10 exam preparation tips

14 February 2020

students taking exams

Exams and teenagers often go together like chalk and cheese. If you've got a child taking Highers, AS-levels or A-levels (or even 11+ for secondary school entrance or SATs), here's how you can help them prepare for exams plus some insider tips from a bona fide examination expert.

One month before the exam

Preparation is key

Step one: getting organised. Make sure you've got all the exam dates on your calendar ahead of time, and get hold of a list of key topics for each subject.

It's worth sitting down with your child and going through this list, and their course notes, deciding which topics they feel confident with, and which they need to focus on. The earlier you do this the better – that way, if there's anything they don't understand, there's time to ask their teachers.

Once you've got an idea of what needs to be covered, you can schedule this into a timetable, fitting revision in around school and other commitments – remember to be realistic. Dedicating each revision slot to a certain topic means less time wasted trying to decide where to begin, and ensures you have everything covered.

To make everyone's lives a little easier, agree on an area that can be dubbed a revision zone – a quiet, peaceful space away from distractions like smartphones and siblings, aka revision kryptonite.

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Experiment with revision strategies

Reading through notes and exercise books might work for some students, but for the majority, it's not going to cut the mustard. There a host of techniques for students at different stages – here are some you might want to try:

Revision for primary school students

  • Turning revision into a game can motivate even the most reluctant learner – avoid the word 'revision', and arm yourself with stickers or treats as motivation.
  • You could also set studying targets for them with rewards when these are met.
  • Don't sweat it too much though – at primary age, eating healthily, getting enough sleep and staying relaxed will work wonders in the exam room for many children – so reinforce this attitude.

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Revision for secondary school students

  • Try some visual learning – turning topics into mind maps and diagrams, using colour-coordinated stationery.
  • Recording videos or voice memos is also a good way to engage your child and turn revision notes into more memorable information.
  • Encourage them to attend revision sessions at school.
  • Help design a set of flash cards that you can quiz them on.
  • Put notes or key facts on the walls around the house – seeing the information on a day-to-day basis should help it stay in their mind.

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teen studying

One week before

Review what they've learned so far – and set the scene

This is a great opportunity to go over everything your child has covered, and prove that the information has stuck – they're sure to know more now than they did a few weeks ago.

Half the battle with exams is knowing what to expect and how to approach an answer: so tackle some past papers or practice questions. Try completing these under timed conditions, away from any notes or resources they'll be without in the exam room. And whether it's over breakfast or in the car, a quick spot test gets kids thinking on their feet and readies them for any curveballs.

The night before

Try to relax

Fight the urge to do any last-minute cramming – it's often more of a hindrance than a help. Remind your child that the important thing is doing their best. It might be easier said than done, but try and have a calm evening – a nice meal and a bit of light-hearted television will help ease frazzled minds and encourage a good night's sleep.

Make sure they have all their equipment ready well before bedtime the night before to avoid a panic the next day. Pens, pencils, calculator – whatever it is, you really don't want to be worrying about these things on the morning of the exam.

And finally, an old favourite method – give your child something to look forward to when their hard work is over, like a day out or fun family night in. It's a tried and tested way to motivate them – and remind them there is life after exams.

Exam preparation tips

While some teenagers just can't resist procrastination when they're supposed to be revising, it's certainly not recommended. Here are some exam preparation tips to make sure your child excels.

1. Help them, but not too much

Some children will revise of their own accord but, realistically, most will not. That makes it your duty, whether you like it or not, to make them at least pretend to look at their textbooks.

Of course, it's also possible to do too much. You can make them sit down, but you can't actually force them to do any exam preparation. What you can do is encourage them and be supportive rather than forceful – this will hopefully motivate them without costing you a good relationship.

2. Get your child to timetable their revision

girl studying on tablet

It's easy to say you're not going to procrastinate – but to actually not procrastinate is that little bit harder.

It's worth getting your child to timetable their revision in advance so that they know what they need to do to cover everything in time for the exam.

As much as the temptation might be there to leave everything to the last minute, the earlier your child starts revising, the better – it'll mean they have a better understanding of the content, rather than just memorising it, which will hopefully mean they'll apply it better when they're actually in the exam.

“DD1's teachers have given a very consistent message of getting into the habit of revising and consolidating knowledge throughout the GCSE course. From the beginning, make notes/flashcards or whatever it is that help you commit factual stuff to memory. Learn quotes. There's an awful lot of memory work, and it's much easier to do it on a little and often basis.”

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3. Teach your child some revision techniques

Everyone has their own learning style, and that means everyone revises what they've learnt in different ways too. Here are a few revision techniques to help with exam preparation:

  1. Pomodoro method – 25 minutes of concentration, then a five minute break. After doing this three times, you get a 15 minute break. Perfect for those who burn out easily.
  2. Explain the things you're revising in your own words. This makes sure you actually understand what you're revising.
  3. Practice tests and past papers. According to a study, this is the most effective way to memorise.
  4. Flashcards – great for any subjects where memory is important.

4. Offer rewards for good work

Consider offering your child a reward for their hard work for their hard work – to be received after the exam(s) to ensure it's for effort, rather than grades.

Money is one possibility, but there are lots of other options too. A holiday, a video game, a day trip or even just quality time doing something of their choice could all go down well. Or, perhaps, permission to do something for the first time, like going to a festival if they're an older teen.

“Give promise of a present/holiday/iPod/day out whatever at end of exams – not when results are announced but when exams are over – this is for trying their best. The most important thing whether “success” is achieved or not."

5. Eat well

teen eating healthy

“You are what you eat” might be a bit of a cliché, but nutrients are important to make sure you're functioning at your best.

Some great foods for brain function include oily fish, blueberries, turmeric, broccoli, nuts and eggs. Look for ingredients which are rich in omega-3, and vitamins C, E and K.

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6. Sleep well

Sleep needs vary according to age – school-age children and teens typically need around nine hours a night. Getting enough sleep is crucial to ensure good brain function and is essential to both studying effectively and passing exams.

Here are a few things your teen can do to help get the best sleep they can:

  1. Use the bedroom for sleep only.
  2. Avoid caffeinated drinks after 2 pm.
  3. Try guided meditation to fall asleep – some popular apps include Calm (iOS, Android), Headspace (iOS, Android) and Insight Timer (iOS, Android).
  4. Turn off all screens one hour before bed. Blue light emitted by the screens disturbs sleep.

7. Burning out won't help anyone

Burnout is a state of mental or physical exhaustion caused by overworking – which might sound just as familiar to you as a parent as it would to your child.

It's important to make sure your child enjoys some downtime during revision and exam season – mental health is just as important as physical health.

Winding down can take the form of a lie-in, some exercise, video games or spending time with friends – whatever helps them to relax and recharge.

“Regular food and exercise will help them focus – they can get too fixated on “revising” while actually not taking in any information due to tiredness."

8. Confidence is key

If you notice your child's had their confidence knocked – maybe they failed a test or are complaining that they don't know anything – don't fret.

A great technique to get some confidence back into your child is simply to talk through the content of their exam with them. They'll soon realise that they actually know a lot more than they think.

9. Make the morning of idiot-proof

teens in school uniform

Get everything ready the night before. Bag, clothes, breakfast, everything. That way, when your child gets up in the morning, nothing can go wrong, or at least we hope it can't. Overnight oats or breakfast bars are a great make-ahead breakfast full of nutrients – make sure to load them up with nuts and seeds for those healthy fats we mentioned earlier.

10. Breathe during the exam

The moment's finally here, after weeks/months/days of revision. With all the pressure that's mounted up, it can be hard for some children not to panic. Practice deep breathing in the weeks coming up to the exam, and encourage your children to apply it in the exam hall – panic rarely produces good work.

“If you have one of those friends that comes up to you the morning of the exam going “Did you revise this?! OMG I’m soooo nervous, the circumference…” stay as far away from them as possible on the morning!”

“For a group of around 40 children and teens. (ok, actually my dance school) just before exam season, I do a big session on relaxation, de-stressing, teach them all kinds of techniques like guided imagery, and I've also taught my own children how to do their own basic face massage and a very simple hand massage which they can do on themselves and each other. It really really works, believe me!”

An examiner's insider tips

  1. Some questions are data questions (read the graph, look at the map). That almost always means that all the information you need to get a good mark is on the exam paper. Don't pass this chance up.
  2. Know your basic terms. For example, the difference between 'describe' and 'explain'.
  3. Plan answers. If you have four essays to write and a two-hour exam, don't spend an hour on the first one.
  4. Look at how many marks the question is worth and write an appropriate amount. There's no point in writing a whole page for a two-mark question.
  5. Make sure you have fresh batteries in your calculator and plenty of coloured pencils (you have no idea how happy a nice bit of shading on your diagrams makes the marker!).
  6. You don't (usually) have to do the questions in the order on the paper. It can help to do one on a topic you're best at first.
  7. Don't – really don't – do anything stupid. Don't try to cheat. Don't take in a phone or anything that could be thought of as cheating into an exam, even if you have no intention of doing so. I've heard of children being expelled from an exam because they got a text message.
  8. Don't panic. If need be, take a sip of water, put your head on your desk for two minutes and take deep breaths. There's almost always something you can put down.