Confidence for candidates

29th April 2005 at 01:00
Revision books can't solve all exam problems, but used intelligently they can be a big help. Steven Chapman chooses the pick of the bunch for SATs and GCSE

With the onset of the exam season, revision books are a source of comfort to thousands of students and parents across the country. Recently there has been a major expansion in the amount of material available; not only books but also online resources; digital television interactive material and even texting now exist alongside their more traditional bound counterparts.

Until recently almost all guides were for GCSE only, but many now exist for key stage 23 tests as well. Some publishers even plan to produce material for KS1 tests.

One problem with revision books is that they appear to offer a magic solution to students whose under-performance in a mock examination threatens parental expectations. Revision guides are not a panacea for getting a high grade for those who have not done enough work for two years.

In the same way as hiring a tutor will not turn an F grade candidate into an A* one, revision guides cannot alter a student's aptitude or effort.

However they can be very useful and valuable for students and parents. In particular they can:

lDistil complex concepts into a few pithy sentences. Some science concepts are taught across a variety of topics, energy, particles, plants, cells and so on. Guides, at their best, draw together these disparate parts into a coherent whole.

lProvide an authoritative summary of specifications and curricula. Work that students might have missed due to absence is presented in one place, with a handy index and glossary.

lRefresh memories overwhelmed by the sheer volume of material needed to pass several exams simultaneously. Some guides offer mnemonics and similar tricks to help learn lists of words. For example characteristics of living things, planets in the Solar system and so on.

lOffer extra examination-style questions and contexts.

lProvide insight into the mysterious world of examination technique. A student may be able to explain to a teacher what a force can do, but can they do it in such a way as to gain credit from the examiner? In the past, exams were shrouded in mystery, but recently teachers have gained a better insight into the protocols of marking, moderating and grade setting.

However, while teachers do their best to pass this on, it will inevitably be in piecemeal form and guides can offer sensible revision and examination tips and techniques.

The key to getting the most from a revision guide is to use it as one of many tools available to the student. It should be used with students'

ordinary class books, their textbooks, their notes and the guidance of teachers. Many of the materials here contain more material than will be needed by all students.

The best way of revising is to actively engage in the process. Many students confuse revision with having their textbook open for an hour in front of the television. Spending 20 minutes attempting and marking multiple-choice questions can be of enormous benefit and helps students take control of their learning.

When considering which books are most suitable for your students, you might like to use the following criteria for assessing their quality. The web addresses and contact details will give you the most up-to-date information. I have asked many of my own students to try some of the material and some of the comments here reflect what worked for them.

The four criteria

lDesign. Will students find the materials attractive and easy to use? How many illustrations are there? Are they in colour? Are the books wordy and therefore potential unsuitable for low ability readers?

lContent. Are the big ideas in science, such as particles and energy underpinning each topic or is it merely a series of double-page spreads? Are there interesting and relevant examples and contexts for the science? Do the questions test students of all abilities? How is the material organised; by subject or by topic?

lStructure. Are there differentiated materials or even whole books for students of all abilities? Is the work for the more able more challenging work on KS3 or merely from the KS4 programme of study? Do different book exist for single, double and triple science? Are there separate books for popular courses, eg Salters or Suffolk Science?

lExtras. Are there any ICT resources? Is there a supporting website? How easy are they to use?

Steven Chapman is head of physics at Oxted School, Surrey

TITLE

BBC Bitesize GCSE Bitesize; KS3 Bitesize KS2 Revisewise Books from Pounds 2.99.CD-Rom pound;9.99 QCA Official National Test Papers pound;7.99 BBC Bitesize Tel: 0870 830 8000 www.bbc.co.ukbitesize

DESIGN

Clearly laid out in sections relating to different curriculum areas with key facts highlighted in the margin; each page ends with a practice question. The Bitesize icon is used to indicate bare-bones ideas, key facts and questions to practise. The GCSE books use coloured tabs to identify important points, for example how the carbon cycle helps maintain the balance of the atmosphere. Diagrams have just the right amount of detail and colour to be informative and interesting.

CONTENT

All of the science curriculum areas are covered, though with no subdivision into individual awarding body's specifications. Material is simply presented as biology, chemistry and physics areas and then divided into smaller areas like electricity, electromagnetism and so on. Clear expositions of the science are matched with relevant examples, eg echoes are illustrated through both bats use of echolocation and ultrasound in hospitals. KS23 material is at a lower level with a simplified structure and less focus on examination technique (though copies of last year's tests are available).

STRUCTURE

Each book has a helpful introduction followed by the main material. For GCSE, there are two excellent sections at the end: one on examination questions and model answers, and a last-minute learner section with key facts for the night before.

EXTRAS

The vast BBC Bitesize website contains interactive materials from the books and some of the clips in Real Player format. There are also FAQs and a text-messaging service. Two hour-long programmes are broadcast twice a year.

VERDICT

Really comprehensive and well-designed series of packages, written by experienced teachers and examiners, of which the real gem is the multimedia material on the website. Clips, games and other resources bring science to life. Unique texting and e-mailing service is unique and highly recommended.

TITLE

WHS National Tests Revision Key Stage 3: Science WH Smith pound;4.99 Tel: 0800 579 579

DESIGN

This simple two-colour book takes key components from the National Curriculum and breaks them down into double-page spreads. Key points are placed in lozenges with diagrams and clear pictures. Each section has a flow chart to show how ideas link within topics. In each margin is a "handy hint" to aid recall for learners (eg mnemonics for rainbow colours) and level descriptors.

CONTENT

The programme of study is broken down by double-page spread, which allows the reader to focus on topics sequentially, ideal for revision. Each topic contains key facts clearly marked and target language. However, the books take great care to link this knowledge to examples, contexts and other topics through mind-map style diagrams. The material is simply presented using flow charts to highlight links between ideas. The section on sound for example, links sounds and echoes to materials and to animals like bats.

This bridging to other topics and contexts does help some students.

STRUCTURE

Material is divided into topics like light and sound, and then further into sub-topics such as vibration. Contexts, links and useful tips are wrapped around the material within each section and also point on to other information in disparate sections.

EXTRAS

There are no extras for this series of books.

VERDICT

These thoughtfully presented books seek to improve students' understanding and factual recall. They may work best in conjunction with advice from teachers based on formative assessment. Their holistic approach is highly commended. They could form a useful part of a structured revision programme.

TITLE

New Star Science Assessment and Revision KS2 Ginn pound;22.99 Tel: 01865 888020 www.myprimary.co.uk

DESIGN

This simple black and white book is laid out in small photocopiable sections covering all of the major key stage topics like light, forces, plants and materials. Simple double-page spreads cover crucial areas from the programme of study in some detail, making sure to highlight main points and use target language.

CONTENT

Questions on all of the major topics in KS2 science are laid out on double-page spreads. These spreads distil the key elements of a particular topic into easily digestible and reproducible sections. Example topics include life cycles, keeping healthy and the Earth, Sun and Moon. Each section includes facts and information from the programme of study with questions which are both clear and original. There is no section on investigation questions, though these now form a quarter of national test papers. However, the material provided would be useful for teacher-led revision sessions near to national test time.

STRUCTURE

The book follows mini-topics through the primary curriculum, keeping to year groupings, with clear divisions. On each page is a set of questions and a mark scheme.

EXTRAS

There are resources available at www.myprimary.co.uk. These include a case study, sample pages, a presentation and links to other sites. Sample pages from the assessment sections cover differentiated learning outcomes by giving guidelines to what children will learn.

VERDICT

This excellent and clear book is ideal for teachers at KS2 needing extra help setting revision before national tests. Two weaknesses, though: a lack of material on science 1 questions, and the cost. However, it could be an invaluable whole school resource.

TITLE

Revise for GCSE Science Various specifications, higher and foundation Heinemann pound;9.99 Tel: 01865 888080 www.heinemann.co.uk

DESIGN

Extremely well-presented and lavishly illustrated books are clearly and thoughtfully laid out. Key points are laid out in colourful boxes and sections on each page which tell what you need to know. Helpfully, these cover learning outcomes of the specification using target language. For modular courses, materials feature end-of-chapter tests and practice tips.

CONTENT

Tied very closely to major specifications, the content may be offputting to the general user. All material is grouped according to the layout of each particular specification. For example, the Suffolk Science book keeps the same topic headings (variation, inheritance and evolution, the working plant, chemical economics and so on) as its specification. This set of books would be very useful if you are covering one of the specifications covered by the series. They can also be used by the more general reader as most of the material comes from the core curriculum specified by QCA.

STRUCTURE

The books follow individual specifications, so care must be advised when family members purchase for students. Make sure students looking for revision texts know to ask the teacher for the awarding body, specification number and level.

EXTRAS

There is some general material accessible at the Heinemann website www.heinemann.co.uk This includes assessment material, example work sheets and so on. Although most of the material is appropriate and easy to use, it offers little to augment the books.

VERDICT

Although relatively expensive, they are comprehensive and could act as a de facto textbook, since the emphasis is heavily on content. Even though my own students do not study these specific courses, they still found the material well presented and useful.

TITLE

Revision Guides ScienceDouble ScienceSeparate Sciences pound;2.50 each Practice Examination Papers pound;2 CGP

DESIGN

These colourful books contain enormous quantities of information in a small space. The text is very densely presented but key points are underlined in different colours. The writing is pithy and interesting and pitched at an appropriate level for all students.

CONTENT

Books are divided into sections on the major topics and then double-page spreads cover the basic material within that topic. Top and bottom of each page contain a supposedly humorous comment on the page's material, eg a section on the blood, brain and reflexes ends with "Blood and Brains the best of black pudding". In between, pages densely packed with material and notes can be overwhelming. The coverage is comprehensive, but there are few illustrations and the text is very closely packed. Consequently, students with low-level literacy skills may find these difficult to use without help.

STRUCTURE

The material is subdivided into small sections of text. These double page spreads cover subtopics like antibiotics or electromagnetic induction.

EXTRAS

There are a series of past examination papers, complete with model answers, for various specifications. These are useful, but students must be told to take advice from their schools on the exact specification being studied and which one to look at.

VERDICT

Despite the text being a little dense for some students, these no- nonsense guides are excellent value for money and proclaim their lack of polish as a virtue. They would work well for students trying to boil down their exercise books into a more concentrated form.

TITLE

Top ... Grades For You: Biology, Chemistry, Physics For AQA Co-ordinated and AQA Modular pound;4.75 each Nelson Thornes www.nelsonthornes.com

DESIGN

Following the colourful template laid down by the successful "For You" series, these books offer sections on content, practice exam questions and examiners' hints. Each content page contains bright, vivid cartoon illustrations using bold hues for boxes with either key knowledge, hints or examples. The examination questions are set out plain and contain write-in boxes. Front and back covers contain detachable revision cards for students' use.

CONTENT

Although designed for the popular AQA courses, these books cover all the double-science material and some of the separate science extension topics too. Major topic areas, eg physics energy, electricity, the earth in space etc, in the national curriculum programme of study are further subdivided into sections on a double-page spread. For example, electromagnetism has four sections on magnets, the motor effect, the motor and circuit breakers.

Each page carries tips on common misconceptions. Exam questions follow, with examiner's tips and grade improvement suggestions.

STRUCTURE

Each spread contains information on a particular topic, subdivided into boxes. Each box contains packets of information, equations or diagrams.

After each section are examination questions, each with answers and examiners' tips in the back, as well as sections on gaining grade A and grade C.

EXTRAS

Each book contains a revision timetable to complete and a set of detachable revision cards. Each series has its own website with hints, how to contact the author etc. See: www.biologyforyou.co.uk

www.chemistryforyou.co.uk

www.physicsforyou.co.uk

VERDICT

These bright and affordable books are excellent revision guides for higher-level double science and separate science students. Because of high text density they would not suit all students. A highly recommended package, with colour coding, revision cards and examination questions highly rated by students.

TITLE

Ultimate Exam Practice: GCSE Exam Secrets pound;7.99 GCSE in a Week Pounds 6.99 Letts Tel: 0208 996 3333 www.letts-education.com

DESIGN

Brightly and colourfully illustrated, these books use colour coding to mark up different curriculum sections for students. The illustrations are relevant and as frequent as needed. The text is split between recapping course material and sections on examination advice; in particular they outline the expectations for a typical candidate at Grade A and C.

CONTENT

Short sections on the programme of study material are supplemented by examination technique ideas. For example, "improve your grade" sections. In these exemplars, grade C and A answers are marked out and advice is given on gaining credit for well-written answers to increase your grade. Since students are always better at articulating their ideas orally than in writing, they should find the pointers clear and practical. GCSE in a Week is a cramming-style book, written by staff from a leading tutorial college, which concentrates on examination technique with sections on improving and testing your knowledge.

STRUCTURE

The books are divided into sections along national curriculum guidelines, for example forces, plants and so on. No sub-division into awarding body specifications, but all core material is covered. The clear heading on how to improve knowledge and answers are very good.

EXTRAS

GCSE in a Week offers a money-back guarantee of a better grade. Unusual.

www.letts-education.com offers some excellent but brief advice on revision techniques and some sample pages. The material is very strong on examination technique.

VERDICT

At first glance, these books seem very teacher-orientated, but they are deservedly very popular with students. GCSE in a Week is no diluted textbook but offers clear, sound advice. Real comprehensive revision books concentrate on exams at low cost. Ideal for last-minute use. Highly recommended.

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