“But I have never sat an exam before!” Strategies to Help Students Excel.

I cannot express how pleased I am that exams are going ahead this year. I am able to plan, organise and structure my teaching once more around a clear end goal without flip flopping between TAG’s, assessments and the general unknown. I know this same sentiment however is not felt by students. We know what is coming, the hardship of revision that is needed and the intense pressure and stress that the exams culture puts students under. The problem is our students do not. They have not had to revise for exams or sit formalised, intensive exam periods that feel like you are sitting in a pressurised gas can ready to explode at any minute. So what can we do to help ensure our students are resilient revisers, independent workers and exam succeeders?

Identifying the problem:

A good place to start when organising revision is to ask students to write down what they think ‘resilience’ means and how a student would show this when preparing for exams.  I would also ask them what independent study looks like. Quite often students might struggle to remain resilient or complete productive independent study but this is because they don’t know what these qualities actually look like in practice. From here you can discuss their views, iron out issues and set a clear structure of expectation.

You then need to work out if a student is struggling or underperforming due to lack of revision (night before exam cramming will not work) or a lack of fruitful revision (revising for hours but nothing is working).  This will then help work out a strategy appropriate to the needs of the student.

Organising their minds:

A disorganised folder = disorganised mind and thus disorganised revision. Students need to be able to see a clear path through the topics in order to organise where to start.

So where to start: using the specification for each topic or a list of past exam questions get students to RAG rate what they know (green), sort of know (amber) and totally don’t know (red). This way they can see where their priority areas are (see Past Exam Questions: Gaps and Patterns (for 2022 exam))

Once they have identified which areas need the most work, give students a blank weekly timetable (one for every week leading up the exam) and get them to fill out when they have free evenings, weekends and study periods (this is often tricky around student’s employment schedules and can often be an ongoing activity). Have them add in important dates like the exams, class mocks, HW deadlines or tests. From here they start to fill out what topic areas they will revise on what day. This provides much needed structure to their revision.

Revision strategies:

Before you can develop a student’s revision strategies you must first of all establish what they are already doing. What do they think revision looks like? How often? For how long? From here you can establish good revision techniques that do not just involve reading, highlighting or creating beautiful posters.

For a full list of revision ideas and strategies see “How do I revise?” Top Revision Strategies but my go to is ‘the blank sheet summary’. This technique involves students revising a topic for 15 mins (using any strategy they wish) then they have 5 minutes without notes to write down everything they can remember on a blank sheet of paper. After, the students go back through their notes and add in a different colour anything they missed or forget. Finally the students do either a test or timed essay. This reinforces that revision involves more doing (rewriting, gap filling, testing) than just going through notes (see Revision Must-Do: Blank Sheet Summary).


There are two techniques I rely upon when it comes to essay writing practice. The first is the common one: timed essays in class. But instead of taking them in to mark, give the students a mark scheme and they mark their own (see Examiner’s Mark Scheme) This way they start to think like examiner’s and thus develop the essay writing skills the examiner’s accredit top bands to.

The second technique I swear by is the students writing essays, using notes not within timed conditions to the best of their ability. This is because the students will never be able to write a top marker in timed conditions if they cant write a top marker without these constraints. Once they have the technique they just need to practice it under timed conditions but it is must easier once they have actually mastered the technique in the first place. When they hand in their essays I always get them to self assess first using highlighters: highlight specific words from the question, highlight their evaluation/critical terms and highlight line of argument. This pin points any big gaps for a redraft (see Colour Coordination: Highlighting those Skills).

What I have found over the years is that you need to be explicit in your expectations. What do you mean when you think of resilience, or independent study or revision. What does that look like to you and let them know this. It is not that students are not willing to revise or work hard, as they are, it is more they just don’t know what this looks like.

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