You may now begin... panicking

2nd May 2014 at 01:00
Exam season is just round the corner and the pressure is on. But it's not just students who are stressed out - teachers need all the support they can get, too. So if you're worried about how you will survive the next few weeks, read on

She looks through the glass window of the battered brown door. Rows of desks await occupation; papers sit in piles. She watches the hands of the clock creep to the stated time. Behind her, a low murmur of noise persists.

She checks her notes. Thinks. In the past few weeks, she has felt stressed, panicked, overconfident and cripplingly insecure. She has not eaten or slept properly in two days. But now it is time: the first exam. Nerves threaten to overwhelm her. She turns to look at her students - are they feeling the same way?

You probably recognise this teacher. Whereas students are steadily supported throughout the exam period, as they should be, teachers are often left to fend for themselves. And because exam results have consequences for the school, for the students and for the teacher's own career, the pressure can be debilitating.

To make things easier, we have gathered together as much wisdom as we can fit into the following pages. We hope these tips, resources, strategies and words of advice will alleviate at least some of the stress of this anxious time of year.

Question 1: what is the best way to revise?

Revision is sometimes misunderstood as the end of learning and the start of simply remembering; as a moment when teachers release the tethers of education and let excitable students go it alone in battling the monsters of their learning. Victory brings the top grades and those who flounder will be overwhelmed. So be it. We can't hold their hands for ever.

What rubbish. Revision is a skill that needs to be taught, so here are my ways to do just that.

Three ways to ensure that revision is learning, not just remembering

Students as teachers Teaching is one of the best ways of learning. It requires students to assess the material, break it down into its basic components and communicate it to others in a way that they can understand. There are a couple of ways to do this. One is to divide the class into groups, giving each group a different topic to revise and explaining that they will be teaching it to the rest of the class. Stipulate that the mini lesson should be engaging, interactive and highly informative. Alternatively, put students in pairs and display a list of topic areas on the board. Ask students to work through the areas, designing ways to teach them to younger students.

Silent debate Take five or six large sheets of paper and write one of the following on each: a contentious statement connected to the subject; a question relating to the syllabus; or the title of a topic area that forms part of the exam. Place the sheets around the classroom, then ask students to walk around in silence and contribute information or answers by writing on the sheets. At the end of the activity, divide the class into groups and give each one a sheet. The groups must look through the material and identify interesting comments, omissions or areas that could be developed.

Get quizzy A great way of getting students to find gaps in their knowledge is by asking them to pose questions for their peers. In their search for topics that will catch their classmates out, students naturally end up in areas that they struggle with. Try dividing the class into six groups, giving each group a different part of the syllabus and asking them to come up with 10 questions and answers. Collect the material and then lead the class in a pub-quiz-style activity. Each group must answer all the questions, apart from their own.

Three revision skills to teach students

Prioritising Students may feel that they have to revisit every scrap of material on a syllabus. They don't. There will be areas that they already know well enough and others that they need to work far harder on. But prioritising the latter requires a systematic approach. Ask students to rate their confidence in each aspect of the subject so that they can arrange their revision proportionately, with the weakest areas given the most time. A second technique is to prioritise according to when a topic was last studied. This encourages students to return to the most distant areas first and work towards the material that is freshest in their minds.

Narratives Turning knowledge into a narrative allows us to consolidate learning in a memorable way, by bringing fresh perspectives to a subject. Ask students to retell certain units of work as stories, or to create tales that explain the connections between different aspects of a syllabus.

Chunking Students tend to lay out revision timetables by subject, doing maths one day, science another, and so on. Research has found this to be ineffective: subjects need to be mixed up. Instead of spending an hour on the anatomy of a plant, it is better to do 20 minutes on plant biology, 20 minutes on the Second World War and 20 minutes on Of Mice and Men.

Mike Gershon is a teacher and trainer who has published books on classroom practice. He shares his resources on TES Connect. Mike offers more tips for teachers in his booklet Helping Students to Revise, which is available to TES Pro subscribers at www.tesconnect.comrevisiontips

Question 2: how can leaders support staff?

Exams take their toll on students, but teachers suffer, too.

We hear it in the staffroom: whispers about a colleague who is working all hours and is becoming unduly sensitive to criticism as a result. These are the warning signs that an already precarious work-life balance has been pushed seriously off-kilter.

School leaders need to remind teachers that their job is to prepare students for exams. It is the job of students to actually sit the exams and, as such, they should be working harder for success than their teachers. What's more, true learning involves some failure. That is the tone headteachers must set.

You may have a colleague who is struggling with a particular group of students. Again, the key is to spot the warning signs - the patterns of pupil absence, the flurry of behaviour issues emanating from a single class, the emails or phone calls from parents - and act on them. Real sensitivity is needed here. The teacher can gain much from strategic mentoring, ideally with a veteran teacher who can offer guidance on classroom management, rebuilding relationships and managing workload.

As exams loom, a small number of disaffected students may have a disproportionately negative effect on the progress of others. They need to be either muzzled or removed from class. School leaders owe that courtesy to the teachers they are relying on to help students achieve their best.

Geoff Barton is headteacher of King Edward VI School in Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk

Question 3: what do pupils need from their teachers?

Megan Ravenhall, a 17-year-old student at Yarm School in North Yorkshire, writes:

"I have found that teachers always give up their time to put on revision classes in the weeks leading up to exams. I find these classes most fruitful when they are verbally interactive. Question and answer sessions are hugely helpful in cementing facts and figures.

"I think the best thing that teachers can do, though, is provide past papers and mock exam questions. I can't stress enough how significant past papers have been in aiding my revision. They test not only your actual knowledge but also your exam technique - something that teachers don't always have time to cover. Past papers can be easily overlooked in favour of other, more traditional, revision methods such as flash cards and note-taking."

Question 4: how can you help students to handle stress?

At this time of year, a bit of stress is good for pupils - it can boost their productivity. Too much, however, can be seriously damaging. So what can teachers do to help?


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