Making the most of the last 90 days

14th January 2000 at 00:00
Bruce Harris offers advice, based on his studies, on how best to prepare A-level students for this summer's exams

JANUARY to April of Year 13 is a crucial period for both A-level teachers and students. What schools do at this time can make or break their chances of achieving the results they seek.

The following timetable is based on research, carried out in 1999, which looked at how more than 250 Year 13 students in three Northumberland high schools coped. The study enabled me to compare the data gained from questionnaires, interviews and group discussions with the students' eventual results and identify some general dos and don'ts that can help planning.


Organise coursework pre-

cisely. Students cannot plan

revision unless they know exactly what coursework is required and when. They admit they allow work to drag on from Year 12; however, teachers do not help by being vague about what is needed or offering deadline

extensions. Give students realistic dates and explain why those dates have been chosen.

Prioritise the modular exams. Schools may insist that mocks are equally important; students know that they're not, and will react accordingly. If good results are the aim, the modular exams must have priority.

Organise in-school revision

facilities. The evidence suggests that many borderline students will use any facilities the school can offer, for example supervised quiet rooms, subject-based extra-curricular revision classes and "revision banks" of past paper and practice material which can be signed in and out.

Many students attempt to do at least some revision in school because siblings and other distractions can make home-based learning difficult. Making these facilities available now will mean more students will start their revision at an early stage.


Subject departments need

to talk to each other. Many

students come adrift at this stage because they are hopelessly

confused by the conflicting demands made by different subjects and overwhelmed by clashing coursework deadlines.

Substantial pieces of coursework can still be set at this stage, and some subjects are also setting "homeworks" that do not affect final assessments, but are nevertheless required to be handed in at the same time as important pieces of assessed coursework.

Co-ordination between department heads is needed and guidance for teachers on what work can be set at this time would help.

Target the needy groups. Single-sex sessions could be useful. Girls, though they get better results, do occasionally tend to over-prepare with too demanding timetables. The boys may not yet have started revising at al, and may be relying on a few repetitive methods when they do. Discursive and participatory sessions are more likely to be

successful, allowing students to make their own points and

suggestions. Involving students who have recently done A-levels can prove helpful.

The evidence also suggests that the "practising skills" subjects, in particular English and maths, often lose out for revision time to the "high content" subjects such as history and biology. Past paper and in-school practice would redress the balance here.


All hands to the pastoral decks. This is the time when vulnerable students are most likely to go under - some never start proper revision at all - especially if they are dealing with out-of-school problems.

The evidence suggests that there is a preponderance of department heads among Year 13 group tutors and departmental demands are very heavy at this time, meaning some students see even less of their tutors than they usually do. Now the school should throw at Year 13 whatever it can muster in terms of pastoral support - counselling, help for tutors, and advice services for individual students.

Organise study leave. If

time can be made available for oral and practical preparations as well as full exams, from this time onwards, students' revision programmes are more likely to be successful. They also need to know exactly when they can organise study leave around their exact exam dates.

Bruce Harris is an independent educational consultant. Post: PO Box 5541, Swadlincote, DE12 6ZQ

e-mail: Website:

The revision project report is available from Northumberland County Council: Robert Peers, tel. 01670 534340, e-mail:


Students usually need practical and individual help and tend to react badly to much of the general advice on offer. It is often seen as "patronising" and "childish". Some complain that such advice is often offered in a cartoon-ridden, big-print format, or that it makes assumptions about revision.

Modular exams, orals and practicals mean that the simple build-up to one exam is outdated, and students taking diverse combinations of subjects understand that one set of revision methods is not suitable for all subjects.

Elaborate timetables are rarely used, even by successful students.

Boys start revising later and use fewer methods. Research also shows that they respond most positively to schemes which concentrate on practical, precisely-defined support, such as supervised revision facilities in school, and individual timetables including coursework deadlines and exam dates.

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