Revision advice for the summer examinations

Advice to support your off-spring as they head for their summer examinations

Barnaby Lenon, Chairman of the Independent Schools’ Council and former Headmaster of Harrow caused a minor media storm when he suggested that the Easter holidays were the time to put the hours into revision if you are facing examinations this summer.

He advocated studying for approximately seven hours a day, starting at 9am and with breaks finishing at 6pm allowing for an evening of relaxation. He makes other sensible suggestions such as ensuring notes are complete. However, it was his remarks about spending every day and even all day revising that attracted the most comment. Dr Kevin Stannard, Director of Learning and Innovation at the Girls’ Day School Trust, added his view which again most sensibly said quality over quantity and last minute cramming is not to be recommended.

I often use my three children’s approach to studying as examples of differing styles and what to do and perhaps more importantly want not to do when preparing for any form of test. My daughter is my eldest child and she always worked hard at school and was rewarded by high grades for her efforts. She was a steady worker making sure notes were completed as she was taught topics. She revised as she progressed and whilst examinations were not exactly a breeze she could not have done more or prepared better any earlier. She soared over the hurdles. I never worried about her working to the best of her ability.

My elder son’s approach to studying was entirely different. I honestly do not think he has ever revised in the way that Mr Lenon suggests. There was neither quantity or quality as Dr Stannard would advocate. He was taught well which was his saviour and something must have gone into his brain during lessons because he attained a reasonable set of results – not sparkling but they got him onto the next stage. He skimmed the hurdles.

My youngest son was a little like his elder brother and he certainly was not conscientious albeit ambitious. He did follow the advice of Mr Lenon by photocopying his classmate’s anthology of poems but that was out of necessity as he needed to take a copy into the examination room and he had lost his version. He revised wholly from revision guides having never made and therefore filed any notes but at least he had the intention to study even if at the last minute. He did prepare by buying plastic pockets and file dividers for notes he never made. He was known to get up at 5am to go through topics on the day of the examination. He claimed, as he left home for important examinations, that there were topics he had not revised and he hoped questions on these areas would not be asked. He was also taught well which again offered some reassurance to me his anxious mother and he achieved the grades needed to get into medical school. Whilst at university he gradually came to understand that success only comes before work in the dictionary and now working as a doctor but still studying I notice he is revising well ahead of any assessment.  The learning curve has been steep but he has got there.

My daughter wanted to achieve well and it mattered to her. She was not manic or panicky about examinations but she does not like surprises and knows she is happiest going into any test situation prepared. She is the most organised person I know and lives by lists, rotas and timetables.

My elder son is the most laidback individual. He did not particularly care about examination results and aimed always for what he needed to be able to move on. He is easy to live with even if he is frustrating at times as he leaves organisation of his personal life to the last minute. Thankfully he is organised at work.

And as for my youngest son he wanted to do well and did care about results but left all his studying to the last minute which made him grumpy to live with and did nothing for my mental health. However much I nagged knowing he would be disappointed if the results did not go his way I only made myself miserable. If only I had known then what I know now I may have approached his examinations less anxious.

I wonder if the differences between my sons and daughter are gender related. Most of the women I know are organisers. The vast majority of girls I have taught like to be prepared. As both Mr Lenon and Dr Stannard’s most recent school experience is at boys’ schools is this what leads them to deliver advice about not leaving it too late and to avoiding cramming? My sons would disappear off to their bedrooms and try to convince me they were working when they were really doing anything and everything but studying. They procrastinated and left revising until tomorrow which of course never came.

As a Headmistress of a girls’ school my advice is always to work steadily. I preach often in assembly and at parents’ evenings that a revision day has three parts – morning, afternoon and evening – and to revise for only two of the three for two hours in each segment spilt into two one hour chunks.  I also say that whatever happens in the examinations there are always a variety of routes through to a successful adult life. With concerns growing about the mental health of teenagers I am mindful of the pressures they put upon themselves and they need to be encouraged to keep everything in perspective.

As a parent of a child facing important examinations you want to support your off-spring. If I have learned anything about steering children through the choppy waters of GCSE and A Levels it is that you cannot take the tests for them. As the saying goes you can lead a horse to water but you cannot make them drink. My role was to provide encouragement, occasional carefully given advice, food and home comforts and most importantly to keep calm.  In the words of Dr Stannard “Like Easter itself, holiday revision might start in misery but it should end in joy”.