'In this life nothing can be said to be certain, except taxes and death’ - Benjamin Franklin
Franklin was a genius but he left one, very important, item off the list: exams. Because whether you are a brain surgeon or a tree surgeon you have to battle your way through a fair share of formal assessments to get there. And thank goodness. After all, who wants to be the patient of a dentist who hasn’t been properly put through their paces? But whilst exams are essential they're often not particularly enjoyable — for parents as much as pupils.
Many of us sat our exams more moons ago than we care to remember. And what little knowledge we have managed to cling onto may no longer be relevant to children today. They’ve changed the way students learn statistics and study Shakespeare. That’s okay; that’s what tutors are for! But what parents can do is brush up on how they can support the revision process. Effective facilitation is as, if not more, important than being able to recite the periodic table to your twelve year old by heart. Here are three rules to give your child the best chance of success their exams and, equally importantly, the two of you emerging as friends at the other end.
Tip #1 - Preparation Is Everything
Revision is like baking an elaborate cake; there are many ingredients, methods and layers that need to combine to form the finished product. You wouldn’t try and bake a three-tiered cake without a detailed recipe, nor should your child embark on revision without a solid timetable.
Each student’s timetable is unique and will vary according to how much time they have before their exams, how confident they feel with each subject and how long they can study before losing focus. As a rule, revision should start as early as possible. It is much better to do a little often for six weeks than cram 48 hours before the test. Indeed, a study by the University of Durham and Sutton Trust found that students who spaced their revision across a number of days and weeks had a better absorption and retention rate than those who didn’t.
Many students find it beneficial to study two or three different subjects a day to avoid burning out on one topic. An average study day shouldn’t exceed eight hours of revision (less for younger students). It’s also important that sessions are broken down into manageable chunks of ideally no more than an hour at a time. The break between sessions is when you, the parent, come into your own; offer them words of encouragement, healthy snacks and a welcome change of scene. Note: this is probably not the time to scold them for leaving their socks on the floor — keep it positive!
Aside from the academics, try and schedule ‘fun sessions’ into the weekly timetable. This could be a trip to the cinema with friends, a meal out with the family or a picnic in the park. You may need to negotiate on how many social sessions are allowed, but it’s important for children to remember that they are a person first before they are a pupil, even during exam season.
Tip #2 - An Environment for Education
Take a moment to consider your work setting. What environment do you perform best in? Can you concentrate in a busy office with a cluttered desk and noisy conversations going on around you, or do you need the calm of a quiet, ordered space to succeed? It’s exactly the same for students. A child can have the most foolproof revision plan in the world, but it will fail if not executed in the right environment.
Let’s start with the basics. Students need a dedicated, organised study space in order to flourish. That means a proper desk and chair in a ventilated room with natural light, ideally somewhere quiet. They should have a constant supply of water (avoid fizzy and caffeinated drinks) and healthy snacks (fresh fruit, nuts and seeds etc.). The temperature of the room is also important; some students become drowsy in an overly warm space. Siblings and pets should be kept away and general distractions kept to a minimum. This includes phones, as much as your teenager may disagree with you…
One study showed that students who text or use social media more frequently get lower grades and another investigation by the University of Southern Maine revealed that the mere sight of a mobile can be distracting. This is a battle you may or may not want to pick with your child, but science suggests that phones need to be put away!
The question of listening to music whilst studying is an interesting one. Some studies find that it diminishes students ability to retain and recall information, whereas others endorse it as an effective revision strategy. It is ultimately a personal preference, but it should be noted that anything with lyrics is likely to be more distracting than instrumental music alone.
"Students who text or use social media more frequently get lower grades and another investigation revealed that the mere sight of a mobile can be distracting." – University of Southern Maine
There are certain essentials parents can implement to support their children outside the revision room too. Principally, exercise and sleep. The influence of exercise on the brain is widely celebrated; something as small as taking the dog for a walk during a study break can improve mental cognition and also general mood. Equally, without enough good quality sleep revision becomes much harder than it needs to be. Adolescents under 18 years old should get at least eight hours sleep a night and phones and computers should ideally be put away in the last hour before bed.
Tip #3 - The Big Day
So it’s the night before the exam. Your child has, ideally, followed their revision schedule and been studying in a set revision space for weeks. What now? This is often when parents can feel most powerless; students either know the information now or they don’t. But there are a few things parents can do to make pupils feel better prepared in the final hours.
First, and perhaps most importantly, sleep. A little last minute revision is fine, but encourage your child to get to bed at a reasonable time — at least eight hours before they need to be up in the morning. The next day your support can continue. From the moment they wake up try and keep all communication as positive as possible; the last thing either of you need right now is an argument. Ensure they eat a good breakfast. Scientific studies have found that skipping breakfast negatively affects concentration and memory levels. Something wholesome that releases energy slowly over the course of the morning is ideal: go for porridge and bananas over sugary cereals.
Before leaving the house take a minute to check your child’s backpack. What kind of exam is it? Have they got everything they need? For maths they may require a scientific calculator and set of compasses. For English they’ll need highlighters. It’s a little thing, but a quick check can safeguard your child from the unnecessary stress of realising they’ve forgotten something moments before entering the exam room.
Finally, earlier in the morning take a minute to check the traffic headlines. The last thing either of you need is to miss the exam because the roads are unexpectedly gridlocked. Give yourself double the usual travel time to get to school, just to be on the safe side. Finally, a few choice words of encouragement as your child leaves the car can do wonders. Exams are a trying time for pupils and parents, but a little reminder that you have faith in them is often enough to set them on the path to success!