Revising Effectively and Beating Exam Stress!

As we enter the season of public examinations, it is no surprise that Damian Hinds chose this moment to give an interview to The Times in which he let off a blast of reactionary steam. Whilst it is unhelpful for him to opine that children should stop complaining about exam stress, he is right to observe that certain aspects of our personal and professional lives are intrinsically stressful and that we should focus upon developing resilience and nurturing well-being. Damian observes that:

The revision is draining, the exams are never nice, and you know the results will stay with you, often affecting what you can do next. Whilst some would remove this pressure from young people’s lives, stress and hard work are a part of life.

This rather glum assessment will do nothing to assuage those feelings of self-doubt and anxiety that beleaguer many of us as we face seemingly insurmountable challenges. Simply, telling young people that they should stoically suck up the misery and get on with it is not, in itself, enough. NHS figures demonstrate that mental health issues are most definitely on the rise and we live in an age where young people are assailed on all sides by pressure to conform and perform. If we are not careful, we will create a generation of young people whose sense of self-worth is measured in a way which will only ever leave them feeling unworthy or dissatisfied. If the pernicious influence of Instagram provides a beguiling but distortive view of beauty then a surfeit of examinations and academic pressure can leave children feeling deflated and anxious. Simply exhorting children to revise is not especially helpful. As parents and teachers we need to provide practical strategies and resist the subconscious desire to project our own frustrations and anxieties on to our children.

I have often reflected upon the fact that I spent an unwise amount of my own study leave procrastinating. It was unfortunate that my brother’s A Level study leave coincided exactly with my own study leave for GCSEs. It was even more unfortunate that our next door neighbour spent most our study leave cutting bricks for his fancy new patio. Still my brother and I settled into a rather relaxed routine. After an early lunch, Andrew and I would settle down to watch Neighbours and then we would top this up with an episode of Howard’s Way – the much maligned 1980s yachting drama with such a gloriously rousing theme tune. I hasten to add that we were watching a rerun. Still, it was positively Shakespearean in comparison with the short lived Eldorado which was running at the same time.

I have so far resisted the desire to purchase the box set!

However, aside from my rather pedestrian television viewing, I did do some pretty serious revision. For me, that involved writing copious notes, completing plenty of past papers, devouring revision guides and, in the case of Maths, starting pretty much from scratch! I received strong encouragement from home and school and despite the distraction of my brother and the television, at least I did not have to contend with the temptation of tablets, mobile phones etc. It is important for each one of us to identify ways of revising which really work. For me, writing revision cards never really appealed. Similarly, simply reading a book did absolutely nothing for me. After a while, the words would seem to swim on the page and I would lose interest. I needed to revise by actively doing. One of my favourite ways of revising was (and read into this what you will) to deliver a lecture to an empty bedroom. I used to make notes and then stand up and pace around the room like an aged professor whilst delivering a lecture on the industrial revolution. I would gesticulate wildly to emphasise points and, as the exams approached, I would try not to refer to my notes at all. The point is that, for me, this worked very well – possibly because I liked the sound of my own voice just a little bit too much. I might have looked and sounded daft, but the physicality of the action helped to embed difficult concepts or content heavy subject knowledge. There is no point in being prescriptive when it comes to revision. What worked well for me might be disastrous for you. However, here are a few revision tips!

  1. Help your son or daughter to draw up a revision timetable which is realistic and includes plenty of time for breaks. Research tends to demonstrate that the majority of us work best when we concentrate in short bursts.
  2. Encourage your son or daughter to take plenty of physical activity during study leave. This will be of huge benefit to their well-being. Exercise stimulates blood flow thus ensuring that the brain gets more oxygen. Increased productivity will decrease tiredness and stress.
  3. It is really important that revision is conducted in an environment which is conducive to meaningful work. Ensure that a desk is set up in a quiet room free from digital distractions. Whilst group revision might be useful, the lengthy trip to ‘study in the local library with some mates’ might give way to the temptation to engage in matters not strictly revision-related. Do not imagine a scene akin to Plato’s symposium!

Damien and Kirsty have gone to the local library to discuss ontological arguments!

4. Encourage your son or daughter to resist the temptation to procrastinate! It is important to have the self-discipline necessary to make the most of the day. Encourage them to get down to their revision in the morning so that they are in a position to reward themselves more towards the end of the day. It is good to know that you have accomplished something of real value before you settle down to lunch.

5. Practice makes Perfect. You should focus upon completing past papers. There is no point in learning lots of ‘facts’ if you are unable to apply this knowledge in practice. Examiners know what they want – they provide exemplars and mark schemes which explicitly spell out what you need to do to get full marks or achieve a top grade. Perceive this aspect of revision as being something akin to a military operation or perhaps following a recipe. Your job is to complete the mission or to serve up to the examiner the exact dish that he ordered in your restaurant. Give them exactly what they are asking for. Do not go off -piste but ‘play the game’ according to the rules set down by the examination board. The more past papers you complete the better.

6. Make summative notes. This can be tedious but making notes over and over again is something which the most successful candidates tend to prioritise. As a historian, I know that I would think nothing of making three sets of revision notes. Again, we learn by doing and the act of writing or speaking are much more potent than simply sitting with a book or file of notes hoping that your eyes do not glaze over.

7. Use family and friends. It is useful to involve family and friends in your revision. Give them your notes and ask them to test you. This can be a gentle and fun way to revise.

8. Some people find it useful to sprinkle a little fairy dust on their revision notes – or at least colour code them so that they are more memorable. Pages of black ink are more challenging to remember than colour coded notes that are broken down into bite-sized portions.

9. Do not over-revise what you already know at the expense of applying yourself to those areas of the syllabus that really challenge you. Sometimes, we go over and over those aspects which make us feel confident whilst shunning those areas which make us feel uncomfortable. Of course, this is ultimately futile but it is a very natural response and one which I was certainly guilty of on many occasions.

10. Try to think positively. Do not catastrophize! You should aspire to fulfill your potential in every regard but you will not necessarily ace every exam. If particular aspects of an exam do not go well then all is not lost. Focus upon the next challenge rather than dissecting that which you cannot change.

11. Personally, I would discourage candidates from discussing their answers with friends immediately upon leaving the examination hall. Given that you cannot go back and change your answers, then what is the point?

12. Ensure that you get at least eight hours sleep a night.

13. Encourage you sons and daughters to adopt a ‘paradise postponed’ mentality for the next six weeks. They can have a fantastic summer once all of this is over but, for now, it is ill-advised to be partying at the weekends or doing anything which risks detracting from the task in hand.

Finally, there are no GCSES or A Levels in courage, compassion, love, resilience or generosity but these are the virtues which are really important when all is said and done.