Tips for revision and exam success
Barnaby Lenon, the Chairman of the Independent Schools Council, prompted a media debate over Easter with his advice that students preparing for public exams should revise for seven hours a day over the holiday. The media looking to fill column inches at a quiet time of year quickly whipped up a polarised debate between seemingly divergent ‘experts’ with some arguing that children should work hard as exam results are broadly proportionate to effort, whilst others were worrying that excessive revision and exam pressure can have a negative effect on students’ mental health and wellbeing.
As with many such 1 or 0 debates, the answer lies in between and varies by student and subjects being examined. Both Mr Lenon and his critics are right – thorough revision does boost grades, but over-work and anxiety can compromise exam performance and harm pupil wellbeing. Less polarised and more nuanced revision guidance is required, so here are my common sense tips for optimum revision:
The most effective revision programmes are bespoke and tailor made to address the individual strengths and weaknesses of students and the particular demands of the subjects they are sitting. Beware generic revision guidance (like this!). Students are different in their abilities, their base line knowledge, their exam aspirations, their concentration spans, and their preferred methods of learning. Different subjects are assessed in different ways – some such as maths can be skills heavy and thus require lots of past paper practice, others such as history have a significant knowledge requirement which necessitates learning facts.
Work smarter not harder
Although there is a broad link between hours spent revising and grades achieved, it is certainly not an exact correlation. The quality of revision is just as important as the quantity. Two hours spent reading notes, during which time concentration comes and goes, may be far less effective than forty minutes actively summarising notes onto cards followed by five minutes of self testing to check understanding. Good revision is productive revision where pupils know significantly more at the end of a session than they did at the start. Productive revision is usually active in nature, such as teaching a topic to a friend or parent, as this maintains concentration. Productive revision plays to the particular learning strengths of the pupil concerned. For example, some learners may prefer to draw diagrams to enhance their revision, whilst others may find summarising key ideas in words more effective.
Be meticulous in seeking teacher help when it is needed
Many subjects are ‘wall-like’ in that students have to understand foundation concepts and themes before they can move on to more advanced material. If the foundation knowledge is shaky and uncertain, higher level understanding and progress will be compromised. Pupils can often be embarrassed about asking for help, but teachers love their subjects and like helping pupils achieve, so pupils must ask for assistance. Revision should help pupils become more self-aware of their strengths and weaknesses, and more confident in speaking out and asking for help. Revision is thus not just a means to better exam grades, but a way of developing self-awareness, self-help, and confidence, all of which are essential life skills.
Optimum revision requires a plan to ensure that all subjects and topics within them are adequately covered. Revision is typically a cumulative process, and most students have to revisit a topic a number of times to master it. The optimum revision plan will be subdivided into concentration span units separated by breaks. There is a reason that traditional school lessons are about 40 minutes in length as this corresponds with the concentration span of many teenagers. A popular revision model is 40 minutes of active revision, five minutes of self testing, and 15 minutes break in each revision hour.
The teenage body clock can favour sleeping in and then revising late, but unfortunately Exam Boards do not follow teenage time. Public exams are set between 9.00am and 5.00pm, and to avoid the exam equivalent of jet lag it is important that pupils revise during exam hours so they are used to being at their best in these times.
It would be untrue to say that revision is always interesting. There will be times when even the most committed students are vulnerable to distractions. To minimise the risk of distractions revise in quiet spaces but ideally not bedrooms – as if the first and last thing a pupil sees each day is work this can increase anxiety and compromise wellbeing. Perhaps the biggest source of distractions are mobile phones and the internet. It can be helpful to lock phones away during revision periods whilst there are various apps that block or lock down internet access on computers.
Look after yourself
Exams are demanding, and to do well pupils need to take care of themselves if they are to achieve their examination potentials. Good nutrition and hydration are essential, as too is sufficient sleep and exercise. Those who suffer from hay fever should discuss ‘non drowsy’ treatments with their doctor or pharmacist.
All students, no matter how self-confident they appear, suffer from examination nerves. A certain amount of anxiety can be a good thing in that it stimulates the mind and body, but too much can be debilitating. Students prone to anxiety should experiment with stress management techniques to find something that works for them. Simple breathing exercises can be very effective, whilst others find that a programme of physical activity throughout the revision and exam period will help settle nerves and improve performance.
Students who feel overwhelmed by revision and exams should talk to their parents, teachers, or a trusted adult. A problem shared with a responsible adult is a problem reduced in size, but a problem shared with other stressed exam candidates can sometimes be a problem multiplied as adolescent anxiety can be contagious.
Always have something to look forward to
Even the most self-disciplined students struggle with motivation during revision especially when the weather is good outside. So mini (between each revision day) and maxi (at the end of the exam period) treats are important to ensure that revision plans are stuck to. The brain needs to be rewarded for its efforts, and again the rewards should be personalised as what works for one student will not work for another. Chocolate, favourite TV programmes, sports fixtures, evenings out, and for maxi rewards post exams, holidays and presents typically feature on many students’ motivational lists.
Keep a sense of perspective
Perspective comes with age and experience, and is therefore often lacking in the young. For many teenagers public exams will (thankfully) be the greatest challenge to date in their young lives, so they may need some help keeping that challenge in perspective. Public exams are important and grades do matter, but they are not life and death occasions. Students have no grades prior to sitting the exams, and the very worst that can happen afterwards is they still have no grades. Resits are always possible, and whilst they cost in time and money they do provide a second chance opportunity. As such public exams are not make or break, many ultimately very successful people ploughed GCSE and A levels only to learn from their experiences and become stronger and wiser.
For all the emphasis on revision, exam technique is equally important. Many students under-achieve not through a lack of revision, but because they get things wrong in the exam room. Common exam technique failings include:
Poor timing, in particular spending too long answering questions worth only a few marks and then not completing the paper.
Not answering the question set, usually because students regurgitate pre-revised material without making it relevant to the specific question set. This is a particular danger when students have over-revised; if anything being a little under-revised can be best as students then have to think hard about what they write and in doing so make it relevant to the question set.
Not following the paper instructions (rubric) and answering the wrong number of questions from the wrong sections. Always read the rubric twice and highlight key instructions.
Not remembering that exams are marked according to prescriptive mark schemes which often require answers to be written in particular ways with trigger words or details needed to secure higher marks.
Slow and/or illegible handwriting. This is a growing issue in the digital age where many students use keyboards rather than pen and paper to produce assignments. Without practice hand writing speed and legibility suffer. Examiners can’t credit what isn’t there or what they can’t read, so fast clear handwriting is essential for exam success. The maximum permitted duration for public exams in one day is 6 hours, and that can feel like a hand writing marathon. As with any marathon training is required to deliver the best possible performance.
I hope these optimum revision tips are helpful, and wish all students preparing for public exams good luck. Ed Elliott, Head.