There are three main ways that students of all ages can sabotage themselves in exams: poor exam technique, poor revision and weak understanding of the subject itself.
The last of these is the hardest to get round. It may be due to teaching that is not brilliant, or just to the fact that you are not really interested in a subject. But once you are committed to taking an exam, you may as well give it your best shot. Things you can do to improve your knowledge:
- Make sure you have read all the set textbooks/workbooks and then supplement that information with (good, accredited) sources of information on the internet and from the library. Revision websites such as BBC Bitesize are great for identifying what you do and don’t know – but look at them well in advance, not the week before the exam.
- Study with your friends sometimes, to encourage you to work, share ideas and to learn their techniques for understanding and remembering things. Ask parents or older friends to help.
- Consider a tutor if you’re struggling. Learning from a different person can really help you build your understanding.
- Look out for interesting internet talks, TV programmes or even visits to places related to your subject area. Don’t let them distract you from the core curriculum, but use them to spark your imagination and interest.
- Don’t tell yourself “I can’t do xyz,” and write a whole subject off because there’s one part of the curriculum you don’t get (a type of equation, a particular set book). Focus some energy on trying to improve that particular weakness. Ask your teacher to give you some extra pointers.
Good quality revision is vital to exam success. It will take longer than you think, so plan well-ahead and stick to it.
- Make yourself a quiet, distraction-free place to study. Be strong about detaching yourself from social media, and focus. Revising in bed is not the best way either to study or to guarantee a good night’s sleep afterwards.
- Break subjects down into small sections, so that they don’t seem too daunting and you can gradually tick them off one by one and reward yourself. Studies show that if you absorb a chunk of information and then sleep on it, your brain processes it much more efficiently.
- Study past papers and do timed questions to see how you have absorbed the topic. Analyse the sorts of questions they are asking, and look at what you need to know to answer them.
- Try as many ways as you like to remember things – draw pictures and mind maps, use memory tricks such as mnemonic lists, put key points on cards or post-its, read things out to friends or family and test each other, record yourself and play it back, list key facts or themes on your phone and review them on the bus, in the car or on the loo – whatever helps!
- Take regular breaks to stretch, do deep-breathing or meditation, run round the house or talk to someone. This reboots your brain and rests your eyes.
- Look at revision advice online (here and elsewhere).
It’s a shame, when you’ve learned all that stuff, to then mess up on the day. Practise timed questions from past papers as much as you can.
- You know in advance how many questions are required, so work out how much time you’ve got for each, and don’t get carried away in the exam.
- Build in time at the beginning to read the whole paper, don’t just plunge in on the first question you can do. You can then pick the best questions for you (they might be at the end of the paper), and set your subconscious brain working in the background on the later questions.
- “One of the biggest causes of failure is not answering the question,” says an examiner friend of mine. Don’t spot the topic and assume you know what the question says; read it carefully. Avoid splurging out everything you know – make your knowledge fit the question.
- In essay questions, plan your answers and cross out the plan afterwards.
- Keep calm. Not easy. Getting everything ready the night before can help (pens, calculators, uniform, notes to read on the bus). Eat breakfast. Simple deep breathing or relaxation exercises can help you slow your heart rate and focus. Don’t worry about what your neighbour is doing (they’ve started writing and you’re still planning? You’re the sensible one.)
- Sleep is better for your brain than staying up all night revising. In the run-up to the exam, keep junk food and caffeine to a minimum and give your brain and body healthy food and regular exercise to keep your energy levels up.
Good luck… not that you’ll need it!