Revising for exams is a necessary evil. Ever since written university exams were first set in England by the Cambridge chemist William Farrish in about 1792, students have struggled to revise. And with mock exams starting in January, the winter break is a crucial time for children to do so.
What is the best way to revise and how do you motivate a teenager to prioritise what is, for them, a distraction from living and playing online?
First, the bad news. There’s no single strategy that can guarantee success. The good news is that there are plenty of things you can do to make revision not only bearable, but successful.
Meeting basic needs
Nobody works well if basic biological needs aren’t met. Make sure your teen sleeps well, and for long enough, eats healthy food and doesn’t feel cold and hungry, it helps them work well (but be careful that it’s not too warm, otherwise they could get sleepy).
Exams are important, but no matter the result, it’s vital to let your teen know that it won’t change how you feel about them. If your teen takes pride in their work and has a self-belief, the work becomes more meaningful. This is where your praise for what they do well kicks in. But remember, the praise needs to be real, not empty.
Create a revision space – a quiet, separate area, away from distractions such as the TV, music, game consoles, tablets and smartphones. Make sure there is plenty of room for notes, text books and other resources.
Revising on the bed is more likely to lead to sleeping than work. Teens often try to convince you that they need music to revise – but it depends on the type of music and how loud it is. Complex lyrics will distract as will loud music or music with a heavy bass/beat. As for watching TV and working – that just doesn’t work.
Timing is everything
One of the worst things you can do is hassle your teen about revision. They need to be motivated to revise themselves, otherwise – even if they appear to be revising – they probably won’t be using the time effectively. This doesn’t mean you don’t encourage them to work, it’s just a matter of timing.
Hassle them when they are in the middle of something they enjoy (for example, a favourite TV programme) and it will breed resentment. Create a timetable for revision that includes reward time, such as an opportunity their favourite TV programme or time for social media and gaming.
Encourage short bursts of revision. The ideal way to revise varies from person to person, but try 30-40 minute sessions for GCSE or 50-70 minute sessions for A levels, separated by 10-15 minute breaks, during which time checking phones is fine.
Breaks are important
Simply put, the brain has three states, in the conscious state you know you’re thinking about things; you decide to think. This state requires concentration and a teen’s concentration span is not as good as an adult’s.
The second state is the subconscious state – the brain is working on problems, but you aren’t aware of it. It’s that feeling you get when you just can’t remember someone’s name. It’s on the tip of your tongue, but you just can’t remember. Stop thinking about it and, all of a sudden, minutes – even hours – later, the name comes back to you. That’s your subconscious working. So during revision breaks the subconscious brain will still be dealing with the previous hour’s work.
The third state is the unconscious state.
Be there to help. Even if you only provide moral support, it can help to have someone there. Be understanding. In the run-up to exams (a stressful time), listen to any problems your teen has and attack the problem, not the person.
Get the rest of the family onside. It’s no good you being supportive if others are undermining your efforts. It is important that everyone in the home understands the importance of revision.
Encourage your teen to tell you what they know and understand. The best way to show understanding in any subject is to explain what you know to someone else. Even if you’re not confident in the subject, a good way for your teen to organise their thoughts about what they know and understand is to explain things to you.
If you know about the subject you can help them if they go wrong. If not – and they explain things and you don’t quite get it – ask then to explain it in another way. This actually helps them organise their ideas and they’ll become more confident about what they know and understand.
How to revise
Simply reading textbooks and notes is, very often, not effective. Revision needs to be active and involve making notes or diagrams. Where possible, use past papers (also get the mark schemes), textbooks and syllabuses to work out what should be revised. The best revision uses a variety of materials: notes, textbooks, online resources. If your teen likes them, and knows how to produce them, mind maps can be very effective.
Get your teen to set aside time to think, consciously and subconsciously, as well as reading and writing. It’s helpful to switch environments for this, perhaps going for a walk or doing some exercise. It’s important to go over material more than once, but make sure they leave a day or two in between. This will help reinforce knowledge and fix it in their mind.
Avoid last-minute “cramming” for exams, most often it results in confused responses where ideas get mixed up. Slow steady progress is the key to examination success.