Illustrated by Sutthiya Lertyongphati
Exam-level students face unique challenges that we, as teachers, can often forget. They have to deal with:
- Learning the techniques that work for them
- Becoming organized in their revision
- The stress and pressure of having to perform in exams that will follow them for the rest of their lives
- Domestic pressures – expectations from parents, the responsibility of looking after siblings and, in some cases, the need to complete a part-time job
So what can we do to help our exam-level students achieve success?
1. Tell them WHAT to revise
All exam boards have ‘specifications’, ‘syllabuses’ or ‘Course Guides’. These are usually documents aimed at helping teachers deliver the course correctly, but there’s no reason why students can’t have these documents too.
Consider doing the following:
- Share the official syllabus for your course with your students. You can print it, share it on a VLE (such as Google Classroom) or even just provide the URL if the syllabus is available for free online
- Many syllabuses contain unnecessary information for students (e.g. objectives of the course and key objectives). Extract the course content from the syllabus and turn it into a ‘kid-friendly’ revision list for the students to follow when revising.
2. Tell them HOW to revise
Many students require years of experience to discover their preferred (and most efficient) style of revision. For me, I found that dictating my notes to myself and playing them through my earphones when I lay in bed at night was effective, but this might not work for everyone.
Students really need a ‘menu’ of techniques to try out, but how often do schools actually provide this menu? How often is new technology taken into account? How often are students invited to share their best revision techniques with their peers?
Consider doing the following:
- Hold a ‘committee meeting’ style gathering with your exam-level students. Sit them together in groups to share their ideas with each other about how to revise for tests and exams. Swap the groups around 3 or 4 times during the session, and get the students to write their techniques on the whiteboard at the end (or contribute to a Google doc).
- Share what has worked for you personally when revising. Ask your colleagues to come to class and share their experiences. Get parents involved. Make it a community thing – if the ‘group mentality’ is directed towards exam success, then this will definitely rub-off on the kids.
There’s lots of great advice out there about how to revise, but we must be pro-active in sharing this advice with our students.
Good websites that deal with the subject of revision techniques include:
- Times Higher Education: 5 revision techniques to help you ace exam season
- Birmingham City University: 5 best revision techniques
- Tutorful: Revision techniques
- Success at School: Top Revision Techniques for Exams (This website deals with ‘learning styles’ which I know has kind of been ‘debunked’ by pedagogical research, but it does contain a very useful infographic that summarizes the key revision techniques really well)
For the interest of educators the BBC has also produced an excellent report in which revision techniques are ranked by effectiveness (well worth a read).
3. Tell them the BAD HABITS to avoid
When students know what to revise and how to revise, they often think that they now have every tool in their toolbox and are ‘ready for action’. This is a delusion.
There are negative influences, habits and distractions that can really mess-up even the most conscientious of students, and we must warn our learners about them. These bad habits include:
- Procrastination: when students are revising from home during holidays or study-leave time, it can be very tempting for them to watch online videos or play computer games more frequently than they should be. For some students it’s better for them to get out of the house and go somewhere public (e.g. the school library) where they can’t take a nap and can’t get distracted as easily as they would at home.
- Relationships and hormones: the ugly truth of this one needs to be revealed. Teenage sweethearts/lovers can lead to massive distraction on the run-up to exams. This is a delicate issue to deal with as a teacher, but I personally think it’s important to talk with individuals who are in teenage relationships and politely remind them that they have to be focused on their exams at this time, and not on each other so much. I’ll leave it there.
- Sleep: It’s a balancing act. Students need enough sleep, but not too much. During school holidays and study-leave, many students fall into the habit of waking up late and messing up their sleeping cycles/circadian rhythms. This can lead to low productivity. I always teach my students the ‘Up Early and Out’ rule: get up early and go out to somewhere where you physically can’t nap during the day. The school library, a local library or even a coffee shop can be good options.
Bad habits can destroy our students’ chances when revising for exams. We must tell them the negative behaviors to avoid, along with the positive actions to implement.
4. Tell them how to make a REVISION TIMETABLE
Even the very best students: those that know how to revise, what to revise and what habits to avoid, can get completely messed up by not being organized.
First comes thought; then organization of that thought, into ideas and plans, then transformation of those plans into reality. – Napoleon Hill
Organization is the key to exam success. Students should be starting their revision well in advance of their final exams (around 5 months works best). They should be sub-dividing their days into sessions, with each session focussing on a specific topic area.
A good revision timetable should include:
- Enough sessions to cover each topic twice
- A variety of subjects each day
- Skewed weighting in favor of the what the student is weakest at (i.e more time spent on reviewing weak topics than reinforcing strong topics)
- Practice questions, exam-style questions and lots of past-paper practice for each subject they are taking.
Below you will see a great video about how to create a revision timetable (created by a student). Feel free to share this with your students:
5. Show students WHERE to find past-papers and which specification they are following
In my work as a Science Teacher and home-tutor over the past 12 years, I’ve met too many exam-level students who simply do not know:
- The exact exam-board and exams they are taking
- Exactly where to find the past-papers for their exams
A lot of exam boards (but not all) provide their past-papers for free (e.g. BMAT and Edexcel). Share the URLs with your students, or share the papers via a VLE.
Crucially: encourage your students to complete past-papers under timed conditions. Four example, if paper 1 mathematics is 1 hour long, then make sure your students know that they should time themselves for one hour when doing the past-paper at home for revision.
Consider the ‘Multiple Mock Exam (MME)’ rule too: why just have one mock exam? For my IBDP Chemistry students, for example, mock number 2 (in class) has traditionally happened in February. Mock number 3 in March. Finals in April/May.