Education: 10. Home Help - Revision

DREAMS ARE uniquely personal things, but some topics haunt everyone's worst nightmares - unwonted nudity, disintegrating teeth, and sitting an exam for which you somehow forgot to prepare.

Exams are a trial by ordeal, and anything that can relieve the tedium and tension of revising for them is a blessing. However, you have to question the motives of any parent who would sit their six- or seven-year-old in front of SATs Tests Age 7 (Europress, pounds 9.99) or Test Your Child Key Stage 1 (Ten out of Ten, pounds 14.99). The least the software could do is make the whole exercise fun for the child, but sadly neither does more than present reams of questions, with the odd bit of animation thrown in. Although both packages analyse results to show areas of improvement or weakness, the tests are so long and dull that they could only interest kids for whom the sheer novelty of using a computer has not yet worn off.

Nor is there much improvement at the next stage. SATs Tests Age 11(Europress, pounds 9.99) assures parents: "By repeatedly answering the thousands of random papers which Europress SATs generate, children can come to realise that they are not frightening." No, just mind-numbingly boring.

SATS Tests Age 14 (Europress, pounds 9.99) is an improvement. The tutorial mode offers explanations of the principles behind each question.

Test Your Child Key Stage 2 (Ten out of Ten, pounds 14.99) taps a rich vein of parental neurosis. "Based on the results of just one single exam, children are often streamed into classes of ability which will affect the way they are taught and consequently their whole future."

The answer? Test them into submission. And therein lies the rub. With no tuition or feedback to help children to learn from their mistakes, these titles, with their "school-style reports" on progress, seem more for the benefit of pushy parents than their unfortunate offspring. By comparison, Test for Success (Dorling Kindersley, pounds 19.99) is a breath of fresh air. You can set your own level, subject and number of questions. You know immediately if you've got the answer right, and there's a concise explanation even if you have.

Similarly, Dorling Kindersley's GCSE series (pounds 19.99) are slick-looking and flexible. You can pick exactly the right syllabus, for instance, even access past exam papers from that board. Again, each question is followed by an explanation to maximise learning as well as testing. I had two grumbles: one specific - you can't just skip a question, you have to guess the answer; the other general, and more the fault of the technology - most of the questions use a multiple-choice format, which limits both the approach to the topic and the amount of lateral thinking your child is required to do.

Revise for GCSE (GSP, pounds 19.95) has found a way round this, but I'm not sure how well. You either print out answer sheets or write your answers to the questions on blank paper, which allows more variety and depth, but since you then have to mark the questions yourself, I'm left wondering: "Why not just use a book instead?" Particularly in English, where you write whole essays then mark them according to given criteria, the scoring is so subjective as to be virtually meaningless.

Inside Track (Longman Logotron, pounds 14.99) suffers from the same format, but claims to improve GCSE grades "dramatically" by explaining what marks are awarded for and making students accustomed to working against the clock. It's the Grange Hill of revision software, all cool "shades" and dodgy accents. There are some nice touches designed to win over those adolescents who'd rather be doing almost anything else.

Letts GCSE (pounds 19.99) makes a brave attempt to cover all the bases - and pretty much succeeds. An extensive tutorial section takes you through the syllabus, multiple-choice progress tests assess your knowledge, then there are practice exams which you write on paper and mark yourself. It's a no-frills but thorough package which gives you the best - and the worst - of both worlds.

Alternatively, you can eschew the crisis management approach altogether with Aircom's range of titles covering the national curriculum for GCSE and A-levels (pounds 19.99). Less revision software than course-work companions, these take students through worked examples and provide a bank of exam questions to test themselves on: no multimedia whizzbangs, but good old- fashioned pedagogy at the click of a mouse.

Teachers, watch your backs.

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