EXAM SEASON: Teachers offer their top revision tips

With GCSE and A-level exams looming, teachers TERRY FELL, JUDI FELL and MIRANDA DODD reveal their top revision tips to help our students earn the best grades, while coping with the stress of the exam season

FOR thousands of students across the country, this is the point at which nothing stands between them and their examinations other than a few final, rapidly dwindling weeks of preparation in school and at home.

Hopefully most will feel relatively well prepared and in control, but it can also be an extremely stressful time when the enormity of what is expected of you threatens to swallow you up in a tidal wave.

The overwhelming mass of what you feel hasn’t been done can be a paralysing experience, leaving you desperately moving from one task to another and doing none of them particularly well or, worse still, unable to bring yourself to actually revise.

From a psychological perspective, stress arises when there is an imbalance between the demands of a situation and our perceived ability to cope with that situation.

Therefore, if you want to feel less stress you can either increase your coping skills by undertaking more effective revision or change the perception of your coping skills by being more positive about your abilities.

For our students, the key thing is to take control of the situation. You can’t possibly do everything, but there is a lot you can do if you work efficiently and with focus.

The starting point in our revision preparation is to clearly identify what needs to be revised. The ideal here is a list for each subject, itemising each unit and topic studied.

Adopt a traffic light system

Now use highlighters to traffic-light this list:

  • Green for ‘I am confident with this’.
  • Amber for ‘I’m fairly comfortable with the basics, but I need to brush it up a bit and practise’.
  • Red for ‘It’s like I wasn’t even in the room when we studied this!’

Visualising the workload in this way immediately gives you a measure of control in that you know where to prioritise your efforts.

RED LIGHT: It is important not to take the view that ‘I don’t know anything at all about this.’ Undoubtedly you will have some level of understanding, the key is to identify three or four questions that, if answered, could help unlock the topic for you. Then approach a teacher with those specific questions. It’s much easier as a teacher to help focus in on specific areas of misunderstanding, than to try to address the whole topic.

AMBER LIGHT: The key here tends to be practice. As with Red, identify any specific questions that might help your understanding, then ask your teacher for some practice papers or titles, and ideally some mark schemes – or go to the examination board website and select suitable practice materials from there. Give yourself a decent period of dedicated time to work through these, until you feel able to turn the Amber to a Green.

GREEN LIGHT: It is human nature to gravitate to the topics that we feel most comfortable with and enjoy most. In revision terms, this isn’t helpful. Once a topic is green, leave it be, other than a brief run through near the examination.

The great thing with this system is that you can see at a glance where the priorities lie, and you are in control of how and when you tackle that piece by piece. This in itself puts you in control of the stress response, and allows you to channel it positively.

It is also very reassuring when you see the colours begin to shift in your favour!

Create a good workspace

A good workspace is key to quality revision – and it needs to be free from distraction, excessive noise, chatty friends or irritating siblings.

Leave your phone downstairs. A revision session is only useful if you haven’t spent half of it responding to notifications.

Make sure you have everything you need before you start so there is no excuse for breaking off from the session.

Understand your capacity

It’s a really good idea to identify your most productive and least productive points during the day and week.

A blank chart, dividing the day into hours, allows you to populate it with commitments (such as lesson times and sports fixtures) and non-negotiable ‘me time’ sessions (such as a Sunday lie-in, lunch with Grandpa or watching Line of Duty).

Once you have your immovable priorities scheduled, look at where the good quality spaces are for revision – time when you are unlikely to be distracted by friends, evenings that don’t follow a full day of school and a football fixture - points in the week or weekend when you know from experience you work well.

Mark these out as specific revision sessions, and then allocate specific topics to them, rather than a vague ‘I’ll revise some biology.’

Don’t try to overdo it – divide your available revision time into regular 40 minute sessions (this is the optimum time that we can remain focused); give yourself regular short breaks after every session, and don’t attempt to work for longer than two or three hours in a row without a decent break – your quality of revision drops off a cliff after a certain point.

Pin this schedule up at home for all the family to see so everyone can help you stick to it.

The best revision strategies

Research suggests the most effective revision involves moving between topics and subjects to keep your mind engaged and improve retention. We remember longer if we have to rebuild the neural connections actively, so leaving a gap between revision of the same subject or topic is much more valuable than doing it in one big chunk and then not revisiting it at all.

Try to switch between topics, activities, or even between subjects in every session, and then return to each again at another time.

Putting up revision display materials like diagrams or flashcards of quotes or formulae in and around your working area in constant eyesight is also a useful way of ensuring that this information becomes embedded.

Using your friends can be a great way for both you and them to benefit positively from company during revision. Arrange a peer revision session in a social space where you can chat; agree a topic for study; select some materials and share ideas and solutions as you go.

This often feels much more positive than a lonely vigil at your desk, and can often offer reassurance, or suggest new ways of looking at topics for everyone involved. Just make sure you don’t drift off task too often!

Organised, methodical revision strategies will enhance your coping skills for the exam, and help reduce stress.

The two stages of revision

REVIEWING AND REORGANISING INFORMATION

This involves making revision materials such as flashcards, diagrams, notes summaries, posters, essay plans or mind maps. Reorganisation requires understanding and will enhance your recall as you must process it more deeply than when simply reading it. You will also be adding what psychologists call ‘cues’, which are signposts to memories, such as key words or phrases.

TESTING YOURSELF USING THESE MATERIALS

Now use these new materials to apply this knowledge in as many practice situations as you can:

  • Testing memory retention of content - this could be through

read/cover/write/check, or verbally with friends or parents, or by reproducing diagrams or diagram sections

  • Testing your application of content to exam style questions – effectively tackling practice questions with pre-selected evidence, for example, using a mark scheme to see if you can apply your knowledge in the correct way
  • Testing yourself under timed conditions - this combines the two previous styles of self-testing

Pitfalls

An important consideration is to try to avoid mixing up similar information or concepts, which is a common reason for losing marks.

Try to revise similar information at different times using different coloured paper or pens. Make it distinct and unique by adding separate mnemonics or stories to the information.

Once you are in the exam make sure you underline the key words in the question and keep linking back to them in your answer.

Changing your self-perception

If you tend to undervalue yourself or doubt your abilities, you may simply need to change the perception of your coping skills. You can do this by looking back over all your marked work and test grades and evaluating your strengths and weakness based on this evidence. You may find that there are more strengths than you previously believed.

You could also arrange one-to-one meetings with your teachers and find out their honest evaluation of you. Ask them to summarise what they feel are your main strengths and weaknesses, as they are the experts. Another strategy is to complete exam questions from past papers and use the mark schemes to mark them or ask your teacher to mark them. This will give you an accurate picture of your chances of exam success.

Finally, you should look at the grade boundaries for each of your exams. This will help you realise you do not need to get 100 per cent in order to gain a top grade. In psychology, for example, to gain an A* last year students needed 74%. This puts the exam into perspective and will help reduce any worries you have about needing to be perfect.

Look after yourself

As important as any revision strategy in making sure you are well prepared for the examinations, and reducing unnecessary stress, is ensuring that you look after yourself.

You need to sleep well to perform well in your exams. It is utterly counter-productive to burn yourself out by working or staying awake too late at the cost of good sleeping patterns.

Set yourself a clear and firm time to stop your revision each day, and a firm lights out time. Put phones or screens away well in advance of lights out.

You also need to eat well. Sustained focus leaves you feeling drained, so make sure that you are replenishing your energy levels with regular, healthy meals. Leave the junk food, sugary snacks and energy drinks to one side.

Give yourself regular down time. Whatever your favoured means of relaxing and distressing – whether it is slobbing in front of the TV, going for a run, firing up the Xbox or even that couple of hours of paid work which gets you out of the house, don’t sacrifice this just at the time you need it most.

Build regular downtime and the activities that you enjoy into your schedule, balancing them sensibly with revision.

Don’t let your studies take you completely away from family life. Make sure you spend quality time with those who know you best, and who care for you most. Often that support is unconditional and unstinting, and it can make a huge difference to stress levels if you make the most of it.

Don’t bottle up the pressure you feel. Talk about it with friends – who will be feeling much the same - or with family or your teachers. Often just the action of talking about pressure provides a release valve in itself, and an understanding that everyone is in the same boat.

Above all, if the pressure feels unmanageable, speak to parents or to someone at school.

At the end of the day, no matter how it may feel, exam results are definitely not the end of the world, and whilst they may feel all-consuming now, the success that you will undoubtedly make of your life depends far more on your qualities as a human being than on a grade on a piece of paper.