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The lost art of revision

Blog | By Sophia Waugh | Aug 16, 2018


Exam results season is upon us, with the teachers appearing at the moment more tense than many of the students. With the sweet insouciance of youth, the latter seemed to think that it will all be all right on the night, that somehow knowledge, understanding and exam technique will all come from somewhere, and that they really don’t need to do much else apart from live through the time and the hour.

At sixteen, I myself was staggeringly lazy, joyfully insouciant, and just about clever enough to get away with it. Languages came easily to me; history needed a bit more focus; English was a joy and did not count as work.

Somehow, despite being at a high-achieving grammar school run by a female physicist, I had succeeded in not having to do any sciences. I still don’t understand how that happened. So I sat only eight O-levels (one of which, music, I failed – sorry, Mr Tullett).

And still, lazy as I was, by the Easter holidays I had started work in earnest. Lists, timetables and books festooned my room. Slightly nervous of my own laziness at this point, I did a good five hours a day of revision. Never mind that some of it was spent lying outside on the lawn, re-reading Wuthering Heights while my pet goose grazed around me – I was working.

A fortnight or so before the exams started, I asked my two year-eleven sets to tell me, honestly, how many hours they had spent revising (all their subjects; not just English) the weekend before. I was left sick to the heart. The majority admitted to having done nothing at all. A fair few said they’d done a couple of hours.

A smaller few had put in some solid hours. One boy said he’d skived the previous Friday as he felt he should revise, and had properly revised all the poetry for English. He was very proud.

Now, I was a little confused by this. Should I congratulate him for his hard work on his poetry (clearly the response he was expecting) or remonstrate with him for skiving? Tricky, eh? And at that point, my venal care for my own results sheet came into play and I smiled sweetly upon him.

Part of the problem, I think, is that, with the new GCSEs, the students have been told so earnestly, and for so long, that the exams are harder now that some of them have given up hope. Or never took up hope in the first place. This has been incredibly counterproductive. I’ve tried to tell them that, now we have two levels of pass (grade four is a pass, equivalent to a C, and five is a good pass, equivalent to high C/low B), everyone has a better, not a worse, chance. If you’re taking the apprenticeship route, a four is good enough; if you want to do A-levels, you need a five. But so many of them are still looking on the gloomy side.

They say that they are being ‘experimented on’, as though they were white mice, even when I point out that, in fact, the exam-only way of awarding marks is much, much older than the coursework model. Some of them are finding every excuse that they can to fail, despite our most ferocious, or most tender, coaxing, pleading and encouragement.

What I wish they would realise is that every other student in England is in the same boat – and it is up to them to decide whether they pass or fail. And a lot of it is down to revision. Gove might be blamed for a lot, but not for their own lack of will to succeed.