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Exams: how to plan ahead with a perfect revision plan

EDITED TO ADD: the brand new EXAM ATTACK is published on October 8th 2020. Everything about how to feel less anxious, tackle your revision and planning with confidence and strategy, and do the very best you’re capable of. On that page, you’ll find other downloadable items.

Today, I want to talk about planning ahead. It’s the key to achieving your potential. The preparation starts the day you get your exam time-table, which should be at least a month (probably longer) before the first exam. The moment you get the time-table, you can begin to plan.

Here’s how, step-by-step!

1. Get a big piece of paper – or several sheets of A4 – and create either a list of days, or a grid like a time-table. You need a space for each day from NOW until the LAST DAY OF EXAMS. Add the date to each space.

2. Call the FIRST exam day E-DAY. Starting from 30 days before E-DAY, count down so that the day before E-DAY has a 1 on it. This tells you how many days you have to go before exams start.

3. Draw a line halfway through each space to show morning and afternoon.

4. Next, fill in the following information:

  • Each exam date.
  • Any days or halfdays when you know you won’t be able to revise – eg you have a family trip, doctor’s appointment etc etc.
  • Make a note a week or more before E-DAY to check all your stationery and other equipment.
  • Make a note three weeks or more before E-DAY to start sleep training. (I’ll be blogging later about this.)
  • Make a note two weeks or more before E-DAY to decide on and buy the exam food you will need. (I’ll blog about this.)
  • Make a note once a week to practise a relaxation or anti-panic strategy. (I’ll be blogging about this and giving you some techniques.)
  • Build in some half days off.

5. Now, carefully decide and fill in which subjects you will revise on each day. Think about the following:

  • Some subjects require more revision than others.
  • Don’t leave your least favourite subjects till last.
  • Our brains remember best if we keep coming back to something. So, it’s good to revise something, then leave it to do another subject, then come back to the first one a few days later.
  • It’s best if every subject gets three stages of revision: Stage 1 where you make all your notes and go over them; stage 2 where you go over the notes again, rewriting them in more condensed form; stage 3 where you go over those notes again close to the exam.
  • Build in some time for when things go wrong. For example, you might be ill or something might take longer than you planned, so don’t pack everything in too tightly.

If you’d like a free sheet that has lots of tips and shows you more about how to make your time-table, download the one I made here.

Call me a sad woman but I used to love making my exam plan time-table. It beats doing the actual revision :(. Seriously, it really helps you gain control over a difficult situation.

I’ll be back soon with more tips and strategies to make your exams go as well as possible. I was at a lovely school last week – Eyemouth High School – and some impressive S5 boys were very interested in all this stuff, so I hope they see it!

Any questions? You know where to find me! Or just comment below.

10 Responses

  1. Shared! I also used to enjoy the revision planning and this is pretty much how I used to do it as well, although I don’t know what sleep training is. Sounds intriguing!

  2. Um, I really hesitate to say this, being as I regard you as the fount of all wisdom, but I worry that we are in danger of treating our children’s exams a bit too seriously. Back in the day, I did O- and A-Levels when everything was tested by end-of-course exams, so we had a lot more of them and much more tightly packed than today’s schedule. And I never did such detailed planning and yet I survived and I honestly don’t think I was that special.

    My son would be floored by the prospect of a month long plan – it would grind him down with anticipated tension and raise his anxiety levels hugely. I think he feels that being pinned down to such a specific plan would just give him something to fail every day if he didn’t complete it. I have suggested he list his exams in date order on one sheet and, on another, list the topics he needs to revise for each subject. And then each day, pick out a few subjects, and tick off a topic or two from each, revolving them to keep the interest up, and checking that he prioritises the first exams over the last ones. When he needs a break, take one. If the weather’s sunny, grab the chance and go out. Watch The Simpsons. And don’t stress. By keeping it light and free-flowing, I hope it will keep his mood light, harness his day-to-day enthusiasm, and keep the exams in proportion because the world will not end, even if he fails something. (Oh, and we’ve already read your fascinating books on the teenage brain so we’ve got that one sussed – visual and kinaesthetic learner!)

    But please, fount of all wisdom, tell me if I’m doing something wrong here because I am genuinely puzzled by this intense focus on revision timetables which I see all round me.

      1. OK, trying again… Thanks for your feedback, Kate – very helpful to know which bits of my message aren’t clear. As you’ll know from my other writings, I’m at pains to emphasise “do what works for you and ignore everything else” and this time I forgot to make that clear. I kind of take it for granted now, but I shouldn’t. However, this method absolutely does work for many people. I’d been asked to give a detailed structure for how to do a plan.

        The “we didn’t have/do this in my day and yet we survived” theory is an argument I fundamentally disagree with. Because we didn’t have something in “our day” doesn’t mean we should eschew it now or that it is better not to have it. I could bore you with a list of things we didn’t have and without which we “survived” but which we welcome now. Besides, not everyone did/does “survive” exams – and at the very least, some could have been saved the trauma of major exam failure if they’d had help or techniques that were not available to them. So I’m afraid the “we survived” thing doesn’t work for me.

        When i was at school – and going through the same exam system as you – my friends and I sought and tried every technique we could find. We shared tips and we welcomed any help to make the whole thing smoother. Nowadays we have the benefit of the internet to share wider advice. I think that’s a good thing, when the advice is designed to make things better and reduce the negative effects of stress.

        Your son has a mother who is supremely able and willing to give advice and talk and help, as you have done – and he is able and willing to listen. Many young people, even when they do have a parent able to give the great advice you do, prefer to hear it from someone else. You and your son don’t need my help, but I venture to think that many others may welcome it.

        I have also been very careful in all my exam advice (including on the download in the above post) to emphasise that exams are not the most important thing in the world. So, no, I’m not in danger of “treating our children’s exams a bit too seriously”. Quite the opposite. What I’m doing is what you’re doing with your son: supporting and enabling young people to do their best and, indeed, do more than “survive”.

        I’m really glad you raised these points,Kate, because it allows me to be absolutely clear about my position: “Exams are stressful, and always were and actually, to some extent, need to be; but there are techniques which help; you can listen to and try whichever ones you want and I respect you enough to decide for yourself what works. Exams are not the end of the world, but sometimes, for some very stressed-out young people, they feel like it – and did when I was at that stage, too. Anything I can offer to help them pass smoothly and successfully, I will.”

        It’s also very helpful to know when people disagree with me or want to clarify or challenge anything, as it helps me make myself clear when i’m writing about it in future. Thank you! But forget the fount of all knowledge bit! No way. I’m just a person who a) understands some things and b) is in touch with loads of schools, parents and young people, and that doesn’t make me know everything, just want to help.

  3. Nope, sorry, you definitely are the fount of all wisdom – on writing, publishing, and teenage brains, not to mention shoes and chocolate!

    You are entirely right that, ‘I did it like this in my day and there’s no need to change’ is wrong – I expressed that badly. What I meant to say was that the only experience of exams I have to go on is my own so I refer back to it – and exams then were taken more for granted. Although that clearly left students exposed, it also implied that exams were no big deal and that gave a kind of assumed confidence, that success was achievable. Or maybe I was just unnaturally self-organised or a born swot – who knows?

    I also fully agree that teenagers do need your advice. You ‘show not tell’ like the experienced writer you are, and we have already, for example, used your advice in the teenage brain books about learning in several stages.

    So my concern seems to be with the way in which we – as a society, not you in particular – are in danger of building up exams into a huge mountain which can then seem impossible to climb. At my son’s school, he has been bombarded with information from the beginning of year 10 (and references before that) on how important GCSEs are. He has had countless assemblies and information sessions, and there have been two meetings for parents to attend, complete with long booklets on revision techniques. He was required to complete a detailed revision plan (he copied a friend’s). All this at an average state school. Newspapers carry articles for parents on how to help their children to revise. Radio and TV make references which assume always that exam time in the household will be a fraught and stressful time. I want to shriek, ‘Enough already!’

    My son’s response has been to switch off – how else to avoid the stress he has been offered? So my aim has been to edge him back into understanding that revision is essential, and works, but that he is also right in stepping back from the systems that he feels are not right for him and treating revision in a more instinctive and spontaneous way.

    Of course you have summed up that approach perfectly when you say in your response above, ‘I respect you enough to decide for yourself what works’. That paragraph has clarified my concerns with what I see around me and defined precisely what I want to help my son achieve: show students the techniques they can make use of but then step back and enable them to go forward and do it themselves – best kind of success. It’s show not tell, again.

    So thank you for such a detailed response – twice!

    (I also found the page crashed! But a second edit is a good way to spend a sleety morning.)

    1. hooray – we’re on the same page! (Twice.)

      You say, “So my concern seems to be with the way in which we – as a society, not you in particular – are in danger of building up exams into a huge mountain which can then seem impossible to climb.” I TOTALLY agree. However, I also think that exams *are* more important now – or no, they aren’t really, but the fact that they are *regarded* as important *makes* them more important, because in this at least perception is almost all. But, I’m with you, and I take a lot of time in schools reminding pupils that exams are not the end of the world and that there are other opportunities and other routes. (I said that in a recent post providing tips about exams/stress. I also make the point strongly in Know Your Brain.)

      I remember a daughter being told at school how important GCSEs were and I wanted to stand up (it was a talk to parents, to remind *us* how important exams are…!) and talk about Know Your Brain and how exam success is only one route to success.

      The trouble that I face in providing exam advice is that I know there are some students such as your son who may believe they feel *more* stressed the more advice they are given, but a) others (most, I believe) benefit from the advice b) the stress is there regardless of my giving advice c) I actually feel many would be more stressed if they got no advice and were told to relax because exams don’t matter, when intuitively they know they are stressed and that exams do matter somewhat. For many (including me) being told not to worry is not a way to stop worrying!

      I agree that the media accidentally whip up some frenzy, but I also think they are largely well-meaning – and, to a large extent *right* when they say that households will be full of exam stress. Because most will be! (Also, i wonder if many people actually enjoy getting a little bit hysterical and emotional about things – it kind of adds spice to life?! I remember the exam stress times with some degree of nostalgia – tough times shared with friends all going through the same.) Also, we *need* a degree of stress to promote good performance.

      So, I need to continue with the advice, because my aim is to reduce stress and increase success and I know what i say can’t help everyone. Fortunately, your son has you to be intuitive about his needs!

  4. Interesting discussion. I forwarded this to my son. The other day he said, so, what do i need to do to create this revision timetable? We discussed it for a while, and ended up with him making a list of topics, which he rated by how well he felt he knew them and how likely they were to come up in exams. This should give him ideas on what to tackle first, what to spend most time on etc. I think every kid has different needs, but what they need to do is to be shown techniques they can try, and pick and choose from, to find what works for THEM. It’s just so daunting otherwise. Not sure our generation got so much help and advice – we were just left to get on with it. But that’s not a good thing. Kids need to be given some clues as to how to progress.

Do comment but please remember that this site is for all ages.

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