1 Week to go

I can’t quite believe that the exams begin next week. When I started writing this blog, it was an opportunity to share ideas and experiences from my work and my family.  Thank you for the positive feedback and kind comments that you have made.  I really do hope that my thoughts have been helpful or reassuring in some way.

With only a few days to go before the exams begin, the key focus is on building confidence.  Cramming last minute revision is not an effective way to use the next few days.  It can be tempting for a student to go into over drive, and try and pack the days before the exam with lots of revision.  In the last post, we thought of the analogy of the marathon runner who wouldn’t run marathons in the days before the event; they would trust that the training they had done means that they are ready and well prepared.

If you cram in the last few days, you are in danger of:

  • Getting tired and stressed (because you are not getting good rest and recovery)
  • Being ineffective (because a stressed brain is unsuccessful at storing information helpfully)
  • Over focus on the idea that you are not ready (which is damaging to confidence and self belief)

So what could I do instead?

These last days are all about feeling good about the work that has been done and spending 30 minute chunks of time ‘waking up’ the knowledge that has been revised for the exams that are early next week.  Quick fire recall and testing are really useful, and explaining ideas out loud is helpful too.  If your child comes across something that they don’t understand, help them make a decision about whether there is enough benefit in spending revision time on it, or deciding to be even more secure on what they have already done.  Try to avoid over fixating on small areas that pose difficulty.


  • you can afford to make mistakes in an exam and still do really well
  • you don’t need to score 100% on any paper
  • Go into every exam expecting to find questions on the paper that will be tough. When you find them, smile because you found ‘where they were hiding’, and decide whether you are going to attempt part or all of the question- once you get going, if you are calm, you may recall information that you had forgotten.  A stressed brain finds recall really difficult, so being calm always helps
  • start the exam by doing a few questions that you find OK- this may mean starting a few questions in.  This gets you into your swing, and builds confidence (and you release serotonin!) which are all helpful tools to have ready to tackle a more challenging question later on. I hope it goes without saying that you need to come back to any questions that you didn’t attempt earlier in the exam! Try not to leave any blanks- you may get marks for what you write even if you are unsure- chase every mark!

This idea of rehearsal is important.  Our brains like familiarity, and so, if in an exam you recall explaining or talking about an idea, the brain has a sense of ‘being here before’.  That’s why athletes go through the process of planning for the unexpected- so that whatever happens, the brain is not dealing with an issue for the first time.  This is different to worrying about the ‘what if’s’- it’s more a controlled planning for different scenarios so that real responses are more considered than they would be if the challenge had never been imagined. Thinking about and talking about answers to different past questions means that your child will hear themselves being successful, can hear where they need to rephrase or give a clearer account, and then practice doing it.

This is not to say that if your child would feel better investing time in cracking something they have found difficult that you should stop them.  It’s all about helping them to use time effectively, and feel positive and confident going into next week.

Sometimes the waiting is a tense time, so once the exams are underway, students just get into it.  The other thing that happens is that the sense of ‘so many subjects’ to cope with seems more manageable, as they prepare for ‘the next exam’ rather than feel overwhelmed by the volume of work of ‘all the exams’ as one bulk. After each exam, another one is ticked off the list, and with fewer exams left, revision in between exams can be well focused.

A few people have asked me if I’ll continue to blog through the exams- I hope to, and do so by sharing how things are going for us, and in response to questions that you pose through the blog.

I really do wish you (and more importantly your child) every success over the coming weeks.


2 Weeks to go

I do hope that you found the ideas around quick practice testing helpful over the long weekend last week.

Today it may be helpful to return to the emotional/psychological challenges that your child and your family may be dealing with.  I think it’s really important to say that we are having a tough time of it in our house… exam stress is in the air, and some days we manage it well, and on others we clearly don’t!  So if things are trying, be assured that you are not alone!  A friend of mine said to me this week, that she looks around at other families who are in exam season, and hears how much other people’s children are working, which leaves her feeling fed up because it’s less straight forward for her.  If you are sailing through this time without any difficulty, I think you’re a) lucky, and b) in a minority!

Teenagers who are under pressure will have various different ways of managing.  Behaviours may include anger, withdrawal, unkindness to siblings/parents, crying, avoidance – the list goes on.  It’s worth taking some time to think about what’s going on.

The exams are now only 2 weeks away.  There is nowhere to hide, and time has almost run out to prepare well.  Your child may wish they had used time more effectively, they may decide that they are going to cram and work every available moment, they may feel exhausted and fed up of revising.  The most conscientious students may decide that they need to work even harder.  All of these states of mind will create emotional responses that are hard to resolve, and unresolved emotion has to come out somewhere; often in anger.

As always, I’m aware that your child may not ‘fit’ any of the categories I suggest, but it is worth checking in and seeing how things are going.  If your child is calm and in control, just make sure that they haven’t increased their work load to exclude rest and recovery time.  I use the analogy of the marathon runner to explain this to students.  You train for months to prepare for a marathon, following a carefully stepped training plan (just like exam preparation). What you definitely don’t do is run marathons every day before your competition.  You have to trust that your preparation was high quality, and not push to hard at the last hurdle – if you do, you’re likely to become injured and not perform to your potential.

So the first tip this week is to make sure that your child doesn’t suddenly push too hard – even if they need to make up some lost time, rest and recovery is as important as work.

If they do need to make up time, and decide that they are going to cram information, recognise that little will ‘stick’ in an exhausted brain.  Young people can be very good at spending large chunks of time ‘faffing’ around but not being very effective.  Break study slots into our agreed 30 minute sessions, and use these to do lots of repeated practice, moving between subjects every revision slot.  Keep breaks as an important part of the plan.  Cramming is not hugely effective, but your child will feel that they should be doing ‘something’.  The key is to keep study effective rather than frustrating and exhausting because they’re not thinking straight due to stress.  You might also find it really helpful to get them to finish each day going back to something that is going well, so that each day finishes positively.

In an effort to keep things under control, I started a ‘talking diary’ with my child a couple of weeks ago.  Each day she checks in with me for a few minutes, and tells me about what has gone well, and anything she is worried about, or that is difficult to study.  The idea is that by talking through the concerns, she keeps them in perspective, and sees that in terms of the ‘big picture’ things are pretty OK.  I did this to try and stop stress building up over a few days and then becoming difficult. If we need to make a plan for getting help at school, or coming back to a topic at another time, at least there’s a way to try to solve problems. It’s not perfect by any means, but it has helped.

The second tip today is to try a talking diary (or written if they prefer) to keep stress from building up and ‘going bang’.

I also think it’s really important to keep your boundaries in place when their stress becomes anger or behaviour that is unacceptable to you.  Of course we have to make allowances for them to an extent, but try not to be tempted to put up with poor behaviour, excusing it because they are having a tough time.  If you slacken your boundaries, it’s possible that behaviour will get more extreme, as they push harder to find out where the boundary has moved to.

The third tip today is to reflect on what behaviour you can excuse, and what you won’t, and be brave in sticking to it!  I guess a phrase that reflects this point is ‘tough love’.

I really do wish you good luck!


3 Weeks to go

Hopefully you are looking forward to a Bank holiday weekend with your son or daughter, and that you have managed to have positive conversations which mean that stress is minimal.  I was in a school yesterday, where I spoke to some students about keeping the balance.

I shared with them the story of an athlete  who was preparing for a major competition.  The athlete was so desperate and determined to do well, that he started to train above and beyond his carefully balanced programme, and did so without anyone else knowing.  He figured that if he trained when his opponents were recovering and resting, he would gain an advantage.  Within a short time, the athlete had overt trained, became illness, and started to show signs of fatigue.  The upshot was that the athlete was declared unfit, and was unable to compete.

Whilst a determined and hardworking mind set is clearly important for any success, this needs to be balanced with a respect for recovery and relaxation.  Perhaps there is an opportunity to share this idea with your child over the long weekend, and plan to spend some time recovering and resting.  ‘More’ doesn’t mean better… well planned and balanced means better!

As we near the beginning of the exams, the effort on revising and preparing must continue, and hopefully as a result of the work done so far there is a shift in confidence as your child sees that when they practice past exam questions their success is improving.  Last week, we considered strategies for learning knowledge, and looked at the specific strategies that the research points to as most effective.  Using flashcards (digital or on paper) is a really good way of testing small chunks of information. To keep things interesting, you can test knowledge within a topic, and at other times test knowledge across topics, and even across subjects.  This ‘wakes the brain up’ and will activate different areas of the brain.  You’ll be able to judge whether this is challenging and positive (which is what we want) or becomes stressful and negative for your child.  If they find it difficult, step back into smaller chunks of learning and stick within a topic rather than ‘bouncing around’.

Students also need to be testing their ability to ‘recall for understanding’.  That is their ability to explain an idea or concept, linking different pieces of information together.  On past exam papers, these will be questions that begin with command words such as ‘explain’, ‘describe’, ‘consider’, ‘discuss’, ‘evaluate’.  These commands usually ask the student to give more than just recalled knowledge, and are worth more marks in the exam.  One way of doing this is to do a ‘talking mock’.  This is where the child speaks rather than writes the response.  This can be difficult as you will quickly see just how much they know – it’s harder to ‘waffle’ when you’re talking to someone than it is on paper!

Perhaps your son or daughter has tried out one of the techniques for ‘revising for understanding’ we looked at in earlier posts.  If they tried using the Cornell note system, or memory mapping, they will have summarised information into symbol form, and getting them to just look at the summary and talking you through the topic is a great way to check in on their understanding. If they get stuck, remember, they will want to focus on all that they got wrong.  You can really help by showing them how much they got right, and reminding them that making mistakes now is a good thing, as they have time to put things right!  They could also do with a reminder that they can afford to make mistakes in the exam, and still get a good grade.  Keeping things calm, keeps thinking and memory ‘open for business’ and you may have to be the one to make sure this happens!

Remember, small chunks of about 30 minutes is about right for revising.

When they practice past exam questions, keep to the time they would have in that exam

Decide whether this 30 minute slot is to recall information or to explain it, and select an appropriate strategy to work on this

Good luck!


4 Weeks to go

I have talked to students in 4 schools this week in different parts of the South East.  There is one common theme; so many young people are worried that they will ‘let their parents down’.

A few weeks ago, we thought about the phase of reconstruction that your teenager’s brain is undergoing (starts at around age 11/12, and completes late teens/early twenties).  This reconstruction involves many different features, including responses that are often emotional rather than logical.  During these last few weeks, the sense of pressure that many young people experience is really uncomfortable.  Our young people have never ‘done’ a run of exams or preparation like this before, and so for those that find ‘new’ difficult there is something else to cope with.

Perceived pressure from school, the peer group, parents, siblings, worries about ‘what if..?’, the awareness that time is ticking until exams begin… the list goes on.  It’s a tough time!  Some young people cope by burying their head in the sand, and may look like they are just not concerned about the exams.  This is true in only a very small number of cases.  It’s hard to find a young person who doesn’t want to do well, but there are plenty who don’t believe they can.  ‘Not bothered’ usually means ‘concerned but don’t know what to do’ – it’s time to try and help them!

With the benefit of life experience, hindsight and hopefully some of our own failures along the way, we as parents know that things don’t always go to plan.  I have a saying that I share with young people “not every road to where you want to get to is a straight one”.  Sometimes, we don’t get a grade/course/college/university place that we hoped for, and we have to find a different path to where we want to get to.

When the pressure is on, teenage thinking can become skewed.  They measure their worth as a person by how well they will do in the exams.  I suppose this is understandable when most conversations they have at school, and many outside of school are about the exams.  One of the most important things we can do at the moment is remind them that they are loved, important and treasured regardless of how they do.  I said this to a parent recently, whose response was “but what if that means they don’t try their best?” Each of us have a unique set of family circumstances, and we have to find the balance between wanting our children to do their best through high expectations of them, and supporting them to get there.

I’m always interested to find out how different families do this.  In one family the teenager has been promised a sum of money for each grade that they get, with the sum highest for the top grade, and then reducing as grades get lower.  In another family, the teenager is encouraged to think about how fantastic they will feel when they get into the college of their choice to do the subjects they want to do.  In another, the teenager is reminded of how rubbish it would be to be the only one of their friends walking away on results day with poor grades.  Another parent has written down all the things they wished they could have done, but haven’t because they didn’t work hard and achieve good grades.  This has been shared with their son as a reminder that getting a set of qualifications opens doors throughout life.

Each of these different approaches have been adopted because the parent believes they are the best way of motivating their child.  Perhaps this is a good conversation to have with your teen in this final push of preparation.  Whatever the outcome of your chat, the one thing they need to hear loud and clear is that your love for them is not linked to exam success!  Don’t rely on assuming they already know this – it won’t do them any harm to hear it!

So this week’s post has been about keeping the emotional side of things on track.  There are other things that really do need to be part of regular practice which I will summarise below.  Even if preparation hasn’t been brilliant so far, the 4 weeks between now and the start of the exams is time to form better habits, and do some high quality work.  Remember, once the exams begin, there are 5\6 weeks of exams where preparation for remaining exams continues, so there is still time to get things right!

What should be happening routinely now:

Attendance at school based support sessions

A gold/silver/bronze revision timetable for working at home that allows for rest and relaxation as well as study

Well planned 30 minute revision sessions (see below)

  • Topic has been selected from the prioritised list
  • Student has chosen what kind of learning they will do (recall/explain etc.)
  • Resources for that topic are to hand (e.g. revision guide, exercise/text book, website etc.)
  • Type of revision strategy has been chosen (e.g. flashcards for recall, Cornell for explaining)
  • Past paper question on the topic is ready to try at the end of the 30 minute session and mark scheme to check

Study at weekends ‘mops up’ anything that didn’t get done in the week, or that needs more time (so that we start a new week feeling on top of things)

Dialogue between student and parent about how things are going

Good habits around sleep are in place or are improving!

Good Luck!



5 Weeks to go

If your child has been back at school this week, they have probably heard lots of messages from teachers about the time line between now and the exams.  One benefit of an early Easter is that students do still have 5 weeks to go until the exams begin.  This is longer than usual for the lead up to exams, and means that your child has more time with their teachers in lessons, which means more support … there is still plenty of time to work positively, address and reform any bad habits, and to make a huge difference in being well prepared for exams!  Remember, whatever your child’s ‘state of readiness’, they can act now and improve things!

Now is a good time to help your child to see just how far they have come.  In previous posts, we looked at the various types of revision that need to be done.  They are:

  • Recalling knowledge (quotes, facts, definitions, formulae, equations etc.)
  • Ability to explain ‘why’ (requiring a deeper level of understanding)
  • Ability to apply this understanding to a question, using higher order thinking (evaluate, analyse, predict etc.)

Remember that the least number of marks on an exam paper are awarded for recall, with marks increasing as more complex understanding is tested.  THIS IS NOT TO SAY THAT RECALL IS NOT IMPORTANT!   Every mark on a paper is of high value, and recall questions test what a student ‘knows’.  If a student goes into an exam feeling secure that they can define key words correctly, use quotes, state various parts of a process/diagram/timeline etc. they enjoy a greater level of confidence.

This week, I’m going to suggest that you support your child by talking about/testing this ‘body of knowledge’.  This will give you and them an idea as to how confidently they can recall key information.  If recall is poor, there is time to do something about it!  If recall is good, then it will be a real confidence boost for your child.

You’ll need to start by agreeing a subject (e.g. science) and a topic (e.g. ‘How our bodies fight infectious disease).  Refer back to the specification (you’ll find this on the exam board website for the course that your child has been studying, or the contents page of their specific revision guide or text book, or it may have been provided by the school) to be clear about the information that needs to be learned.  If your child has already created flashcards, use these, but if they have not, they need to make them now!  A flashcard could simply be a sticky note/card with an important key word or phrase on the front, and definition on the reverse.  If your child prefers to create flashcards on their phone, one app that does this well is ‘Flashcards+ by Chegg’.

Limit the number of flashcards per topic to about 10.  Give your child no more than 10 minutes to learn each set of 10 flashcards.  This may not seem long, but it will mean that focus stays high, and hopefully they enjoy the challenge (if you really feel that your child needs longer – you know them best, so by all means be more generous with the time!)

After 10 minutes, test their recall.  Try not to ‘rescue’ them if they are struggling … they need to ‘dig around’ in memory to really improve memory.  This ‘working hard to recall’ is one of the ways of making learning ‘stick’.  Silence while you wait for them to respond is healthy and thinking time is helpful, so don’t let them ‘look at the answer’ too quickly.  If they get frustrated because they can’t remember one or two things, focus on what they did recall, and remind them that there’s plenty of time to work on this!  Then move to a totally different subject (e.g. English Literature) and topic (the context of when the text they are revising on).  Repeat the process of ‘learning under a bit of time pressure’ and then test again.  Over the weekend, you could aim to test several topics from various subjects in this way.

Try and repeat this process several times over the weekend, and watch how recall improves along with confidence!

There are various ways to create ‘flashcards’ – what is important is that the key term is on one side of the card, and the accurate definition on the other.  This means that there is a quick and accurate reference at hand if a reminder is needed.  The technique can be adapted to basic explanations – some ideas are shown below…

A small card with key word on the front, definition on the back:

key word definition

Sticky note wall

Post it wall

Each note has a key word or concept on the front with detailed information to be learned on the back

In Summary

  • Build confidence and check ‘knowledge’ this week by creating flashcards
  • Learn a small number of facts/definitions/quotes under a bit of time pressure
  • Test recall of these facts within one subject before moving onto the next subject
  • Repeat the process several times over the weekend, and revisit again mid week to check recall again

Good Luck!

6 Weeks to go

Many students return to school this week after the Easter holidays. As school gets back underway, students will find that many, if not all lessons are now focused on revising and preparing for exams rather than learning topics for the first time.

As a parent you may remember going on ‘study leave’- time before the exams where you were permitted to study at home rather than in school. This practice is now relatively uncommon. Current thinking is that your child is better prepared by spending this valuable time with their teachers, maintaining a structure to their day, and not tempted to spend study leave as an extended holiday.

Your child may feel that as their days at school are spent revising and preparing for exams, revising in the evenings is not necessary. My personal view is that it is important to study in the evenings, and you can return to the ‘gold, silver and bronze’ model to negotiate the time spent each evening. This is valuable time to ensure they are revisiting topics they are unsure about, and then speaking to teachers about this back at school. Plenty of practice questions under the same pressure of time that will be experienced in the exam is also time really well spent.

What we do need to be mindful of is the (small) number of students who work too many hours in the evening, and begin the exam season (usually about 6 weeks) exhausted. The time between now and the start of the exams needs to be a really good balance between work and rest.

In earlier posts we thought about the changes that are happening in the brain during these teenage years. These are obviously accompanied by significant physical change. Such development requires high energy, and the amount of sleep that a teen requires is therefore higher than they like to think! (That’s why they can sleep at Olympic levels at the weekend!) Establishing a good routine for the 6 weeks between now and the exams gives your child time to settle into good habits, and be better able to cope with the marathon effort of ensuring that they are as ready for every exam as they are for the first.

Talking this through now and agreeing a routine that enables plenty of rest, keeping up with the enjoyable (and stress relieving) things they do (sport, hobbies, music, friends etc.) and keeping on top of study is a great idea. All of that said, I do know that there are some young people who will insist on burning the midnight oil- as a parent, keeping an eye and working out a solution that fits your family is important.

Our children are well practiced in being tested at school, and your child probably had mock exams which may have spanned over several days. These experiences are really helpful, but they do not come close to mirroring the realities of a real exam series which lasts for several weeks. The difficulty with this is that a teenager who has studied the night before for a test on one unit of a subject (e.g. Cells in science) and did well in that test believes that this preparation was sufficient and successful. In the real exams, every unit from years 10 and 11 (if they are doing GCSEs) can be tested, so night before revision just isn’t sufficient. Furthermore, every subject (Maths, English, Science etc) will be tested, sometimes more than one exam in a day. Now is a really good time to sit down with your child and look at the exam timetable together.

The exam timetable is usually given to students (and often to parents) by their school. The timetable sets out which exam happens on which day, and whether the exam is a morning or afternoon exam. Your child may have to sit more than one exam in certain subjects (e.g. A calculator paper and a non calculator paper in maths) which will usually be on different days. When you first look at an exam timetable, it can seem overwhelming. It’s a really good idea to do this together now when your child is thinking calmly. Your child’s school will advise what to do in the event of a clash of exams (i.e. Two exams scheduled at the same time).

I would suggest looking at where the ‘hot spots’ in the exam series are – this is where there are clusters of exams (e.g. 3 or 4 consecutive days of exams). You’ll also be able to identify phases that are less busy. This exercise helps your child to see that whilst the exams stretch over a long time, they can build in ways to continue effective study whilst the exams are underway. You can plan together that a quiet weekend will go before ‘hot spots’ so they know there will be time at the weekend to make the final preparations for these clusters of exams. There will be a half term holiday (30th May – 3rd June) when there are no exams, which again gives some time to do final preparations for exams that are in June.

If your child can see that there is a way of managing the significant demands of this time, they will feel calmer in the coming weeks.

If you have not received an exam timetable from your school yet, check their website, and if you have no luck there, I’m sure that the timetable will be issued in the next couple of weeks.

In summary
Have a chat with your child about establishing and maintaining healthy patterns of sleep/study/relaxation time

Look at the exam timetable with your child and become familiar with the layout, timing of morning/afternoon exam times (you may need to think about getting to and from school at unusual times during the exams if they rely on transport)

Identify the ‘hot spot’ times in the timetable and plan now to keep the weekend before a ‘hot spot’ free for study.  Talk about what theynthinkmthey may find difficult and discuss ways of making these challenges easier

Good Luck!

7 Weeks to go

I do hope that the first week of the holidays has been productive. It can be difficult for a teenager to keep working consistently – it’s not uncommon for them to have a couple of really well intentioned days but then they run out of steam, and can then be fairly difficult to motivate.

Building in some planned ‘treat time’ can be a way of getting things going again. One of the challenges of parenting in 2016 is that our children don’t have ‘treats’ to look forward to. Indeed, how many of our children would regard watching a film or TV programme or playing a computer game as a ‘treat’?! Watching a favourite programme is instant via catch up/online viewing. I’m not about to advocate that you take all ‘treats’ away, purely reflecting on how ‘flat’ teenagers can be in the absence of having something they enjoy to look forward to.

One suggestion of getting around this is to get your child to draw up a grid of things they’d like to do if they had a particular chunk of time available.
This means that they intersperse study time with things that actually matter to them rather than ‘occupy’ them.

One Mum told me that this approach returned a surprising outcome- her ‘very cool’ 16 year old son admitted he used to love doing big jigsaws at Christmas, and he’d like to have one on the go over the Easter holidays (as long as Mum promised not to tell anyone!)

Sometimes teenagers need permission to step out of being who they think their friends expect them to be. I don’t think for one minute that a jigsaw will be everyone’s thing, but perhaps something creative; revisiting a favourite book, making supper for the family, making a photo collage, learning a new skill (juggling is a good one!) or rekindling a primary school friendship are all possibilities. You might even decide to get a project started together- perhaps a fitness target, updating a space at home, planning a holiday or doing a job together that’s long overdue. I hope that the conversations you’ve been having have opened up communication- this is a nice conversation to have. Many parents think there’s no point in having this chat as their teenager is usually so negative, but I constantly meet parents who have been pleasantly surprised by trying! You’ll learn lots about them that will interest you!

Once you’ve talked about the kinds of things your child might like to do, you can chart the ideas based on how much time is available.

It could look something like this:

If I had 15 minutes (the ‘break time’ between revising two different subjects)
I could…

Read a chapter from a favourite book
Speak to a friend I haven’t caught up with for a while (yes, I’m advocating a 1:1 chat rather than messaging a group!)
manicure your nails
Do part of a jigsaw
Research a destination I’d like to visit one day
Do 15 minutes of stretching

If I had 30 minutes I could…
Go for a walk/run
Watch an episode of a series I’m following
Try some cooking
Research a course I’d be interested in doing in the future
Write a letter to myself to open after I get my results

If I had an hour I could…
If I had a off day I could…

Once your child has put this together, put a copy in a communal space (the fridge is always a good place!) so that sessions of revision are often followed by something positive and purposeful.The idea behind all of this is to combat the sense of monotony that can be part of the revision/take a break cycle. Our teenagers have screens as constant ‘background noise’ so when they go to their screens for a break from revision, they don’t leave their ‘break’ feeling refreshed. This isn’t a criticism, but an observation. There’s nothing wrong with checking in on a screen, but if it’s all you ever do, it doesn’t feel important or special.

In summary

  • Have a chat with your child and encourage them to think about a few things that they would really enjoy doing with different time slots
  • Use these as an enjoyable activity between revision slots or on days off
  • Encourage your child to start seeing time away from revision as enjoyable and ‘hard earned’ rather than sitting in front of a screen and not really appreciating time away from study

Good Luck!

8 Weeks to go

Happy holidays!

Now that your child has broken up for the Easter holiday, you’ll move into a different phase of preparation for exams. It’s a good idea to start the holidays by talking over a few things so that there is a sense of agreement from the start.  Things that I would include are:

  1. Revisit the ‘why is this important to me?’ conversation that you had a few weeks ago (it’s helpful to keep this in sight to stay motivated)
  2. What will Gold, Silver, Bronze look like in the holidays? (You’re not bound to studying only in the evenings)
  3. Plan a few treats in the holidays (not necessarily high cost, but things you don’t get to do during term time). Put these in the calendar now – and stick to them!
  4. Review what has gone well over the last few weeks, and celebrate these with your child
  5. Identify any issues that have slipped and need to get back on track
  6. Ask your child “if everything goes well over the holidays with your study, what will you have achieved by he end of it?” Check that they are being realistic and that they are not expecting ‘perfect’.  If possible, try and check in with them daily to see if they are set to achieve the goals they set.  Remember, everyone has a bad day now and again- if they have one, get back on track tomorrow!

The Easter holiday is often a significant time- until now students have been able to say ‘I’ll start revision in the holidays’. Now that time is here, and they can’t hide any longer. The holidays are also a buffer between ‘normal’ lessons and exams, and that’s about to disappear. So the child who has been hoping that the exams will never come is about to get a reality check.  This can be a really difficult time for young people.

Even for students who have been working steadily, the holidays can be a time when doubt sets in- ‘Have I done enough?’, ‘Will I be ready?’, What if…?’ Are all common thoughts. That’s why the conversation suggested above is really important.  A concern I often hear is that they will ‘let parents down’.  Our teenagers aren’t always good at sharing how they feel – reassurance from you that you won’t love them more or less because of their results will be welcome.  Not every path in life is a straight one – they need to expect some things to go well, others to be challenging.  That’s all part of learning how to be a resilient human being! Chatting through how you have coped when things are tough can also be a huge help.  The main thing is that they feel that there is ‘everything to play for’ at this stage, regardless of how successful or not they have been in the past.  The holidays are also a good time for you both to look at the exam board websites together.  Ask your child to show you where the past exam papers and mark schemes are, and get used to using these documents. 

You could also have a look at the examiner reports which are usually found with the mark schemes.  These take you through question by question the common errors that students made in the exam, and so you can use these to check with your child whether they have made similar mistakes so they can be rectified.  I fully appreciate that this takes time, and you may not have capacity to do ALL of these things.  The research tells us that young people do better when their parents are ‘engaged’.  This doesn’t mean doing ALL of these things, but taking an interest, offering support, providing boundaries and structure – remember by being involved you are making a significant difference!

How you navigate the balance between study and being on holiday will depend on many factors at play in your family. It may be helpful to look at a couple of examples taken from parents I’ve spoken to recently, with suggested responses.

My child is really easily distracted, and will take any excuse not to work. Her friends are similar and will often just turn up at our house. They either then go out or stay at our house for hours at a time. No studying happens!

The chat around making the most of this opportunity to gain qualifications, and revisiting the ‘why bother’ needs to happens ASAP! Setting some boundaries around when they will work in order to achieve their goal (which you’ve talked about) is really helpful for the child who hasn’t got enough self discipline yet.  They may need some help in responding to invitations to friends.  I tell my children to ‘blame’ me; saying ‘My Mum won’t let me’ is far safer for a teenager than ‘I want to study’

I’m at work- I can’t tell if my child has been studying during the holidays.

Again having a really honest chat at the start of the holidays would help. Acknowledge that they could spend the time you’re at work not studying, but that there’s lots of trust between you. If you plan out gold, silver, bronze, and have a copy, then you can check in during the day.  Getting the balance right between trust and making sure they are working is hard, and will depend on your relationship, and how you’ve managed things in the past.  However, if you both acknowledge that distraction is a problem, you can agree how the parent will help to keep things on track.

You can see the recurring theme; a discussion to get things on track at the beginning of the holiday, an agreement of the plan, and reassurance to make sure that your child is as positive as they can be!

Remember the key things we’ve thought about so far:

Is revision effective or ‘pretend’?  I talk about real revision being ‘sticky’ (i.e. learning sticks) or ‘slippery’ (i.e. it slides off the brain and isn’t retained).  Research by Dunlosky in 2013 is really helpful in understanding what is effective.  You can read about that here

I summarise this with students by taking them through this:

sticky vs slippery

 Effective revision will occur when the brain is engaged and active.  In the same way that someone else can’t make you fitter, no one else can make you learn… that’s down to your own brain working!  So, if revision is ‘reading over’, highlighting (and doing nothing with it) or watching online videos (and not following up with anything) you are definitely in ‘slippery’ territory.

However, if you are

  1. Clear about what you need to know (because you’ve checked on the specification)
  2. Break the topic down into 4 or 5 key areas
  3. Try and remember as much as you can about each (perhaps using the Cornell note taking system to record)
  4. Add what you didn’t know or remember in a different colour
  5. Try a past exam question using what you now know
  6. Check the mark scheme and add any further additional information you didn’t have
  7. Summarise the topic for re testing in a few days time

You are really getting sticky!

In summary:

  • Have a chat to get the holidays off to a good start
  • Make a plan for managing things in the context of your family
  • Agree gold, silver and bronze for the holidays
  • Talk about ‘sticky’ vs ‘slippery’ revision

Good luck!


9 Weeks to go…

Last time we worked on making sure that there is a clear focus for a 30 minute revision session so that each session is effective. We did this by prioritising which topics need attention by using the specification to decide how confident in the topic your child feels. These 30 minute sessions are successful because they are well organised and focused which usually leaves the student feeling that they have achieved something.

You can appreciate that 30 minutes can pass very quickly, so high quality is the key!  

I have really enjoyed hearing some feedback this week… One Mum told me that her son (who plays sport at national level, and therefore trains many hours per week) said that he felt that he could manage the ‘Gold Silver Bronze’ approach to revision.  Having had a busy week without much time for revision, he said that Sunday would need to be a ‘platinum day’! Another student said that she’d had a busy weekend and in terms of study, it had been ‘wood’ (i.e. Nowhere near bronze, never mind silver or gold!).  This led to a great conversation about procrastination, and talking in these terms raises awareness of what they are doing (or not doing) for the student.  

Raising a sense of ‘how much work should I have done (gold, silver, bronze) against what have I actually done’ means that your child is more likely to do some study rather than bury their in the sand.

This week, we’ll start to look at how to revise. 

I often talk to students about ‘pretend’ revision vs real revision.  Many students spend hours on activities that mean they look like they are working but they’re not being particularly effective.  Pretend revision would include highlighting notes, organising your stationary, reading through information or copying information from one source onto a note card (or similar). These are not effective because the brain does not need to be fully switched on and alert to do them. 

So what is effective revision?

The key to effective revision is doing something that makes the brain ‘sticky’ (i.e. ready to remember and use information).  If you revise by doing something that takes little mental effort, the brain is ‘slippery’ (i.e. information slides off, and is either not stored, or stored and forgotten quickly).

A helpful starting point is to decide what is the main focus of this session.  Exams test different kinds of knowledge.  These broadly fit into 3 categories:

  1. Learned facts (information you can learn and recall).  Examples would include equations, formulae, historical dates, lists, labels, definitions, quotes, and vocabulary from another language.  These questions are worth the least marks in exams, but every mark counts, so it’s worth investing time in learning these!
  2. Understanding (the ability to explain something and connect different ideas). Examples would include questions that start with ‘Explain, Describe, Discuss.  These are worth more marks, as answers demonstrate understanding, and the ability to relate that understanding to the question.
  3. Higher order thinking (the ability to think more deeply e.g. reaching a judgement about something, analysing it deeply, suggesting an alternative solution etc.)  These are worth the most marks and are most common at A level but do appear on GCSE papers.

So having found out from the specification what the student needs to know, they can take the topic, and decide to spend their 30 minutes on a particular kind of learning (remembering facts/connecting and explaining an idea/evaluating a theory and comparing it to another etc).

It’s a great idea to collate past exam questions on the specific topic you’re revising to see the kinds of question they ask (but don’t expect the questions to be repeated – it’s just to give you an idea of the ways the questions are phrased!)

Many students that I work with do ‘past paper revision’. This means that they work their way through past exam questions.  Whilst this can be great for learning how to answer specific questions, it doesn’t cover all aspects of a topic, so is a strategy that needs to be used alongside other techniques.

Learning for recall (no. 1 above) can be achieved via different strategies which include:

List information and try to create a mnemonic to help you (e.g. MASH – when you react a Metal + Acid = Salt + Hydrogen, THATCh – when evaluating a food product, think about Taste, Health, Appearance, Texture, Cost – you get the idea)

Make flash cards with word/idea/theory on front, explanation on back, and test them regularly (there are some great Apps for this!)

Put post it notes around the house with the information on them, and when you see one shut your eyes and try to recall the information

Record lists onto your phone, listen to them, recall them OUT LOUD (we often think we know more than we do – saying something out loud soon demonstrates what you know or don’t know!)

Far too many students just do this type of ‘recall’ revision.  Recall is important, but remember, it is worth the least amount of marks, so needs to be part of what is done, with other strategies alongside.

You may also find that your child gets frustrated if they forget one or two features, and don’t concentrate on feeling good about what they can remember!  They can afford to make mistakes, they don’t need to score 100% in any exam, and when we get stressed, we cant access memory, so if you’re stressing, things only get worse!  Feel good about what you can remember, and when you’re not thinking about it, you’ll recall the forgotten items!

As a parent, you can use car journeys to test recall, keeping things light (!) and reassuring your child that if they can recall some of the information then things are going OK.

To revise for understanding is more complex.  This requires organising information, making connections between ideas, and being able to apply understanding to the question.  There are various ways to do this – Memory mapping can be really helpful, but I’d like to tell you about The Cornell note taking system which is less familiar to students.

To do this, rule a page as shown here

Cornell Note Taking

Use the specification to find out the main ideas and put them in the left hand column.  Then, from memory try and write all you can remember about that main idea in the larger space to the right.  This is really important – don’t give up too quickly – you’re making your brain ‘sticky’ by trying to remember!  When you’ve exhausted your memory, add to what you have written in a different colour from a resource (revision guide/class notes/text book/website).  Think about how each idea is connected, and make a note of this too.

Summarise your work in the section at the bottom so that you have a ready to use summary of the topic.  Now try an exam question on the topic. Annotate the notes you made when you refer to the mark scheme to add in anything else you didn’t include.

What you’ll notice is that revision is never ‘reading through’ or ‘going over’ – it’s planned, purposeful, requires thinking and hard work!  (Now you can see why revising in front of the TV doesn’t work!

So this week, have a go at spotting different types of questions on past papers; which want recalled knowledge, which want an explanation?

Chat about how you could use ‘dead time’ (like car journeys) to test knowledge, and plan to revise for understanding in a different way, perhaps trying Cornell to see if that’s effective.

In summary:

  • Be clear about what you are going to revise, and what kind of learning you need to do
  • Try different strategies for learning information for recall, and test yourself out loud regularly
  • Recognise questions that test your understanding, and have a structure to use when you respond (e.g. Main idea with facts, this means that, because, and example is…)

Good luck!


10 Weeks to go…

Happy Friday!  I’m going to try and post each week on a Friday so that you have the weekend to try out the ideas and suggestions that you like…

There are four key areas that need to in place for effective preparation. 



Effective revision strategies

Health and well being

In the ’13 weeks to go’ post we thought about getting motivated; helping your child to decide why exam success is worth the effort.  It’s important to keep revisiting motives, so do encourage your son/daughter to talk you through what it will feel like to achieve grades they deserve and have worked hard for.  We need to help them to see that this preparation is worth it!  Teenagers aren’t usually good at delayed gratification (the idea that if I work hard now I’ll get the reward in years to come).  They can be far more tempted by the here and now… “Why would I revise when it’ll be much more fun to play on the computer/go out/watch TV etc etc.  So keeping the ‘why bother’ at the forefront is key.

Last time we started to look at organising revision slots at home.  I hope you liked the Gold/Silver/Bronze idea and that your child is prepared to give that a go.  It tends to be popular because it is flexible.

This post aims to help prioritise revision, which is part of being well organised.

If revision is going to be effective, it needs to be targeted.  Many young people spend time flicking through a text book/revision guide/search engine looking for a topic that they ‘fancy’ studying.  There are two problems with this approach:

  1. In order to get through the volume of work that they need to cover, they need to have a strategy (remember we estimate that a GCSE student covers an average of 200 topics across all of their subjects).
  1. If they’re revising what they ‘feel OK’ about, they’re probably studying something they are reasonably good at, and good revision needs to target topics that require a bit more understanding!

They need a different way of methodically working through all topics, not just the ones they like.  Choosing what to revise is a great method of ‘pretend revision’… The kind of activity where they ‘look busy’ but they’re not being very effective!

Every exam your child sits has been taught by a teacher who uses the exam specification to find out what they have to teach.  The specification is a document published by the exam board that outlines the content that could be examined. Therefore, the specification is a really important document, as your child (and you!) can access what they need to know to be well prepared for the exam.  

Anyone can access the specifications on the exam board websites for each subject.  These websites can be complex to navigate, and you’ll need to have all the information about which exam your child has been entered for in order to locate the correct specification.  You may have been given this by your child’s school, but if you haven’t, I’m pretty sure that your child’s teacher would share the link to the appropriate specification.

Once you have the specification, you have a list of what your child has been taught in order to be exam ready.

I suggest that you ask your child to make a ‘topic sheet’ for each subject.  This is simply a sheet of A4 divided in two; one side listing the topics in that subject your child feels confident in, and the other topics they know need some work.

Here’s an example

topic list (3)

Many students start revising the things they feel OK about (it makes them feel better!), but they need to work on ‘less confident’ topics first. There is confidence to be taken by starting a revision session feeling less sure about a topic, and finishing that 30 minute slot with greater understanding.

This is also important because when we agree that an effective revision session is 30 minutes, that means 30 minutes of high quality, focused work.  

So, using this approach means that the student begins their 30 minutes knowing exactly what they are going to revise.  They get the resources for that session together, and begin 30 minutes of focused revision.

If you have difficulty getting the specification, another way to prioritise topics is to use the contents page of a revision guide.  Take each topic and allocate it to either confident or less confident on the topic sheet.

In order to revise effectively, your child will need certain resources to hand.  These should be gathered before the 30 minute session begins so that work is not distracted by looking for/collecting resources. 

The key resources are:

  1. Topic for revision taken from topic list (e.g. Vectors in maths)
  2. Specification (what do I need to know/understand about this topic?)
  3. Revision resources (revision guide/text book/ exercise book/web resource)
  4. Past paper question(s) on the topic and corresponding mark scheme
  5. Paper/note/pens/cards to work with

Make sure that each subject is getting its ‘fair share’ of revision sessions in the week… If a subject isn’t a favourite, it’s easy to ignore it (that’s why the topic sheet is important!).  A subject that is going really well may need less attention, and that session could be given to a less successful subject and topic.  

I’m often asked whether listening to music whilst revising is OK.

Here are my thoughts…

Many young people like to have music in the background, and this doesn’t appear to have a negative affect on concentration, but it does need some careful management:

Music shouldn’t be a distraction. 

Select 30 minutes of music before the revision session starts, so that study isn’t interrupted by changing track/playlist etc. 

Volume should be reasonable (In our house, if music can be heard beyond the room they’re in, it’s too loud)

It is possible that listening to music via headphones interferes with learning, and there is some evidence to suggest that it interferes with how we store information in memory (so listen to it on a device but not through headphones)

Use of other technology

There is research that suggests that if you are distracted or interrupted during periods of concentration, it will take several minutes to return to the previous level of concentration.  If you are a student doing a 30 minute session of revision and you are distracted by a text message half way through, you can see that the cost to effective study is high. There’s a great article about this here:


So 30 minutes of high quality revision means without distraction, which means that phones should be turned off (and preferably left in another room), if the student is working on a screen (to access websites etc.) all other distractions (alerts/pop ups etc.) should be turned off.  This obviously requires discipline and commitment, but I remind students that at the end of 30 minutes, they can turn everything back on and check that the works is still turning out there!

I have met parents who insist on phones/tablets being handed in at study time, and this works for them, whilst others say that they cannot convince get their child to do this.  Again, your unique set of circumstances come into play here.  You know what your values and expectations are, and how focused your child is (or is not) when they study. 

If this is an area for debate it’s time for another conversation whilst things are calm, to agree ‘what study will look like’.  You may also need to chat through where your child works.  You may feel that they will get on with work in a quiet and private space, but you may feel that getting them to work in a more public space would keep them on track (because you are around, and able to look over their shoulder every now and again).  Whatever you decide, now is a good time to set up some agreed ways of working for the crucial weeks in the lead up to exams.

In summary 

  1. Use the specification to plan and prioritise a very specific topic to cover during each 30 minute revision session.
  2. Allocate the number of revision sessions using the Gold, Silver, Bronze model each week
  3. Use the specification (or revision guide contents page) to make a topic list which prioritises which topics need particular attention (confident/less confident)
  4. Allocate each revision session to a topic from the list, so that study is focused
  5. Decide how many sessions each week will be spent on each subject (based on which subjects are going well, and which need attention)
  6. Make sure each session is high quality and focused (manage distractions)
Good luck!