Exam doctor's top tips for revision

By George Turnbull
Ofqual's 'Exams Doctor'

Image caption,
As a student, Mr Turnbull complained about an invigilator's squeaky shoes

Exams have a habit of creeping up on us and there never seems to be enough time to cover everything.

Most of us wish that we had started revision sooner and that we had more time - but do not underestimate the time that is still available.

So what can you do to ensure that you are in peak condition and that you perform to your best in that exam room - every time? It is not too late to learn, so read on - swots too!


Texting friends or twittering for three hours - with good intentions to revise - will not help.

But 10 minutes will - if you work in that time and do nothing else.

Have a 10 minute break and then start again, gradually building up to 20 or 40 minute periods, whilst keeping breaks to 10 minutes, or less.

It works - try it and see.

If your concentration holds, then work for longer before that break.

Adopt this technique whenever your mind wanders, and you will make progress. When you work, work, and when you play, play. The two do not mix.

Get smart and grab extra time during the day by getting up earlier or shortening your lunch break.

Thirty minutes each school day would give an extra two-and-a-half hours a week, which may allow you to have a night off.

Think now what an extra hour a day could do, and work from there.

Recreation should be built in to your schedule. Make sure you get some but do not let it take over.

Use the time between exams wisely and keep your revision on track. Forget the exams that you have just taken.

There is nothing you can do to influence them now and you are in the worst position to judge how well you performed - but there is a lot you can do to improve your performance in the ones yet to be taken. That is where your efforts should lie.

Vary the subjects you revise in an evening, starting with the one you hate and finishing with the one you like best.

You may even get to like that hated subject as you get to grips with it. Now give yourself a treat.

You deserve it, and you will feel pleased anyway in having achieved something.

The big day

A leisurely breakfast and a walk to school is a good start on any exam morning. Do not rush but do not be late. Avoid friends, they can be off-putting and may confuse your thoughts. Do not cram new information in the night before an exam.

Relax, if you can, by lightly reading over your notes for the next day. Do not worry if you can't, most of us can't either, so you are no different - but stick to the no-cramming rule.

A little anxiety is generally to be expected and will help keep you on your toes.

Know the rules on phones and do not take one into the exam room. You could be disqualified.

But do have a glucose sweet to help energy get to your brain. Take six deep breaths to relax and ignore those around you in those agonising moments before the exam starts.

Image caption,
Avoid friends on exams morning, Mr Turnbull advises

But do read through the questions in that time, jotting down formulae and points to remember on the question paper. Time is allowed for this.

Choose your questions, starting with the ones you know you can do, to build confidence.

Do not spend too long on any one question and try to do the number required. Use the number of marks for each question as a guide and make sure you do the compulsory questions, if there are any.

Be familiar with what you have to do by checking the instructions on the front of the exam paper.

Insufficient time with only 10 minutes left for a 30 minute question at the end of the exam needs a special approach. Do the question in outline only and let the examiner know. State the main points, facts and arguments, if an essay - and by jotting down formulae and how you would use them to reach a solution, if science or maths. More marks can be gained that way with limited time available.

And do not worry now if your handwriting is not so good. It may be untidy, but if your teacher can read it, then so can the examiner. But if no one can read it, it cannot be marked. So be careful.


And if you feel unwell during an exam, make sure that your teacher knows. You could get special consideration, if a valid case and you under-perform.

Do not be afraid to speak up either if the invigilator' s squeaky shoes are disturbing your concentration, as they pace up and down the exam room in a regular and consistent fashion.

And those whispers between invigilators when they change watch during exams can be just as annoying. That should not happen, so do not be afraid to say if it disturbs you. It is your exam after all and you want to be able to sit it under exam conditions.

Do not suffer in silence. I did not when I was your age, and asked the invigilator to stop pacing up and down - and he did. The regular pattern of squeaking stopped and I was then able to concentrate.

Good luck, whatever your state of readiness. And remember that you can always improve - where there is a need - by adopting the tips here which work for you.

George Turnbull is Ofqual's Exams Doctor and can be contacted for a personal response at: examsdoctor@ofqual.gov.uk with any questions you have about A level or GCSE.

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