Look to the past to secure your future

Andrew Gillespie examines how A-level and GCSE students can make their revision more effective
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The Independent Online
WITH the January mocks just over and the June exams looming, now is the time for students to start organising revision.

The first thing they need is a copy of the current syllabus for each subject and as many past papers and examiners' reports as they can get. Hopefully the school will be able to provide these; if not they can contact the examination boards. The syllabus specifies exactly what skills the examiners are seeking to test and in what proportions. For example, if an examiner wants to assess analytical skills, he or she will not want to see long, descriptive answers. The syllabus also sets out the subject content, and I usually advise my students to organise revision notes under the various topic headings that are listed. But with all the different options available in some subjects, the syllabus can be confusing - and it may be wise for students to go through it with their teachers.

The next stage is to start looking at past papers to identify the most important parts of the subject and to get used to the ways in which examiners like to ask questions on particular topics. If the syllabus has been altered recently, students should ask for specimen questions although past papers will rarely be radically different from the new exam. It is also worth looking closely at the examiners' reports. These are produced after each exam and highlight the types of answers that are valued and point to mistakes that students often make in their approach. In addition, some of the exam boards now offer marking schemes that clearly indicate what turns an average answer into something special.

Year after year, students lock themselves away with learning material that is of limited value and memorising past essay questions that are most likely to be asked in a different way. Before making any revision notes or sitting down to learn a topic, students should prepare to revise by identifying the key areas of the syllabus and familiarising them- selves with the way examiners set questions and what they look for in an answer.

Students should always remember that the syllabus, the past papers and the examiners' comments are essential elements of effective revision. They do not replace either hard work or ability, but they can help students fulfil their potential by making sure revision is exam-oriented.

Besides revising on their own, some students will want to go further. A-level and GCSE exams may still be five months away, but many students (and indeed their parents) are already worrying about grades. For some, it is just a case of early exam nerves and may well be cured by a good dose of reassurance. For others, there may be a real problem - possibly they have missed some of the course, maybe they did not work very hard in the first year, or they have simply never got to grips with a subject. Such students are naturally concerned about how to use the time left productively.

One option in such cases is an Easter revision course. These are an increasingly popular way for students to make sure they are working effectively at what is obviously a crucial time. The courses last about five days and are mainly provided by independent colleges in Oxford, London or Cambridge that specialise in intensive tuition. They cost about pounds 350 without accommodation and pounds 450 with. Teaching is in small groups of about six to eight and is designed to improve individual exam performance. As well as covering the key areas of the syllabus, students are given plenty of exam practice and invaluable help with exam techniques. Even for those who basically know a subject, these intensive courses can help ensure they got the highest grades. With individual attention and exam-oriented teaching, progress is often rapid.

However, before choosing a course, find out exactly who will be teaching your son or daughter and check all the details regarding the number of teaching hours, mock exams and group size. Be careful of colleges that do not use staff who work for them all year around and ensure that the material covered will be appropriate to your son or daughter's syllabus. It might also be worth checking if the college is listed with the British Accreditation Council for Independent Further and Higher Education, ring 0171 487-4643.

An Easter revision course can provide the structure and focus that many students need, but it is obviously important to choose one that will deliver what it promises.

q Andrew Gillespie is Director of Studies at d'Overbroeck's.

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