Everyone wants to improve their chances in exams. Thomas Lee looks at a selection of aids that should help shorten the odds. It is almost wry that you spend light years learning what exams give you just hours to write about. Maybe that's why exams are called big bang assessment.
Anything that helps with this process is worth a look, and it is perhaps unsurprising that there has been a sudden explosion in revision software.
Take the Abbey Tutorial Software, for example. It asks questions, gives answers and records a student's progress. It could and should have been written years ago because that's always been what computers do.
There's a separate title for A-level physics, chemistry and maths - each with the same tidy look and feel. Students choose their syllabus modules and then answer multiple choice questions with a click instead of a pencil. The program picks questions that match the syllabus, will work students against the clock and obviously marks the test. With no delays, they can review the damage to the ego as well as brush it up with some built-in revision notes. The clever part is that the program analyses progress and will show which topics they score high and low on. It keeps a record of this so that, on the next test, students can choose questions based on their weak or strong points.
If you've got lots of students, the network version is a good choice because you'll gain a handy diagnostic tool. For network or single user, this is fine though hardly exciting.
To assist GCSE work there's Acacia's Revise 9697, which is also pretty easy to use. Students choose their syllabus, their topics and the size of the test they want, then they're off. It's multiple choice questions again, but this time they don't move on till they hit the right answer. When they do it cheers, illustrates the answer and goes on to the next question. Finally marks are totted up, filed and a topic-by-topic breakdown is shown.
What is remarkable is that if students need help, say, when choosing their test, a talking head pops up telling them what to do. This alone impresses, though if they can understand the head's explanation of mark weightings, they're probably clever enough not to need this.
There is a very different approach in The Inside Track to GCSE, which comes in science, maths and geography flavours. There is a definite fun feel to this with a friendly cartoon character offering revision and exam tips. Students work through structured exam questions, answer them on paper and mark it themselves using the answers supplied. The program grades their marking and offers students a few key facts about each topic, while a teacher's tool lets you print out the exam questions and monitor student progress. It adds up to more practice for students and less marking for teachers.
For pure drill, see Swift Test Questions for GCSE Biology and A-Level. As it's an unassuming MS Dos program with all sorts of installation hassle, I tried quite hard to dislike it. But as punishment goes, this barrage of multiple choice and matching pairs questions is enjoyable and not a bad option, despite appearances.
Finally, if you cut and stick your exam papers, Stanley Thornes's Compact Questions is a dream. This bank of 5,000 science questions simply prints out tests you can mark with red ink. You choose the keywords and difficulty level, prune questions you don't want and then hit print. There are no rash claims about how this will motivate students, it's just plain useful.
If passing exams is anything to do with drill and practice, then all of these help with different amounts of gloss, although whether they will help enough to survive the big bang remains to be seen.
* Abbey Tutorial Software (8 megabytes memory, Windows PC - floppy) from Screenactive 12 Hill Rise, Richmond, Surrey, TW10 6UA. Tel: 0181 332 2132. Pounds 85 single user, Pounds 275 network * Acacia's Revise 9697 - Science Double and Single Awards software (Windows PC and Apple CD-Rom), Acacia Interactive, The Mint House, 1 Hylton Road, Peterfield, Hants GU32 3AL. Tel: 01730 268463. Pounds 45 single copy, Pounds 235 10 multi-pack * The Inside Track to GCSE - Science, Geography, Maths (Windows PC CD-Rom), Longman Logotron, 124 Cambridge Science Park, Milton Road, Cambridge.Tel: 01223 425558.Pounds 299 per subject (for 10 students) Pounds 999 for year group * Swift Test software (PC - floppy), 7 Gowan Avenue, London SW6 6RH. Tel: 0171 731 4108. Pounds 50 for GCSE Biology, Pounds 60 for A-level Biology * Compact Questions: chemistry, biology and physics (Windows CD-Rom) from Stanley Thornes, Freepost GR782, Cheltenham, Glos GL53 1BR. Tel: 01242 228586. Complete set for Pounds 250 plus Pounds 43.75 VAT or Pounds 85 plus Pounds 14.88 separately.