Lucinda Powell – Education Consultant in Mental Health and Wellbeing
However you look at it, the last three years have been tough in education for both teachers and students. But for those sitting A Levels this year it’s particularly difficult. They missed out on the opportunity to sit the GCSE examinations that they had worked so hard for and now they are working towards A Levels when so much of their education has been disrupted.
We know many teachers are reporting that students are struggling to motivate themselves to revise and prepare for examinations. So as you head back to the classroom for one final push, here are five strategies to try to help support your own and your students’ examination preparation.
For each of the ideas below there is also a podcast which expands on them. So if you want to dive a little deeper into any or all of the ideas, just follow the links to the podcasts.
Most revision is exactly that: re-vision - looking over information again and again. Although this creates the illusion of feeling like you really know it, it isn’t actually being consolidated in long term memory. Retrieval practice (retrieving information from memory) works for students in two ways: firstly it creates stronger long term memories, and secondly it’s what students have to do in the exam (sadly they won’t be shown the textbook page and asked if they recognise it).
So lessons (revision or not) should be based on retrieval practice, getting students to recall what they have learned. You can do this in many ways: brain dumps (write everything you know on a piece of paper and then add in missed bits in a different colour), online quizzes, teach the teacher/peer, practice papers, to name but a few. You can make these lively, interactive and fun so students re-engage with material. For example you could do mind maps on the desks or windows using board markers, create team recall quizzes and add in competitive elements.
Listen to the podcast: More on embedding retrieval practice into your lessons.
Many students taking exams are feeling anxious. This is perfectly normal and we need to teach our students how to manage anxiety. Firstly it helps if they understand anxiety – a bit of psycho-education is important (if you aren’t sure yourself, ask a biology or psychology teacher to explain). Once they realise that this bodily response is normal and that it is just that, they can start to spot the signs and regulate their feelings (both emotional and physical).
Practising breathing exercises such as 7:11 breathing (in for 7 seconds, out for 11 seconds) or cognitive exercises such as Feet, Seat, Hands (think about how each of these parts of your body feel and focus on them for 5-10 seconds) can help students to feel less anxious by resetting the nervous system that is triggering the anxious response.
But it is important that you practise these exercises with students before the exam – trying to do them for the first time when anxiety is high won’t work! It’s also worth getting students to try a variety of things, as not everyone responds well to breathing exercises. They will need to find out what works for them.
Listen to the podcast: More about anxiety, psycho-education and anxiety management techniques.
One of the things that increases stress levels before examinations is uncertainty, and we have had plenty of that over the past 2+ years! There will always be things that we can’t control and things that we can control, but we tend to focus on those that are out of our control and this increases stress levels.
Teaching students to let go of these worries can help them reduce their stress and enable them to focus on what needs to be done (and is within their control) and ultimately motivate them. It may be worth doing this as an exercise in the classroom to help students focus on what matters and what doesn’t.
Simply create two columns on the board. In the first column write down things that are under the students’ control, such as how much revision they do, what they revise, how much sleep they get, how they respond to worrying feelings. In the second column put all the things they can’t control such as what the questions will be, what happens if they get sick, what the marker will think, etc. You can then discuss how they can let go of the things they can’t control and focus on those within their control.
Listen to the podcast: More about how to extend this exercise and develop if…then thinking.
The teenage brain is very sensitive to reward: unfortunately not reward in four months’ time in the form of results but immediate, tangible reward. So given the choice they will (nearly) always choose playing on a screen, going out with mates or eating chocolate over revision. So reinforce good revision behaviour with immediate rewards.
This is going to be different depending on the class or school. If you have an effective school-based points system use it. If not, deploy the chocolate buttons! Perhaps 6th formers could have a hot chocolate/coffee break, or GCSE students could have five minutes screen time. Discuss what would work best with your students and get them motivated to revise (even if it’s in short 15 minute bursts).
Listen to the podcast: More about rewards and the teenage brain.
One issue for planning revision lessons is that if you choose the topic, some students will be secure in the topic already and others won’t be. For the former group the lesson will feel like a waste of valuable revision time. Ideally revision lessons should model what we would expect an independent revision session to look like.
So firstly identify with your students what they need to learn. You could do this using the advance information, with students rating the different topics as RAG (Red, Amber, Green). (Alternatives to AI could include the contents page of the textbook or the specification – you could adapt this to make it more student friendly). This can then guide both you and your students to prioritise the topics to focus on – the rule being ALWAYS start with the Red stuff.
You could either teach one topic to the whole class or break them up into specific topic groups to revise together or independently but with you modelling the revision technique. To do this think about the other ideas above, and (whilst it is a bit cheesy as an acronym) use SMART targets to help students structure their revision:
Listen to the podcast: More ideas on how to plan revision sessions for you and your students.
This is going to be a tough exam season – students are weary and anxious about exams. We need to be confident that everything we do in each lesson will take them one step closer to doing their absolute best in the exam. I think we also need to acknowledge their challenges and validate their feelings, so be careful not to show frustration or anger or dismiss their concerns.
Teachers and students are going to have to work together to get through the next three months and building strong relationships is going to be vital. So good luck!
Listen to the podcast: Exam preparation with OCR subject advisor Lucy Carey.
Lucinda Powell supports teachers to use evidence-based psychology in all aspects of their classroom practice. She taught psychology from 2002-2017 in a variety of schools in London and Oxfordshire and will be going back to the classroom in September 2022. In the meantime she has been working as an Education Consultant specialising in the links between psychology and education, with a focus on mental health and wellbeing.
As well as presenting at conferences, running teacher training courses, and tutor study skills, she works as a coach on the School Mental Health Award at the Carnegie School of Excellence for Mental Health in Schools and is an associate lecturer and the lead tutor for the Psychology PGCE at the National Institute for Teaching and Education. Her podcast ‘Psychology in the Classroom’ brings psychological research directly to the classroom teacher.