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Exercise Books, Progress

What does a quality exercise book look like? A Humanities perspective…

A guest blog by Sunny Gunessee Head of Humanities Faculty, Oriel High School.


In the last twelve months more time has been spent doing book looks, work scrutiny, book checks and whatever else you would like to call it than ever before! As a part of this process it has become clear that a quality exercise book is one essential component that contributes to student progress. About two months ago during a History subject team meeting we discussed what we considered a quality exercise book to be; the following ideas are what came out of that conversation:

1. What is the book for? A diary of continuous improvement?
2. A record of useful examples / revision notes.
3. Effectively marked
4. A record of redrafting and building on previous learning.
5. Well-presented and clear to follow.
6. Tracking performance in assessments.
7. An opportunity to develop writing

These ideas are not exhaustive but a common understanding about the purpose of exercise books and expectations surrounding them are a useful reference point for both students and teachers.

Some questions that arose were:

1. What do OFSTED see as a quality book?
2. Does it matter?

My thoughts (@purplepedagogy) are that the revised OFSTED framework places a much greater emphasis on the progress that students make over time. A strong correlation is drawn between this progress and the quality of teaching, as such exercise books become a vital source of evidence of the progress that students make over time.

Exercise books should be able to demonstrate:

• The impact of a teacher’s marking in terms of student response and subsequent improvement
• Clear development of knowledge both in terms in breadth and depth
• Evidence about the differing degrees of challenge presented to students of differing start points

So, in response to the questions above:

1. An exercise book that shows; the journey a student has made from their individual start point, increasing breadth and complexity of knowledge; a book that is marked, with students responding and improving as a result of that marking.
2. Yes!

Back to Sunny….

In this article I would like to illustrate some of the existing best practice within the Humanities faculty (ranging from Business Studies to Sociology); demonstrating how this has had a positive impact on learning from a student’s perspective as well as sharing how teachers have managed to improve the quality of exercise books without creating excessive workload.
Having spent time speaking to students from KS3-KS5 it became apparent that exercise books/folders are perceived as having a greater value to KS4 students. This perception has raised an important question about how exercise books are being used at KS3? Time spent recently interviewing KS3-5 students revealed a variation in student attitudes about the purpose of an exercise book or folder. An overwhelming number of KS4 students see their exercise books as a vital component in their preparation for their future exams, citing an exercise book as a potential source of revision notes, a record of attempts at practice exam questions or as a tracking document showing how well they have performed over the course of the year. It is clear to see that our KS4 (surprisingly more than KS5 students) are ‘savvy’ as to how their exercise book can help them. However KS3 students were extremely ‘blunt’ in their valuation of exercise books, ‘it is just where I write information about what I am studying’ and ‘exercise books are just where I copy information’. This suggests a potential area for development in terms of how we address the issue of making the KS3 exercise book as equally impactful as it’s KS4 counterpart.

The OFSTED school inspection handbook is quoted as saying,

‘…evidence of pupils’ learning and progress over time, including work in their books and folders.’

This suggests that an incredibly important piece of evidence for this process is going to be exercise books. The bigger issue has to be making exercise books a genuine source of useful information that allows consolidation and reassurance for the students about the progress they have made throughout the course of an academic year.

Some of the strategies that have been used throughout the Humanities faculty to support the achievement of exercise book nirvana are as follows:



Students have to act on questions placed into their books on stickers (Created by teachers which have a bespoke WWW (what went well) and EBI (even better if) comments) which help develop their understanding of learning from the previous lesson. This strategy is simple and effective in that it allows easy redrafting of work making use of the green pen strategy.



Exercise books need to be able to be used as a tracking document to allow students to see how their learning is progressing. The inclusion of clear, progressive assessment criteria is really helpful in allowing students to have clarity about the requirements of assessment and expectations. It also enables easy and effective self and peer assessment.


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Exercise books should be well presented; showing diligence in presenting work in a careful and meaningful way ensuring it will benefit students in the future as a revision tool. The inclusion of colours, diagrams and mind maps helps students have work in a format that can be revised from immediately without additional recoding, thus saving time. Who needs a revision guide when you have got top-notch exercise books?

Effective Marking

Marking is the dialogue between student and reviewer (sometimes teacher!) that scaffolds progress and helps address misconceptions.

The use of peer and self assessment (done with) seems to develop a sense of greater student ownership of the exercise book whereas excessive teacher marking without response to the feedback (done to) seems to reduce levels of ownership and value placed onto the exercise book.


The infancy stages of RAG marking (but with double ticks, single ticks and question marks instead of colours)

Exercise books should provide an opportunity for students to understand and engage with their own personal learning journey and recognise that it is not just a final book for all ‘perfect’ notes. Giving students opportunities to engage with practice questions, assessments or extended marking by self-reflecting before final marking allows them to understand and develop the traits they should be striving to exhibit in their writing.


The images below are further examples of how exercise books are being well used currently:


Examples of simple ways to do self-assessment, before summative marking.

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Simple ways to show progress at interim points over the course of a unit

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Exercise books show the journey the student has gone on to improve.


Useful literacy prompts!


Ensure students are clear about where they are aiming!

The continual drive for better quality outcomes for our students probably requires us to critically examine how we use our exercise books to promote incremental improvement. Ideally the book should show the journey that a student has undertaken and be a form of diary of continuous improvement. One thing is for sure, it is hard work to ensure that the full potential of an exercise book is realised. The only way to really achieve it is to make sure that our expectations of students are very high and that we do not accept mediocrity either from our students or ourselves!

By Sunny Gunessee



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