On preparing for success – examinations, revision and high aspirations


In an update on an earlier post, I am re-visiting thoughts on preparing for success – the exam season, where GCSEs, AS & A2 levels and any number of other qualifications are being assessed and measured, with judgement pending.

With so much emphasis placed in the UK on our examination system, and a relentless drive by our Education Minister, Michael Gove to bring about significant transformation of our curriculum and qualifications, it is a testing time, literally and metaphorically speaking.

As a parent, I see at first hand the impact of  reforms to A level examinations announced by Ofqual on 30th March 2012, the abolition of January exams for AS and A2 examinations. So, ahead of the main A2 examination round, my daughter – along with thousands of other students of her generation –  is immersed in resits to boost grades from AS exams.  How much this move will impact on pending A2 exam results is yet to be seen and felt. I will be interested personally and professionally, to note the outcome of this policy change on overall A2 exam results and university entrance figures.

Ofqual have a neat question and answer on the rationale behind the policy decision here –


And here’s a link to the Dept for Education’s update page on Reforming Qualifications –


To return to matters more philosophical, how best do young people prepare for these significant milestones, yet still retain a sense of balance, of enjoyment in life, whilst holding onto high aspirations for future success?

In my research for this post, I came across the works of the French philosopher, lawyer and diplomat, Jospeh de Maistre, (1st April 1753 – 26 February 1821), whose comments on the need for steady and hard work are as pertinent today as they were in his life-time, writing around the period of the French Revolution.

There are no easy methods of learning difficult things; the method is to close your door, give out that you are not at home, and work.

~Joseph de Maistre

I rather like the comment ‘give out that you are not at home’, but am acutely aware that for my daughter’s generation, being unavailable is akin to being a social pariah in an era when the status, self-esteem and confidence of many young people is indivisibly bound to the extent to which that same person is wanted, needed and courted by others.

I am pondering here the challenges and opportunities afforded to our young student population in these current times, whilst mindful of the lessons of the past.

So, here are my thoughts on what might be pertinent when preparing for success, or successful outcomes, in this exam season.


Learning as a social, collective activty v examinations as an individual responsibility

Be alert to distinctions between learning as a social, collective activity – in the classroom, through home work, assigned group tasks and controlled assessment activities – and revision and exam success as an individual responsibility.

Far easier to justify the cutting of social ties for the duration of a revision period if the distinction between collective and individual has been made and understood. Friends may share your anguish and understand your stresses and darkest fears, but they will not share your future. You alone are responsible for your outcomes. Be respectful that others too, however much they may decry the case, need time for their own commitments.

 Extend your capacity to sustain concentration on one subject for extended periods of time

Consider the average length in hours and minutes of your exams, from the shortest through to the longest, and set yourself the challenge of being able to sustain extended periods of concentration, that exceed the time needed to complete your longest exam.

The greatest challenge many students face is the capacity to self-generate and sustain the motivation and concentration needed for the duration of not just the exam itself, but the time that it takes to enter the exam room, gather thoughts and listen to and follow attentively the exam procedures and instructions.   Too frequently exam failure is down to an inadquate understanding of the procedures and expectations of the exam, rather than a lack of subject knowledge.

Embrace the prospect of silent contemplation of the subjects set before you. Challenge yourself as you set your revision plan to extend your perods of concentration.  I do not hold much store by revision theories that advocate setting goals of bite-sized chunks of revision with a reward for each 15 minute study period completed. Your brain has not even begun to attune itself to the matter in hand and needs time to settle in, to focus with a clarity of thought, in just the same way that the body needs time to warm up and prepare for strenuous activity or competition ahead.

Be active in your revision activities, not just a passive recipient of information

Be alert to how effectively you study and use your allocated study time. I am well aware the lure of attractive, multi-coloured revision cards, marker pens, page slips and the whole adornment of study that has an industry of its own. I have a daughter, and at risk of offending sensibilities, I would say that the female race is inclined far more to devote an afternoon to the consumer side of study, than the male. Be that as it may, there is a distinction here to be made between passive acts of revision that incorporate a host of peripheral tasks, and active study.

Endless wallets of study notes may give an appearance of industry but if they are not accompanied by a simultaneous quest to deepen knowledge, they may all be in vain. What is it that you know well, that you have an understanding of with such measure, that you anticipate the words on the page even before they come into view? What is it that you have floundered over, poorly understood or thought to be a waste of your time? Ask yourself these questions as you progress with your revision and your answers will guide you to the best course of action.

At times, deviating from your set revision text to answer a past paper question, or to research and find another form of explanation, or to test yourself on an equation or sequence of events, may be the path that best leads you past that particular difficulty. Change your approach, and you will often change your outcome.

 Alert others to your goals and ambitions so the best people to support, are on your side

One factor that may preclude success more than most others is the company you keep, and the ambitions and attitude of those with whom you form your strongest bonds. Where there is no mismatch of ability and ambition, all is well. Where there is a mismatch, a discord between the wants and aspirations of person A against person B, then there will be difficulties.

Who do you align yourself to? Whom do you revere, look up to, model yourself on? Whose achievements impress you most? Look always to where you set your sights and be honest with yourself in your appraisal of your actions.

For some young people, determining who may support and who will hinder or hold you back, is a challenge, but a necessary one.  We all know those people whose comment, views and off the cuff remarks may sting and create a lingering sense of unease, and those whose comments nourish and support us, so that we feel reassured, more confident that before, appreciated and valued. Steer your attentions, wherever you can, to those who regard you with the upmost respect, who hold your thoughts and views dearly and with kind consideration.

Find yourself a sanctuary, a space to work, to reflect, to study, and make it your own

Virginia Woolf recognized this need at the turn of the last century set against a different context.  ‘A Room of One’s Own’ sees Woolf rail agains the constraints of the age and the challenges facing womem who devoted their lives to washing dishes and minding babies, and had no time or energy to be creative, to write.  What was needed to overcome these pernicious constraints, was money and a room of one’s own.

Accepting that most students are not in a postion to claim financial freedom, there is much to be learned from adopting good study habits, of finding some space that may serve reliably and regularly as a sanctuary for your daily studies, and making it your own.

There are many sites that offer excellent services to support revision and students coping with the demands of the exam season. Having little chance to compete with much excellent study and research on the matter, I hope nevertheless, that my thoughts and comment may provide some motivation to consider anew, what is it that you are doing now that will engender your success, or else lead to outcomes that may be less than desirable?

Here are some sites I have been impressed by with their planning tools  –

http://getrevising.co.uk/timetable/intro  and equally – http://revisionworld.co.uk/

Whilst I am not generally in favour of collecting up revision guides as a substitute for the hard work necessary, I am aware how valuable a tool they may be. The site My Daughter has provided an extensive list of revision guides on the market with comment on their suitability for different exam boards – http://www.mydaughter.co.uk/


Finally, returning the while to my love of quotations, and of Abraham Lincoln, here is a thought that strkes  as remarkably contemporary   –

Things may come to those who wait, but only the things left by those who hustle. 

~Abraham Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln


One response »

  1. Reblogged this on Frontier news and commented:

    As we enter exam season, I am revisiting earlier posts and lingering over the words of Abraham Lincoln – “Things may come to those who wait, but only the things left by those who hustle.”


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