Rethinking GCSE exam revision

What is revision?


‘Revision’ is a word that gets used profusely throughout your school life, but never more so than in Years 10 and 11 when your GCSE exams are the prime focus, and it tends to be taken for granted that you know what it means, what it involves and what it accomplishes.


However, taking just a short amount of time now to consider what revision does – and what it doesn’t do – can make a big difference when it comes to your actual exams.


Think about the end goal first – what do you want to achieve? That’s an easy one – you want to achieve the highest marks possible on each of your GCSE exam papers!


So, how do you make that happen? How do you ensure that when you sit down in the exam hall, turn over the paper and start to read the questions, all the relevant knowledge will spring to mind and you will be able to apply it quickly, efficiently and accurately to gain maximum marks?


‘Revise, revise, revise!’ I hear you cry. But what does that actually mean and to what extent will it help you in the exam?


The Oxford English Dictionary defines the act of revising as ‘[rereading] work done previously to improve one’s knowledge of a subject, typically to prepare for an examination.’


And, yes, of course that is really important. You need to read through your revision guide and  notes on a subject to make sure you understand it – subject knowledge and understanding is, without doubt, the essential starting point for being successful in any exam. However – and this is the crucial thing – revising in this way alone does not guarantee great marks.


We’ve all experienced that mouth-drying, stomach-plummeting moment when you turn over an exam paper and your mind goes completely blank. This is where ‘revision’ in the traditional sense falls down. It doesn’t help you to develop key exam skills, such as the rapid recall of relevant information and the ability to apply that knowledge to explain an idea or solve a problem.


This is where you need to rethink your revision. The key to exam success is not cramming as much traditional revision into your time as possible. In fact, that’s a poor use of your time. Instead, you need to combine a bit of traditional revision with lots and lots of practice testing.


Why practice testing is important


Practice testing produces far better results in the final exam than any other technique. There’s lots of psychological and academic research that supports this. Without getting bogged down in the neuroscience, practice testing helps because it encourages you to retrieve information from your memory. This act alters how you store the information, making it more accessible and easier to recall in the future. The more you repeat this process, the longer you are likely to retain the information and the easier it becomes to recall.


How to test yourself


There are different ways that you can test yourself. For example:


  • flashcards
  • quick recall questions of the kind you find in revision apps and online quizzes
  • test-style questions, such as those on past exam papers and practice papers.


Don’t forget to check your answers


No matter how well you think you did in a practice test, always check your answers – getting feedback is a really important part of the process!


Don’t worry if you get a question wrong; just do a bit of focused revision. Note the word ‘focused’ here – don’t let yourself get side-tracked! Refer back to your notes, read over the topic in your text book or revision guide, watch a relevant explanatory video… make sure you understand what the correct answer is and why. This process will improve your subject knowledge and ensure you don’t get similar questions wrong in future.


Practice papers are your best friend!


If there is just one piece of information that you take away from this article, it should be: use practice papers!


Here are just a few reasons why practice papers are completely invaluable when it comes to ‘revising’ for an exam:


  • they ensure you focus on essential content without straying off topic
  • they help to highlight areas where you need further revision and practice
  • they familiarise you with the different question types and formats used in the exams
  • the answers / mark schemes are usually student-friendly (unlike past papers) and show you what examiners are looking for to award full marks
  • individual questions require you to draw on knowledge from a range of different topics (no other resources provide solid practice in this important exam skill!)
  • you can use them to track your progress by comparing your scores
  • they will boost your confidence – you’ll feel much happier walking into the exam hall, because you’ll understand exactly what you need to do.


Exam Papers Plus has just launched a new range of GCSE exam practice products. These consist of higher tier exam-style questions, plus answers, which have been written by subject experts and can be downloaded for use at home immediately after purchase. Each question is supported by a video that provides a worked solution to the question, plus top tips on how to tackle similar questions, avoid making common mistakes and ensure you pick up all the marks available.


Planning for success


The most effective way of using practice testing is in short bursts that are spaced out over time. So, rather than blocking in one subject at a time on your revision plan, try to schedule lots of short sessions for each subject spaced out over the months running up to your exams.


Revise your revision!


So, as virtuous, satisfying and reassuring as it feels to pore over a text book or your class notes, highlighting sections, adding annotations and making further notes, this should only take up a small part of your revision time. Arm yourself with a stack of good quality practice papers and start reinforcing understanding, improving recall and developing the essential skills you need for exam success. It’s time to change your battle cry: ‘Revise, practice test, practice test!’

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