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Tips for effective exam preparation

Teaching strategies   Cambridge IGCSECambridge International A LevelExamsLearning processesRevision
Are you ready for exams?

In some parts of the world, it’s a time of year when both teachers and students are thinking about exam preparation. Even the most relaxed students decide it’s time to study hard, and teachers are often focusing on revision in lessons. Here are a few of my favourite strategies for helping students to revise effectively.

Focus on what you know

At the beginning of my teaching career I was told that the majority of exam answers contain fairly similar information, and that it was often how well students made use of that information that determined their mark. It’s very easy for students to focus on learning ‘lots of stuff’ and ignore how well they apply what they know. One technique which works very well is to set up a card game, which you can play with the whole class or in small groups. One pile of cards contains various facts and figures about a topic (this could also include quotations in relevant subjects). The other pile contains possible questions. The students have to decide how they would make the fact fit into their answer to a question. This encourages them to think creatively, has an element of challenge, and trains them in an important aspect of exam technique. This works best for open response questions because students have more freedom to choose wisely.

Interrogate the questions

Students need to get into the habit of carefully interrogating a question. That way, they can be certain they’ve read it correctly, and they can also think quickly about what material they need to cover. This will help in the exam itself but it’s also great preparation as it helps students to understand which areas they need to revise in more depth.

One way of doing this effectively is to use the ‘pen of power’ approach. You can model this by writing an exam question on the board (or displaying it on an electronic whiteboard). Ask your students to say what they think the key words are, and why. Underline them and write down brief explanations. You can also ask them to suggest key topics and approaches for the questions. Write this up too, in a different colour.

Students can also do this by themselves. A short version of the exercise is a good way to approach questions in an exam as well. My older students used to find this very helpful, and would often request it as a class revision task.

Know your facts!

Helping students to find active ways of remembering key factual information is really important. Two strategies I found especially helpful were:

  1. Make up factual-recall tests. Students can do this on paper or use one of the many free online quiz generators or apps. If you have a virtual learning environment (VLE), most of these also include quiz generators. They can use the quizzes themselves and share them around. I remember once a student saying to me, ‘but if I write the quiz, I’ll know the answers.’ To which my response was, ‘exactly’.
  2. Play ‘I have…who has…?’ This is a quiz exercise with a twist. Students have cards which include a question and the answer to someone else’s question. The first student starts by asking a question, and then the student with the answer reads their answer out, and then asks their question, which another student has on their card. Eventually, all students will have answered and asked a question. The last person to answer will be the first student to ask the question. This works equally well with factual information and vocabulary, and older students might also enjoy designing their own cards.

Use past and specimen papers

Opening the exam paper is always going to be a nerve-wracking moment, but as teachers, we can help students to feel more confident.

Make sure that the students are really familiar with the style of the exam papers, and that their revision includes a lot of practice. If you are making up practice questions, try to make them look as close to the ‘real thing’ as possible. Help students to think about roughly how long they should be spending on each question. Where there is a choice, help them with tactics for choosing the right question to answer. (So many students choose a question on the basis of an opening 5 mark question, not spotting that they really don’t know the material for the 15 mark question that follows it.) If you have time, give students the chance to do extra practice questions for you to mark.

Be reflective about what works already

Students are all different and it is right that we frequently challenge them to think about how they can improve their revision strategies. What worked for them at Cambridge IGCSE might not work for them at Cambridge International A Level, for example. However, as teachers we must be careful not to suggest that one method of revision works for everyone. Encourage students to think about what works for them, and what they could improve on.

Practise using special consideration

Many students have special consideration for exams. For instance, some dyslexic students have extra time. If they are entitled to this, make sure they are using this in their practice work too. Talk with them about how best to use their special consideration in the exam. For instance, if they are entitled to extra time, will they spread this out between questions, or will they take longer at the beginning to read through the paper and consider their answers? There’s no right or wrong answer to this – they need to think about what best meets their needs. Your advice will be really important in helping them to think it through.

Start planning for next year

Now is a good time to lay the foundations for your students who won’t be doing exams until later in the year or next year. Are their notes up to date and ready to revise from? Are you introducing them to good strategies in plenty of time? Are they experimenting now with different techniques so that they can see what works for them? Consider setting some practice questions or factual recall tests to give them some revision practice. Review Assessment for Learning and metacognitive techniques that you can apply now, so that you know more about your students, and they know more about how to learn more effectively.

Study resources

Students can also use our Learner Guides as part of their exam preparation. They include useful advice to help students plan their study programme. For all Cambridge IGCSE subjects, I’d recommend the Learner Study Guide and the Learner Revision Guide, which can be used in the classroom and for independent study.

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