Q: How do I succeed? A: Don't panic

Exam time is always tough for students and their families. Emma Haughton looks at the best strategies for revising and how parents can help candidates to do well
Click to follow
The Independent Online

The cherry blossom is falling, so it must be exam time. This month hundreds of thousands of teenagers are hunkering down to take public examinations. Revision timetables are being compiled, coffee is being bought in bulk, and formulae are being committed to memory. Families around the country are on edge, with children worrying about whether they've left their revision too late and parents wondering whether they dare to go on nagging. It's a time of fraught nerves for everyone – for the young people taking GCSEs, AS- and A-levels, for their teachers and for their families.

The cherry blossom is falling, so it must be exam time. This month hundreds of thousands of teenagers are hunkering down to take public examinations. Revision timetables are being compiled, coffee is being bought in bulk, and formulae are being committed to memory. Families around the country are on edge, with children worrying about whether they've left their revision too late and parents wondering whether they dare to go on nagging. It's a time of fraught nerves for everyone – for the young people taking GCSEs, AS- and A-levels, for their teachers and for their families.

Exams are important in a way they were not 30 years ago. There is a great deal more riding on the results nowadays – competition for the top universities has never been tougher, and good grades at GCSE and A-level are essential. "With the government initiative to get 50 per cent of young people into higher education, there is obviously much more pressure for people to have academic qualifications," says George Turnbull, head of public affairs at the Assessment and Qualifications Alliance (AQA), "Exams are the inevitable consequence of the government thrust to have people qualified in some way."

Parents are only too aware of the importance of exams to their offspring, especially in a society where a "good education" is essential to opening the right doors and achieving a place well up the rungs of the social ladder.

"I think we're all much more conscious of just how important education and good results are these days," says Jane Sutton, mother to Ella, 17. "We have pulled out every stop to make sure Ella succeeds. We've spent a fantastic amount, sending her to a private school, on revision courses, to private tutors, but we know it's worth it. Education is so competitive now, and the best universities are very selective."

This sort of investment puts a lot of pressure on parents and children alike, as Sutton readily admits: "Because she was at an independent school, Ella was revised to death for her GCSEs by her teachers, and didn't really do any work at all at home. We were very worried about it, but in the event she got all As and A*s." But the AS-levels have proved a nightmare. "Ella had a very bad first year at sixth form, didn't do any work at all and then did badly in her mocks, and not very well in the AS-levels either."

However, Susan Bassnett, pro vice chancellor at Warwick University, whose 17-year-old third daughter is currently doing AS-levels, believes the pressure isn't just coming from parents: "What's happening in schools is training for exams, because they count for so much," she says, "Schools will drop in the league table if their exam results go down, so all their energies go into trying to improve them. My daughter appears to do less work than either of her sisters, but an awful lot more revision is being done at school than we know or like to think about."

But what should you do if you feel your child really isn't doing enough? The vexed question of to nag or not to nag is not easily resolved. "It's very problematic," agrees Bassnett. "Nagging can lead to confrontation and then they won't do anything. Just the other day I said to my daughter that she wouldn't get through if she didn't do any work, and she upped and left and went out to the cinema."

Getting the balance right can be as much trial and error as anything else. Ann Derby took a hands-off approach with her son at A-level, and feels it backfired. "He was very laid-back and confident, and we took that at face value, because he had done very well at GCSE. But then he started to complain that he couldn't follow his physics supply teacher, so we got in a tutor. We wish we had done it earlier, as it was a bit of a shock when it revealed that he had been drifting along with crummy teaching for a year and a half. In the event he got Bs when he should have got As.

"Boys in particular have a huge ability to think they can pull it off at the last minute," she believes, "but with all the coursework these days you can't be like that – at A-level you have to work more consistently and thoughtfully all through. So we have been much more on his sister's case, asking if she is doing enough work and so on, but admittedly she doesn't react very well. If I could rewrite the script and do it over again, I would steer a middle path."

But as Derby points out, exams, though important, are ultimately not the be all and end all. "Parents can get awfully het up about them, but I'm not sure exam failure is actually the end of the world. Personality and social skills count for more in life, and for my son, not doing so well in his A-levels was a wake-up call. He went off to university with a much better attitude."

education@independent.co.uk

Exam tips for students

Accept that the biggest difficulty is getting started. The worst part about revision is actually sitting down and getting on with some work. The sooner you sit at your desk and get started, the better and more confident you will feel.

Try to pace yourself and do the work you least want to do first thing, when you are fresh. The longer you put it off, the more daunting it will seem.

Work consistently all through your course, and make sure all your lesson notes are in good order. When it comes to revision, good notes will make your life a great deal easier.

Plan revision before beginning. Work out how much you need to do for each subject and make a timetable. Don't revise more than two subjects a day to avoid overload and confusion.

Spend 30 minutes revising, take a 10-minute break, and then test yourself on what you've just learned to help it "stick". Better still, ask someone else to test you.

Get hold of past papers so that you can acquaint yourself thoroughly with the layout of the paper, the types of questions and how marks are awarded.

If it all feels overwhelming or you simply can't understand something, get help. Ask a parent, teacher or friend to talk you through it before you lose heart and confidence.

Get a study buddy. Revising with a friend can make the process more fun, and you can help each other fill in gaps in your understanding or knowledge.

Don't cram at the last minute – it will only make you feel anxious about the areas where you are weakest. Get a good night's sleep, eat a hearty breakfast, leave plenty of time to get to the exam and walk in knowing you are primed to do your best.

Exam tips for parents

Provide a calm and supportive home environment, and make sure your children get good food, plenty of sleep and lots of fresh air and exercise.

Don't bribe – this puts even more pressure on your child to succeed, and can breed resentment if they don't make the required grades. But planning something to look forward to after the whole ordeal has ended may help to keep them cheerful.

If you're worried, talk to your child's teachers. He or she may be coping a lot better at school than you realise.

Try to stay positive. Be encouraging and avoid constant nagging or criticism that can often backfire. The key to exam success is confidence, so try to listen and give advice only when you feel the child is ready for it.

Offer to sit down and help with revision. Studying for exams can be extremely dreary, and your input can go a long way towards making a subject fun and helping it to come alive.

Make sure you know the exam timetable well in advance, so you can plan your family's schedule around it and ensure that you can be there to provide support and reassurance.

By all means talk to children about their revision plans, but bear in mind that each child will have his or her own methods. One may make a meticulous timetable and follow it to the letter; another may choose to study one subject one day and another the next.

Look out for signs that the stress is becoming overwhelming, such as difficulty sleeping, changes in eating patterns, constant aches and pains, tearfulness, or becoming very quiet and withdrawn. If you are very concerned, talk to the school or your family doctor about the best way to help.

Comments