Tips on how to survive the exam season

stressed student Exams are under way in Scotland and begin in other parts of UK soon

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Door-slamming, tantrums, and sleepless nights are all too common in many UK homes now the exam season is here - with teenagers, parents and teachers all sharing the pain.

Post-it notes and revision diagrams are plastered on the walls of some teenagers' bedrooms, while others are turning to new technology to help them revise, recording themselves chanting French verb-endings or scientific terms.

Many schools are holding revision classes in and out of normal classroom hours and some parents are digging deep to pay for private tuition - priced at up to £200 a day.

But what are cheaper and tried and tested methods of making revision count?

And what are the "dos and don'ts" for parents who want to help their children do their best without adding to their problems and stoking their stress?

Start Quote

Revision time can wreak havoc in a family house”

End Quote Justine Roberts Mumsnet founder

Mumsnet has tips for parents and students, offered by their members.

Mumsnet founder Justine Roberts says: "Revision time can wreak havoc in a family house - stress levels are high, coffee mugs accumulate, and anxious parents grow ever watchful.

"It's difficult to get the right balance, but on the whole Mumsnetters advise parents to exercise patience - take the pressure off, stock the snack-cupboards and offer much-welcomed tea breaks."


Consultant educational psychologist Vivian Hill says young people have a variety of ways of revising, and stress in the home is often increased when parents fail to understand that.

"Each child will have a different style or approach to learning," says Ms Hill, of the Institute of Education, London University.

"Some will have revision notes highlighted with coloured pens, others might use audio tape and some learn better interactively, working with a friend.

"It's important to find out what works for them. This can lead to conflict. For example, some people find it easier to revise with music or the TV on in the background and some parents think it should be turned off. Some want to study all night long and parents might want lights out at 10:00.


  • Have a clear revision timetable
  • Study for no more than 45 minutes in one go
  • Study enough topics - don't assume your best ones will come up
  • Look up past papers on the exam board websites, plus the guide to how marks were awarded (marking schemes)
  • Take breaks
  • Eat well
  • Sleep well

"Some people are very fortunate in that they are doing what looks like half-hearted preparation but it is very effective.

"If you interfere too much, you might increase the stress on them even more."

Most of the groundwork and preparation for exams is done in schools.

Perry Beeches Academy in Birmingham was praised in its recent Ofsted report for the "outstanding" progress made by all pupils, including the 50% who are on free school meals.

Inspectors rated the school "outstanding" and said pupil progress was "among the very best of any school in the country".

Between 2007 and 2012, the proportion of pupils getting five good GCSEs including maths and English rose from 21% to 77%.

What is the school's secret?

Executive head teacher Liam Nolan says it uses various strategies, including academic mentoring, teaching in smaller groups and holding revision classes, including in the Easter holidays.

The strategies, he says, are used "all the way to the final exam".

Pupils don't take "study leave" shortly before the exams begin, instead, their timetables continue throughout the exam period.


  • Eat something an hour or two before - bananas are recommended
  • Stay calm
  • Avoid people who might stress you more
  • Read the questions carefully
  • Plan your answers in bullet points, then re-read the question to make sure you have enough material
  • Re-read your work, checking grammar and spelling

They have to come in for teacher-led revision sessions and for personal study if they want to.

"Their end-date for the year is the day of the last exam," says Mr Nolan.

"There's a revision timetable. We don't leave children laying around at home in front of Jeremy Kyle.

"We do revision timetables for young people, we teach them how to revise. And the day before the exam, we collapse the day [the timetable] to do exam preparation in a concentrated way."

Mr Nolan's top exam tips are that pupils should study for no more than 45 minutes without a break and have a "clear revision timetable".

To parents, he says: "Make sure teenagers have enough sleep and good meals.

"We warn parents that this is possibly one of the most difficult teenage times and to be patient, to bite their tongues and expect their children to be more difficult than normal because they are stressed."

'All you think about'

But what works for students?

Pupils at the Priory Ruskin Academy in Grantham, Lincolnshire, have a variety of revision techniques.

Ian, 17, is preparing for his AS-levels, and his top tip is to "do lots of exam questions".

"I like to revise a subject and then test myself on a real paper. That really works for me," he says.

student in exam hall If your mind goes blank, try making bullet points

"For GCSEs, I read the books - text-books and work I had done - and made notes from them.

"I do a lot of rugby and sport, so the problem was trying to fit it all in. You get stressed at the start... but after a while you get in your stride and find a pattern. I would tell people not to worry; try your best.

"If I get stressed my parents say, 'Don't worry, just try to do your best.'"

Peter, 16, says: "I make notes and have big collage posters on my bedroom walls, which catches my eye.

"It took me a while to learn that visualisation would be the best thing for me.

He says there can be a lot of pressure.

"It can get quite stressful if all your parents and teachers are saying, 'You need to revise,' because it's all you think about," he says.

"You need to get on top of it and get enough sleep. Have a timetable, but have breaks."

Start Quote

They say they are going up to their room to revise but might not do anything”

End Quote Jade, 18 A-level student

For Jade, 18, preparing for her A2s (the final part of A-levels), one-on-one revision lessons run by the school are proving useful.

"It's much better to focus on the things you are struggling with than be in a class of 20," she says.

Jade says parents should support students' learning.

"It's good if parents sit down and help them revise. They say they are going up to their room to revise but might not do anything.

"My mum doesn't stress me. She says it's my life and if I want to do well I need to buckle down and do revision. And she helps me. She's a nurse and is interested in my psychology studies and we help each other."

Neuroscience student David Cox blogged on the Guardian website about the science behind revision.

He says repetition and sleep are key - but the most important thing is to pay attention.

"By choosing to focus on something, you give it a personal meaning that makes it easier to remember," he writes.

"In fact, most of our problems when it comes to revision have very little to do with the brain's capacity for remembering things; we just struggle to devote our full attention to the task in hand."

Quiet space

Educational psychologist Vivian Hill says parents can help by taking noisy brothers or sisters out and creating a quiet space for the child in the home or encouraging them to study in the school library or another quiet place.

"It's a time of high stress and if they are surrounded by noisy siblings who have music blasting out or are playing noisy video games it can be hard to concentrate and feel like every one else is enjoying themselves," she says.

And she warns parents not to increase the pressure.

"It's an unhelpful message to say, 'It's your one-and-only-chance,'" she said.

"There is always another chance."

Ms Roberts, of Mumsnet, agrees: "At the end of the day, bad exam results aren't the end of the world.

"All we can do is our best - we parents know it, and our kids should too."


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  • rate this

    Comment number 212.

    Its a difficult time and for me at 15 revising for my GCSEs was the first time I had ever felt real pressure.

    Its good for character building and for me helped me deal with issues as I got older.

    The only difference now is I realise its not the end of the World if things go wrong as there are other options.

  • rate this

    Comment number 207.

    My parents used the 'Don't worry, just try to do your best' approach. As a result I never worried about exams, although I always seemed to do okay. I started work straight from school and am glad I never went into further education. Not only did I start earning sooner, I didn't get into student debt and the work experience proved invaluable.

  • rate this

    Comment number 140.

    This article brought back many memories, the good and the bad from when I was revising for GCSEs and A levels. I remember being told by one teacher that all music and other ‘distractions’ should be off when revising. Then another teacher would say that he thinks having music on is better.

    Ignoring the fact that the second teacher was cooler, I found out my own way which was better for me.

  • rate this

    Comment number 130.

    As one who has been involved in teaching at all levels from primary to university, I can only say I sympathize with those who find it difficult to cope. Examinations are so ingrained it would be impossible to imagine a world without them. But, they are at best synthetic and hardly represent a candidates performance day to day. Remember, a failed exam does not make you a failure as a person.

  • rate this

    Comment number 70.

    The best way of dealing with the stress of exams is remembering that if you fail them, it is not the end of the world despite what teachers, parents & lecturers may tell you.

    This is from someone that left college in my first year and returned to education in my 30's. I now have loads of post-grad qualifications and a very good job - and some life experience when I was young enough to enjoy it.


Comments 5 of 11


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