing my masters dissertation on it.
    I’ve created a spreadsheet to record and note progress per paper which I’d be happy to share


  2. Hiya, really great idea. Thank you for sharing. Would it be possible to get the AQA papers on a dropbox link? I am unable to access them at the moment.


    1. Hi – they aren’t my links, unfortunately. Maybe contact Brooke if you’re having issues? There’s a new link today that might work if you have an office log in too 🙂


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s