Revision and stress-management: Strategies to help your students prepare for their exams

Written by: Emma Lee-Potter | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Exam season is looming and for many students it will be the first time that they have faced this kind of pressure. Emma Lee-Potter looks at some effective revision practices and strategies for handling the stress

The exam season is rapidly approaching. Teachers are finishing off their GCSE and A level courses, students are drawing up their revision timetables and parents are looking for ways to support their children the best they can.

Research suggests that today’s pupils feel under greater pressure to do well in their exams than previous generations. An IPSOS study published in 2018 found that 60 per cent of 16 to 22-year-olds felt under pressure to make money and be successful, compared with only a third of baby boomers (those born between 1946 and 1964).

Meanwhile Wise Up to Wellbeing in Schools, a 2017 study by the charity YoungMinds, reported that 80 per cent of young people felt that exam pressure had “significantly impacted” on their mental health.

As such, many schools today do their utmost to help students handle the pressures and stress that often accompany exams. Public exams often give students their first experience of real pressure and the coping skills they learn now will be useful and relevant for years to come.

Dr Rachel Dodge, subject officer for psychology at exam board WJEC Eduqas, believes that learning to cope with exams helps to prepare students for the challenges they are likely to face later, such as going to university and embarking on their careers.

“The more you can up-skill students to be resilient the better this will be for them in later life,” explained Dr Dodge.

“Challenges are a normal part of life and we should be encouraging young people to learn how to build the resources they need to cope with them. If they can build these skills now it will stand them in good stead for any future life challenges.”

Dr Dodge continued: “Teachers can help by encouraging students to see stress in perspective. Students often take an all or nothing, ‘catastrophic’ approach to difficulties – ‘I’ve messed up this mock. I might as well give up’ – and it is important to try to balance out these negative thoughts with encouraging comments.

“Teachers can remind students that this is only a short period of time and that they will have time to relax in the summer. This should help students to cope with the stressful period, rather than it becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

So, how can we help students to handle the pressure?

  • Set aside time for revision: Help students to set realistic and step-by-step revision targets and to pace themselves during the weeks and months leading up to their exams.
  • Notice the signs of stress and pressure: Sometimes the signs are obvious and students might appear worried and seek help or reassurance. However, it is important to realise that students who appear to not care at all may be struggling just as much. Those who boast about not revising and who seem disinterested in doing well could well be avoiding the challenge altogether because they are struggling to handle the pressure.
  • Acknowledge and normalise stress: Talk about stress in class and run some calming group activities to help students manage it on a day-to-day basis. Coping with stress is a life skill that will help your students both now and in the future (with things such as university, job interviews, and in their careers).
  • General self-care: Encourage students to get their recommended eight to nine hours of sleep every night, eat healthily, take regular breaks and spend time away from their studies with friends. Talk to them about the importance of getting enough fresh air and exercise.
  • Voices of experience: Ask sixth-formers to talk to your GCSE classes about how they dealt with their GCSE preparations.
  • Take advantage of the pressure: Explain to students that a little bit of stress can often be a stimulus and motivator for action. Encourage them to focus this energy into something positive and productive.
  • No fear of failure: Our brain develops when we make and think about a mistake. It is an important part of the learning process. Consequently, it is important to discuss with students that failing is not necessarily a bad thing. Prompt students to ask reflective questions such as: “What could I have done better? What could I do differently? What worked well?”
  • Teacher wellbeing: Teachers want what is best for their students but it is easy to forget about their own wellbeing. The best way to teach students how to manage stress and anxiety is to show them by role modelling positive behaviour.

Effective revision techniques

When it comes to revision, there is a wealth of advice on offer – although when Professor John Dunlovsky and a team of academics reviewed 1,000 scientific studies covering 10 of the most popular revision strategies they found that eight of them, including writing summaries and highlighting text, did not work well (January 2013).

“Only two of the 10 techniques examined turned out to be effective – testing yourself and spreading out your revision over time,” explained Dr Dodge.

She believes that students should ideally be working towards their end goal – their exams – from the start of their courses: “If students get into the habit of doing a little nightly or weekly revision throughout the year, by the time they get to revision season everything will feel more manageable. This will also leave more time to practise and test what they really know.

“However, it is never too late to start. Students should try to stick to short revision sessions, taking breaks and trying different techniques to keep things interesting.”

Meanwhile, former school leader and SecEd editorial advisor Matt Bromley prefers to talk about “exam preparation” rather than “revision”.

He explained: “Revision implies going over old ground without seeking to learn from it, and without seeking to introduce new concepts and spark fresh ideas.

“Practice implies doing something new, incrementally improving your performance through a process of trial and error – or perhaps, as one teacher put it to me recently, ‘trial and improvement’.”

Stephen Rollett, curriculum and inspection specialist at the Association of School and College Leaders, believes teachers should take four things into account when planning revision sessions:

  • Revision is not just a mop-up job at the end: There is a risk that revision is seen as only something you do in whatever time is left between the end of the course and the exam itself, but it should be about effective planning over the long term. It is important to see revision, not as a bolt-on, but as part of on-going curriculum planning, in which students manipulate the information they have already learned.
  • Revision should not be about reteaching something because it was not learned in the first place: If you notice when you get to the GCSE revision period that there is key stuff that your pupils do not know, is it that they have forgotten it or is it that it was not picked up in the first place?
  • Research evidence shows that just reading something over and over again is not the most efficient way of embedding it in your long-term memory: It is important to make sure that pupils are using efficient, effective revision methods. Help your students to understand that rather than spending all day doing revision inefficiently they are better off spending an hour revising efficiently and pacing themselves.
  • You need to be clear about the purpose of the revision work that your pupils are doing: Is it about retrieval practice? Is it part of a summative exam? Is it to help you and your pupils understand which bits of the course content they know and do not know? Is it because you want to get your students used to the environment of exams?

Understanding how memory works is also key. Mr Rollett cites Hermann Ebbinghaus’s forgetting curve theory (1885), which describes the decreasing ability of the brain to retain memory over time.

He explained: “It is an old piece of research but it has been replicated by more recent research saying that if we study something and do not revisit it, it goes.

“The reason why we remember our phone number or pin code is because we have regular engagement with that information – we have to keep dredging it up from our memory. This is why revision has to be planned over the long term, particularly for those key building blocks that you want pupils to know in order to be successful in their exams. Over the long term you want to build-in opportunities for students to be recalling and retrieving that information.”

Mr Rollett, a former history teacher, is keen on the concept of spacing: “It is the idea of coming back to something. The more we revisit it the more likely it is that we will make those strong connections in our long-term memory.”

He also warns about the risks of reducing the curriculum solely to exam specifications. As well as finding that pupils become “bored and fatigued”, teachers risk “reducing the reference points that pupils have for understanding other parts of the curriculum that they may need to draw on in order to pass exams”.

Elsewhere, other effective revision strategies for teachers to discuss with both parents and students:

  • Elaboration: Encourage pupils to ask questions of what is in their memory. For example, encourage them to ask the “how, why and what” questions about topics they have studied and then answer them with as much detail as possible. This helps them to get used to contracting, condensing and expanding information – and means they do not see information as a static thing.
  • Retrieval practice: The more you ask pupils to retrieve information the more it helps to embed it in their long-term memory. Low-stakes quizzes, flash-cards and self-testing work well.
  • Get students to make links: Concept maps and mind-maps can be useful for this. Give students a concept map with all the details of a topic filled in. Next, give them the same concept map with some of the boxes missing and ask them to fill in the blanks.

Parents can help with techniques like elaboration and retrieval practice at home, while pupils may find it useful to quiz each other out of the classroom too.

In addition, the WJEC Eduqas website features a range of exam preparation and revision advice, from establishing what students need to know for the exam to downloading past papers. It includes tips for students such as:

  • Make notes on all work carried out in class and any other supporting material, or condense existing notes.
  • Make flash-cards or key points, setting out important dates or things you have problems remembering.
  • Make brightly coloured wall charts.
  • Do not overload. Plan regular breaks. Working for hours on end becomes counter-productive and you will not be able to retain what you have covered. Lots of shorter revision periods are more beneficial than one longer period.
  • Revisit work that is naturally difficult for you. The saying “practice makes perfect” is true. You can always test and trial a few methods and then choose the method which appears to be most effective for you.

Exam preparation in the 24/7 online world

When it comes to social media and internet use in the run-up to exams, pupils need to strike the right balance. On the positive side, there are many apps to support revision techniques and exam preparations. However, teenagers can also be distracted by social media and the wider web.

“The internet can be a really good resource but if it just leads to passive revision then it is unlikely to be any more effective than reading a text book over and over again,” Mr Rollett added.

“Similarly, social media can be a distraction. If pupils are revising it is a good idea to put their phones away so they are not distracted by who is on Snapchat while they are trying to revise.”

Useful revision support apps and websites

  • WJEC Eduqas: The WJEC Eduqas digital resources website offers free resources to help students with their exam preparation and revision:
  • GCSE Pod: This app covers every exam board and more than 20 GCSE and iGCSE subjects. There is also a 50,000-strong question bank:
  • Gojimo Revision: This free app gives users access to more than 40,000 GCSE and A level questions:
  • Seneca: Covers a range of exam boards and is written by senior examiners and industry experts. Teachers can create multiple classes, invite students via email or a class code and set homework:
  • Quizlet: Enables students to create their own revision flash-cards or use study sets created by others:
  • Get Revising: As well as homework and revision help, this features a study planner to help students manage their time more effectively:
  • iMindMap iPhone: Enables users to develop and adapt mind maps:

  • Emma Lee-Potter is a freelance education journalist.

Research & references

  • Improving students’ learning with effective learning techniques: Promising directions from cognitive and educational psychology, Dunlovsky et al, Psychological Science in the Public Interest, January 2013:
  • Understanding How We Learn: A visual guide, Dr Yana Weinstein and Dr Megan Sumeracki, Routledge, 2018:

Sponsored content

This article has been published by SecEd with sponsorship from WJEC Eduqas. It was written and produced by SecEd to a brief agreed in advance with WJEC Eduqas.


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