Wrongly or rightly, exams are part of school life and, whether we like it or not, our prep school children will have to sit public exams at senior school and potentially beyond when they reach university. As well as being a helpful indicator of knowledge and understanding, there are many other skills that can be acquired through the process of exams, including time management, remaining focused under pressure and discipline. Exam results obviously provide teachers with information on how much each pupil has understood and progressed, but it is important to remember that they are but one piece of information in each child’s academic profile and are far from the sole determinant in matters such as senior school choices and set allocation.
There is no doubt that sometimes the thought of exams and their preparation can be somewhat daunting for pupils (and indeed parents!). This preparation needs to be approached in a straightforward and as stress-free way as possible.
At Lambrook, we make a deliberate point of not providing revision materials during half term and holiday periods (Year 8 aside), as pupils need a rest and the chance to enjoy their childhood after several busy weeks at school. The week prior to exams is mainly given over to in-class revision and some work may go home at this time.
Whilst we appreciate that every parent will want to support their children at home with their academic studies, paying for additional tutoring is not encouraged and can provide a false indication of a child’s true ability. Extrapolated forward, this may well see them going on to a senior school where the academic demands are beyond that individual and they end up enduring an unnecessarily tough five years.
Anders Ericsson (Professor of Psychology at Florida State University) confirms what we all know but often don’t admit: that it’s more satisfying to revise what we know already rather than focus on our weaker areas – revision should rather be a deliberate effort to identify and work on what we don’t know. Another expert, Tom Stafford (University of Sheffield) concurs: ‘We’re drawn to ways of studying that feel good but are actually quite poor at helping us learn… it can produce a fatal overconfidence.’ If you enjoy revising, you’re probably doing it wrong – it’s meant to be hard work.
Effective revision requires what Ericsson terms ‘deliberate practice’ – concentrating on a specific topic, preferably an area of weakness. This could mean, for instance, drawing a mind map of prior knowledge on a specific topic, followed by a self-test which will identify any weak areas and enable a target to be set. Information needs to be tested and retrieved from the memory bank, not merely recognised in a book or notes. A great revision exercise is to teach someone else the topic as the knowledge has first to be learnt and organised in a clear and structured way before being able to clearly explain it to another person.
At home there are many ways in which parents can support the revision process. A basic run-down on revision dos and don’ts would certainly include the following: Eat a proper breakfast; skipping it will dramatically reduce the average attention span. Put any devices away, properly away, out of sight; even their visual presence creates a distraction. Moreover, research definitively points against the use of background music. Revision is best in short, sharp bursts; excessive time spent revising often equates more with wasted time than with exam success. Take time out for fresh air and exercise; not only will it provide refreshment and a renewed focus, but it is proven to reduce stress levels and increase self-esteem. Spreading out revision also allows time between sessions for the brain to forget and relearn information. Ditch the highlighters as they tend to isolate information that requires context and connections; they often give the appearance of having worked hard but are of limited value. Probably most importantly of all, sleep properly.
If pupils are working well in class and using every lesson to learn, understand and retain new topics, there should not be a huge requirement for lots of revision in the early years of prep school life. As pupils move through the school, the increasing number and frequency of exams lends itself to pupils starting to learn the skills to do meaningful revision which they will find invaluable once at senior school.
Revision is important but, like all good things, should be done properly and in moderation.
Assistant Head, Academic
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