Start GCSE and A-level revision in Easter holidays to reduce stress, say teachers

Students preparing for GCSE and A-level exams should start revising in earnest during the Easter holidays to avoid greater stress as exam time draws closer, according to experienced teachers and education experts.

Across the UK close to 2 million teenagers will be gearing up for their exams, with students in England, Wales and Northern Ireland sitting their first papers on 16 May, five weeks away.

Barnaby Lenon, a former headmaster of Harrow School, said students taking exams this year were anxious for valid reasons, and said the secret to reducing stress was good preparation.

“If stress is something that worries you, then you’re going to have more stress if you haven’t done some revision over Easter. A little bit of stress in the Easter holidays may be a price worth paying to avoid super-stress in May,” Lenon said.

While this year’s candidates have faced extraordinary disruption to their studies, experts who spoke to the Guardian said students should avoid panicked cramming. Instead, they urged students to pace themselves and have good revision strategies.

“Current exam students have lost several months of learning and may never have taken a public exam. Given the time they have lost and their unfamiliarity with revision, it is all the more important that they revise using techniques that are proven to be effective,” said Daisy Christodoulou, a former teacher and the director of education at No More Marking, an online assessment organisation.

Many students equate revision with highlighting notes and re-reading textbooks. But Christodoulou said those methods were largely ineffective. “It leads to the ‘illusion of competence’ – students get familiar with the material they are re-reading but they don’t really understand it.”

Instead, using self-tests and quizzes leads to much more effective revision, because the act of recalling something from memory – known as “retrieval practice” – helps to consolidate understanding of a topic.

Adam Boxer, the head of science at the Totteridge Academy in north London, said: “The best way to execute retrieval practice is via quizzing – asking questions in written or verbal form. Reading your notes is being reminded of content, answering a question is retrieving your knowledge of that content from your long-term memory.”

But Boxer said students needed to be realistic. “When self-assessing, they will tend to be lenient on themselves and say things like ‘oh I meant that’ or ‘it was just a silly mistake’, absolving themselves of the need to do meaningful follow-up.

“Instead, students should not lie to themselves. They should speak or write down every answer they make, and be honest and robust when it comes to self-assessment.”

Christodoulou said that using a technique called “spaced retrieval” could also improve revision. “If you have two hours to revise a subject, you are better off splitting it into four half-hour sessions on four separate days than doing two hours in one go.”

To help, Boxer and Christdoulou suggest students make use of free apps and online tools such as flash cards as an efficient way of learning things such as foreign language vocabulary, historical dates or maths formulae. Christodoulou recommended the flash card app Anki, while Boxer is the director of education for Carousel Learning, a free online quizzing tool.

But how much time should be spent revising over Easter? Lenon said it was harder to give clear advice this year on how many hours a day each student should be working.

“Different students are going to have different capacities to revise, reflecting the fact that students are different and students have had different experiences during the pandemic,” Lenon said.

“Do as much as you can but don’t exhaust yourself, because that would be crazy. Always get a good night’s sleep, never revise late in the evening, because good sleep helps your brain to retain information in the long-term memory, which is what we are trying to achieve. Don’t get over-stressed in the Easter holidays, don’t feel you have to bust a gut.”

David Didau, the senior lead for English at the Ormiston Academies Trust, said his advice to students this year was no different from any other year. “Basically, if you want to do well in a subject, sit a past paper – there are commercially available mock-ups – three times a week from now until the exam,” Didau said.

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