Preparing students for GCSEs

Written by: Suzanne O’Farrell | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock
Loved this article. Simple and straight forward. Sensible. Related to the section on "effortful ...

Posted by: ,

With exams season upon us, Suzanne O’Farrell offers her advice on supporting your students in the build-up to their GCSEs

Summer’s here and so is exam season. And this summer’s annual bout of nervous tension and bitten fingernails marks what is arguably the most significant year of GCSE reform since the introduction of GCSEs 30 years ago.

New GCSEs are being sat for the first time in 17 subject areas. These include nearly all the major secondary school subjects – other than English language, literature and mathematics, in which new GCSEs were sat for the first time last summer.

Biology, chemistry, physics, computer science, modern foreign languages, history, geography, art and design, music, drama and religious studies are all among the subjects on the new-look GCSE list.

They will be graded on the new numerical grading scale of 9 to 1, in line with the reformed English language, literature and mathematics GCSEs.

These exams mark the culmination of two years of hard work preparing students for a step into, if not the entirely unknown then at least the little-known. If you are among their teachers, well done on making it this far.

This article is aimed at providing some – hopefully useful – thoughts on supporting students over the finish line, not only in the reformed exams of course, but in all this summer’s exams.

Revision techniques

Students sitting this summer’s exams are likely to take more papers than their predecessors. The end of modules and, for most subjects, non-examined assessment (coursework), means all assessment now largely takes place through examination papers in May and June.

This presents some challenges. Students will need to be adept in retrieving the right information at the right time, and be able to manage a lengthy exam period. The following tips should help.

In planning effective revision classes, don’t just focus on setting mock exams and practice papers. Use short tests and quizzes to help your students ensure that key concepts and knowledge stick in their long-term memory.

It is a good idea to explain to your students how long-term learning happens, how knowledge is committed to memory, and the difference between information in their working memory and in their long-term memory.

Working memory and long-term memory

Our working memory is the brain’s way of storing and remembering information over a short period of time in order to carry out tasks at hand. It is often described as being similar to a sticky note, because it stores small amounts of information and is temporary.

While students may recall knowledge at the end of a revision lesson, or their own revision session, they will need to revisit it in order to store it in their long-term memories. The good news is that our long-term memories are limitless and capable of storing a great deal of information, whereas our working memories are limited. So, how do we explain to students how long-term retention and learning work, so they can support their own revision?

Effortful retrieval

In order to remember key information, pupils need to do more than re-read or highlight material. They need to actively use this information – for example, by constructing a quiz based on that area of knowledge and then testing themselves, or rephrasing the information in their own words.

The more pupils think about the key information, the more they will remember it later. If their revision sessions don’t involve effortful retrieval, then the learning is likely to be superficial and easily forgotten. Learning is deeper and more durable when it involves effortful retrieval.

Remind students that the mind is like a forest – the more times they make a path through the forest to retrieve the memory, the easier it will be to do so on exam day.

We are all susceptible to thinking we know more than we do when we are revising because as we re-read information it becomes familiar, and this can create the illusion of knowledge, convincing us that we have studied enough. However, the only way of gauging how much information we have really retained is to test ourselves. Hence, students need to make this approach the cornerstone of their revision.

Another successful strategy is to encourage students to mix up the topics they are studying, rather than studying a whole area in a single block. If they get into a routine of chunking revision into specific topics, while retrieval may feel harder, the effort involved will lead to longer-lasting learning. Planning a revision timetable that mixes up specific topics will support this approach.

Mobile phones

Having encouraged students to reflect on the most effective revision strategies, how else can we support them through this stressful period in their lives?

Perhaps one of the hardest issues to tackle with them is discussing what they should do with their mobile phones while revising. Although they may claim they need their phone for their revision, it is more likely to be a distraction.

Encourage them to get into a routine of switching it off or leaving it in another room, and encourage them to see it as “the enemy of revision”. It is also worth all teachers reminding students of the very severe sanctions if they have a mobile phone with them in the exam room (even if it is switched off).

Looking after themselves

Remind students to take good care of themselves physically during the exam period. Well-documented research shows that short bursts of physical activity have a positive impact on the mind and our cognitive development, enhancing our “readiness to learn”. So, regular exercise or active breaks can make students more effective learners.

Discuss with students the length of their revision periods; revision will be more effective if it is in short bursts. We all have a limited concentration span, and ploughing on regardless is not an effective way of learning. They should plan for 20 to 30 minute sessions, then have a break, or some well-earned refreshment.

Encourage pupils to organise their notes and books, and perhaps use a mini-whiteboard to help them with tests they set for themselves. A comfortable, well-lit, quiet space is essential to help them focus and get into a productive routine.

Some reassurance

Although the new exams will cover a wider, more challenging range of content, the exam regulator Ofqual has made it clear that those sitting them for the first time will not be disadvantaged compared to the cohorts of previous years. Students may emerge from the exam hall feeling they have not done as well as they hoped – as we saw in 2017 with the reformed English and maths GCSEs.

However, the system of “comparable outcomes” applied by Ofqual, means that broadly the same proportion of students will achieve a grade 4 and above as achieved a grade C and above in the old GCSEs. This system also ensures that students going first don’t lose out in comparison to future cohorts when the new courses have had time to bed in and past papers are available.

  • Suzanne O’Farrell is curriculum and assessment specialist at the Association of School and College Leaders. Visit

Loved this article. Simple and straight forward. Sensible. Related to the section on "effortful retrieval' and 'mixing up' revision of different subjects/topics; I've found a veery simple solution to suggest to students is to "follow your timetable" during study leave (and in the weeks prior to leaving for exams. If students ensure they are 'at their desk' on the first Monday of Study Leave studying the lesson topics and content they would ordinarily have on their timetable if they were in school, this should allow for variety. If during Period 1 on Monday they have Maths then they study Maths content and then follow it with whatever comes in Period 2 (Science), 3 (MFL), 4 (Humanities), etc.. This also (probably) allows the students a mid-morning break and an hour for lunch.

The students can also finish at 3:30 (ish) every day and then concentrate on the most pressing exams - those earliest in the exam timetable - for their evening revision.

Posted By: ,

Please view our Terms and Conditions before leaving a comment.

Change the CAPTCHA codeSpeak the CAPTCHA code
Sign up SecEd Bulletin