3 Exam Technique Mistakes GCSE and A-Level Students Commonly Make

Is your teen struggling with their exam technique for their GCSEs or A-Levels?

Exam technique is a skill that can be learned and practised so that your child can get better marks and grades.

In this article we'll talk about 3 exam technique mistakes that we commonly see GCSE and A-Level students making.

They are:

  • Thinking you're ‘not an exams person'
  • Not knowing what to expect in each exam
  • Failing to plan answers

Let's talk about each of them in turn.

Exam Technique Mistake #1: Thinking you're ‘not an exams person'

I've had so many emails over the years from parents saying that their child ‘isn't an exams person'.

It's true that some people take to exams more easily than others. But, this is the same for just about any skill or thing that humans do in life: some people are naturals, others have to work harder to be good, or even adequate, at them.

The problem is, when you say and keep repeating, that you're ‘not an exams person' you're fulfilling a fixed mindset prophecy. Basically, you'll make it come true because you're giving yourself a get out clause to be bad at exams.

This is a problem because everyone has to take exams at GCSE. If you've got to do it, why commit yourself to failure by persuading yourself that you're irredeemably bad at them?

Exam technique can be learned. You can get better at it with practise. If you need help, I can teach you.

Just, in the name of all that is good, stop saying you're ‘not an exams person' because this is putting you on the fast-track to failure.

Exam Technique Mistake #2: Not knowing what to expect in each exam

When jockeys ride horses in races they walk the course beforehand so that they know what to expect.

Marathon runners train for many hours to get their bodies used to running that distance and learn how to calibrate their physiology to perform their best.

Concert violinists run through their pieces in each concert hall before they play to an audience so that they know how their instrument will resonate with the space.

In the same way, GCSE and A-Level candidates need to know what to expect in each exam, otherwise all sorts of things can go wrong. For example you need to know:

  • How many questions there are and how many marks they're worth so you can make sure you answer all the questions you need to and leave time to have a go at every one of them.
  • How each question will be marked so you can give the examiner the kind of answer they need to see in order to give you good marks.
  • What each question is for as each question on the paper will probably look at a different set of knowledge or skills. To get good marks you need to know why you're being asked each question.
  • Whether you'll just be expected to answer questions from memory, or use resources provided in the exam. So many students don't make full use of the information provided to them in the exam, because they don't understand it's purpose, which means they miss out on lots of easy marks.
  • How long you have in the exam so that you can work out how long to spend on each question and you don't run out of time.
  • Whether you have to answer every question or whether you have choices over which questions to answer. If you can choose you need to know so that you can choose the questions that suit you best.

There are probably many other reasons why you need to know what to expect in an exam – but all of the ones I've listed here are very important and will make a big difference to the marks you get.

Exam Technique Mistake #3: Failing to plan answers

As Benjamin Franklin is supposed to have said, “If You Fail to Plan, You Are Planning to Fail.”

This holds true for exam answers. And, it's not just long essay-style questions. Even questions worth as little as four marks need a plan. These questions clearly don't need a detailed plan. However, if you've got a 4 marks question that asks you to describe and explain two factors that make something happen your plan will look something like:

  1. Factor 1 description
  2. Factor 1 explanation
  3. Factor 2 description
  4. Factor 2 explanation

Laying your answer out clearly like this makes it easy for the examiner to see that you've got the marks, and therefore makes it easier for them to award you the marks.

Short questions don't need lots of planning, and don't really need written plans, but with practice you learn to plan and structure answers well. Longer questions and essays do need more detailed plans to get them right.

The good news about exam technique

Exam technique is a skill that can be learned, and you can get better every day with practice. However, it becomes an essential part of revision the closer you get towards exams because without knowing how to communicate all the information you've learned you're unlikely to get the grades you deserve.

If you or your child needs help with exam technique come along to our Exam Technique Masterclass in The Extraordinaries Club.

In the masterclass we'll cover:

  • How to identify content and command words so that you know what to write in your exam answers
  • How to take your cue from the question about how to structure your answer to get the maximum number of marks
  • The difference between level marking and point marking and how to get better at level marked questions
  • How to efficiently and effectively plan and structure essays
  • Learn how to manage your time effectively in the exam so that you don't leave questions unanswered or shorter than they need to be
  • Have the tools you need to practice your exam technique so that you walk into the exam confident that you can do your best

Basically, we'll set you on the right track for exam success. Click here to find out more and sign-up.

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