Christine Fanthome outlines practical strategies for students to aid examination success

Coping well with the demands of examinations and attaining optimum personal performance are key factors in achieving success at school and university.

Recent proposals indicate that examination technique will become even more important in the future. In October 2006, QCA responded to criticism that GCSE coursework was open to accusations of cheating, which arguably devalued the qualification, by announcing that mathematics coursework would be abolished from 2007 and reductions in coursework for other selected subjects would be introduced in 2009. Ken Boston, the chief executive stated: ‘We have a responsibility to ensure that assessments in high stakes external examinations, such as GCSEs, continue to be valid and reliable.’ 

Applicants to higher education also face the prospect of more examinations and several universities have already introduced their own entrance testing in some subjects. In September 2005 the National Foundation for Educational Research announced a government-supported nationwide trial of an American-style Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) for university admission.

Between 2005 and 2010 it is proposed that 50,000 A-level students will be tested and tracked. If the trial is successful it is anticipated that this test could be used as a new national university entrance exam that will both distinguish between the highest achieving pupils and identify promise among students from traditionally disadvantaged backgrounds.

These proposals emphasise the need for students to be equipped to deal with examinations and reinforce the importance of a holistic approach to revision and preparation. If a successful strategy is established early on, students can then reap the benefits of a lifelong learning skill throughout their academic career.

The overall objective of this exercise is to divide the work into manageable sections over an appropriate timeframe, as this will ensure that you get your revision done with minimal anxiety. You need to devise a realistic revision timetable that takes account of other commitments, breaks and meals (weekly and monthly revision planners may be downloaded from the BBC’s website).

Think of a session as 25 minutes with a five-minute leg-stretching break at the end, allocate a number of sessions to each day or week, count the number of subjects and topics you need to revise and spread them out over the timetable, identifying which subjects will be tackled in each session. Schedule the most difficult material at times of day when you find it easiest to concentrate and prioritise if you do not have time to cover everything. Give yourself plenty of rewards for sticking to your timetable and be kind to yourself if you have occasional lapses.

An early start is essential. It means that the same amount of work is spread over a longer time, so last-minute panics can be avoided. It is also a good idea to establish a study space, preferably away from distraction, and gather together all the materials you need to revise.

People revise in different ways so it’s important to work out which combination is best for you. Strategies include:

  • making your existing notes visually revision-friendly and easily navigable by inserting headings, sub-headings and symbols, colour coding topics and highlighting key points, or writing new summary notes 
  • reading notes aloud or recording them on to tape and listening to the tape at a later time 
  • testing yourself by covering up part of the notes or by using textbook chapter headings as a prompt 
  • working with a study buddy, attending group revision sessions, and ensuring that you understand difficult topics by explaining them aloud to a friend 
  • making essay plans 
  • familiarising yourself with past papers and past questions and noting which topics come up most frequently 
  • testing yourself under simulated exam conditions by writing against the clock.

‘Last time I had exams I had an impossible workload, so my friends and I made notes on four subjects each and emailed them to one another. This meant I not only had notes to revise from but also the time to revise them.’  (Tania, aged 13)

If you have any worries, it’s important to share your feelings with friends, siblings, tutors, teachers or your parents. Don’t keep your feelings bottled up and try to keep the exams in perspective.

If you don’t understand something, seek help now from your teacher or tutor. It is not too late, whereas learning by rote is useless if you haven’t understood the principles.

As you revise, keep condensed details of key points, as these will be invaluable reminders just before the exams. There are a number of methods for this including index cards, flow diagrams, mind maps, lists, rhymes or your own mnemonics.

Shortly before the exams, consolidate your knowledge by reading through your condensed notes. Also, remind yourself of practical details such as the relevant exam times and dates, and check that you are clear about the method of testing, format, mark allocation and any equipment you require.
Keeping fit and well will help you put in your best exam performance. Remember to exercise and eat healthy food regularly.

Make sure that your timetable allows for real time away from your studies socialising with friends. Avoid talking about the exams if it makes you stressed and stay away from people who won’t respect this.

When revising it is important to take a break only when you feel your revision is becoming less and less productive. You don’t feel bad about the break and it is easier to get back to your revision.’ (John, GCSE year)

If you revise instead of sleeping, your performance will be affected. Even if you can’t sleep well before an exam, a good rest will still pay dividends.

How can your school or college help students to establish their own personal strategies for test success?

Additional resources

Dr Christine Fanthome is author of The Student Life Handbook (2005) published by Palgrave.

This article was first published in Learning for Life, April 2007