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Proof of the pudding

Students at a Suffolk comprehensive carried out a consumer survey of KS3 revision guides. Kate Sida and Geoff Barton report

We've hit the main season for exam anxiety. Few students are now spared the burden of external assessment. As a result, just as we remember August shops menacingly filled with "Back to school" displays, so February's half-term holiday is dominated by beckoning heaps of revision guides.

We often get asked by parents which books we recommend for Year 9 students.

We have mixed feelings about answering this. We want to downplay the importance of the key stage 3 tests. We want students to feel that the work we do in lessons and booster classes is more than adequate as preparation.

On the other hand, we understand that some students wish to spend some of their time (and money) in buying a book or two that might build up their confidence. Who are we to suppress independent learning?

The problem is that we aren't the best judges of which books really work.

We see them from a teacher's viewpoint. After all, while we are aware of the material they have covered in lessons, only our students know which parts they have found the most difficult. That's why we decided this year to buy every KS3 revision book in maths, English and science that we could lay our hands on. We scoured the bookshops of Bury St Edmunds (which isn't exactly Hay-on-Wye) and ransacked publishers' catalogues. We raised the money to buy a few copies of each title, ending up with more than 70 books.

Then we gave them to a group of Year 10 students and asked them to tell us which were the best and worst.

It was interesting to watch the way they approached the task. We might have expected that visual appearance would be the most important element - that they judged each book by its cover and layout. In fact, they were much more measured. Most students started by looking at the contents section, discussing which areas of the course they had studied and which parts they had found difficult.

They tended to head directly for those topics they felt most confident about. However, with a little encouragement from us they looked at the parts of the book that covered less easy topics. If these sections were made interesting and relevant, the book would definitely score well overall. These, after all, were the parts they would expect to spend most time studying at home.

Most importantly, our students wanted information presented in manageable chunks. A sense of satisfaction at having completed a section or unit of work was essential in order for them not to be put off by the size of the task. Most of them told us that if they were going to use these books at home they would need to feel a confidence-building progress throughout.

They were also highly attuned to the stylistic features of each book's text and quick to spot patronising tones or over-jokey styles. They looked for information relevant to the topics and focused on the books that posed the right questions and gave the answers in a style that they could understand away from the classroom.

So what did our students recommend? You can read the full survey on our website, but here's their best and worst revision books for each of the three core subjects:

Seen as the best

English:The Letts Ultimate Study Guide Revise English KS3 by Kath Jordan was considered interesting and full of useful practice questions. It helped students try out various writing styles, which is important in the exam.

Maths:CGP Revision Books came out well. Students thought the use of exam questions was very helpful. The information was well spaced on the page which made it easy to read.

Science:Spotlight 9 from Nelson Thornes was seen as very helpful, as it focused on exam questions and covered all the topics in the course. This is important for students who need reassurance in certain areas.

Seen as the worst

English:Letts Revision Guides on individual Shakespeare plays. The information was not seen as clear or helpful in understanding the main themes.

Maths:BBC Bitesize Revision Guide was considered to be less useful as too much advice was given and some tasks were seen as simply copying out information.

Science:Practice Tests for KS3 Science Age 13-14 (OUP) was regarded as not very interesting to read. It did not help with students' understanding of the topics. On the other hand, it is exactly what it says - a collection of practice papers.

Kate Sida is KS3 English co-ordinator and Geoff Barton is headteacher at King Edward VI School, Suffolk. The full guide is available for download at

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