Tried and tested: the better route to A-levels

For final-year A-level students, mocks and modular exams are weeks away. Bruce Harris gives a guide to the main pitfalls of exam preparations for A-level students, and how the successful ones coped with them
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The Independent Online

Writing about exam revision is an imprecise science. People seem to be able to get away with some highly contentious statements such as "the best time to revise is the morning", or "revision should be in one-hour sessions with 10-minute breaks" without any evidence to back them up.

Writing about exam revision is an imprecise science. People seem to be able to get away with some highly contentious statements such as "the best time to revise is the morning", or "revision should be in one-hour sessions with 10-minute breaks" without any evidence to back them up.

Then there is the assumption that students are working to one big final exam, which many A-level students aren't; they're picking off modular exams, mocks and orals as well as the finals. The big problem of allocating limited time to different subjects and using the right method for the right subject tends to be ignored. Preparing for a design and technology exam is very different from A-level maths; understanding and commenting on English texts requires different skills from learning the necessary information for a biology exam.

I have looked in detail at the exam preparations of GCSE and A- level students, most recently following 250+ Northumberland sixth formers through the crucial months leading up to and through the main examination period.These guidelines are based on the real experiences of real students.

There doesn't have to be a grand plan. Some guides will have students dividing their life up into 15-minute slots, with codes for washing, sleeping etc. There's little evidence that most successful students do this. But they do have clear ideas of what they're doing, usually along simple lines, such as revising a different subject each night. What is typical of them is that they know what they've done and what they have left to do, even if only in their heads, and they can do it for long or short revision programmes.

Give every subject a chance

Students usually start with the reasonable intention of giving equal time to all subjects, but they often find that "high-content" subjects - history and biology are examples - with a lot of work to get through, dominate their revision time. Sometimes this is to the disadvantage of subjects that involve practising skills, such as English and maths. Some students ensure that all subjects get something like equal time by doing coursework in school non-contact time and revising at home. They also do some work on skills subjects with friends - how do you explain your thoughts about a novel or poem, or prepare for an oral exam, for example, without talking to someone? Also see revision methods below.

Be prepared for a bumpy ride

When it comes to coursework, school subject departments sometimes don't talk to each other as much as they should, it's true, but it's also true at A-level that to a certain extent it is the nature of the beast that there will be heavy and light work periods. Doing nothing in the light periods will mean trouble in the heavy periods.

Parts of this year are examples of this, with students realising when they come to revise the whole course that chunks of it are missing, or that there are bits of it they don't understand now, even if they did then. Light work periods mean making sure that the whole course is intact. If it isn't, something will need to be done about it.

Pick off the modules first time

The trouble with modular set-ups is that students know they can re-take the exams, which sometimes leads to a jam-up of work in Year 13 - the final school year - with endless re-taken modular exams at the very time when revision needs to start for the main exam period. It makes most sense to concentrate thoroughly on picking off the modules when they come up. There is then the foundation of a good grade. When it comes to the December/ January modulars versus mocks, the people who get good grades prioritise the modulars.

Don't bore yourself to death

Most students seem to accept as a matter of course that revision is going to be boring and, of course, some slog is involved. But many, especially boys, make no attempt to vary the methods and finish up reading through notes time and time again, or trying to learn huge chunks of material off by heart, methods that, in any case, work better for GCSE than they do at A-level.

There are plenty of things to try that can vary things a bit, and the interview evidence shows that successful students do. People use memory aids such as highlighting, key words, and letter/ number sequences; visual aids such as charts, diagrams, wall displays and notes around bedrooms; self-testing; getting friends or family to test; working in groups at home or at school in non-contact time (yes, it can work if students want it to).

The more enterprising teachers use techniques such as class debates and discussions, as well as past papers. One boy described a debate on the "Trial of Louis XVI" as "the best revision exercise I've ever experienced" after he got the benefit of everybody's else's notes and opinions, as well as his own. Teachers can and will help with suggesting what methods can be used for which subjects.

Make your own rules

Myths abound about the best times of day or night, whether to revise in silence or with background noise, whether to revise at home, at school or in a public library or museum. Successful students don't have a standard way, but they know what works for them. The students who got more than 30 A-level points included one who habitually revised with others in school non-contact time - "I can ask my friends if I get stuck" and another who didn't take breaks at all - "I'll start at about 6.30pm and work through till late". Now is the time of year to find out, if you don't know already.

Get over the GCSEs

GCSE and A-level are very different in many respects, and what worked at GCSE often doesn't work at A-level. Again, the adapting and upgrading of methods is something that needs doing as early as possible.

Focus is enough

There is no need to make final career or personal decisions by the end of Year 13 What does seem to help is a firm idea of where you're going for the next two or three years. Whether to university or not, it helps to have decided and be settled by the time of the main revision period.

Knowing who your friends are

Some students who fail or don't do as well as they would have liked seem determined to shoot themselves in the foot with personality clashes with teachers or even with entire schools. Teachers are probably more on the side of students than anyone else is ever likely to be in the future.

Open all hours

Some students in low-income families have to do part-time work. Most work to fund their social life, or their cars, or both. Whatever the case, this seems to be a crucial area for messing up A-levels. The students who got less than 10 A-level points included a girl who was working in a social club - "when you're so tired late at night, it's hard to get yourself motivated for the next day" - and a boy whose pub job left him "drowsy from coming home late at night".

There are students who do part-time work and get good grades, but they are comparatively rare, and even rarer above a few hours a week. This is a fact, and the bias towards wealthy people doesn't make it any less so, unfortunately.

If it's impossible to stop working, most employers will be sympathetic during the revision and exam period, and allow students to cut down in order to concentrate on school.

Life goes on

Another regrettably true cliché, and another area where many students come to grief. The 10 points or under group also included a girl whose father had survived a heart attack in Year 12 and who said it still affected her, and a boy whose parents had separated, though he maintained that "it's normal for me".

The way of the young British person, especially the young British male, when confronted with death in the family, divorce, relationship problems, parents being made redundant etc, is to grit the teeth and go it alone, which sometimes works but usually doesn't. In a crisis, get help, even if it's only a sympathetic listener.

Just say no

A-level students are usually young, intelligent and attractive people, and therefore in demand all over the place - for sports, music, drama, Duke of Edinburgh awards, cadets, youth work, etc. Schools are in the difficult business of having to encourage and restrain involvement at the same time and, as with part-time jobs, things are not necessarily under their control. The onus is, therefore, on the student to be firm enough to refuse other activities when necessary, while retaining some life outside school.

It's worth remembering that there are a lot of people about who have only recently been through the experience - informal sources of information can be valuable too.

The most important principle of all is to act early and forestall the fate of some students who neglect and postpone and eventually find themselves besieged on all sides by UCAS, coursework deadlines and various species of exams.

For more information, e-mail Bruce Harris on: or check out the following website:

'The Revision Project' will be published this month by Northumberland County Council (contact Robert Peers at N.C.C. on 01670 534340 or