Dr Sam McGuinness, former Principal Examiner A-level chemistry, former Head of Cookstown High and of Limavady Grammar, currently Course Director M Ed programme University of Ulster.
Advice for A-level students as the examinations approach and study time is available.
Firstly, let me assure parents that schools place great emphasis on such guidance and I’m sure that my comments will be identical or very close to the advice your son or daughter has already received.
What should I do with all this time I’ve been granted?
Plan carefully. Spend an hour now, and set out a detailed timetable for yourself starting from the very first study day. Put your exam dates and times in red, and pair up with a friend so you make a habit of phoning and saying, ‘French tomorrow at 9.30 am’ or whatever. Belt and braces, please! How dreadful to be phoned by the school, ‘You should have been in Biology paper 1 an hour ago’!
Decide what to study each day, write it down and stick rigidly to it so that you cover all the work you need to, particularly the sections in which you are weaker. Complete them early on.
What sort of things should be on the timetable? Should I study from 9.00 am until 9.00 pm with breaks for meals? Should I work through the night?
My response is no to both questions. My advice is to rise early if you can, and to work in two-three hour blocks depending on your ability to concentrate and learn effectively. I know that I am good for two hours and the third hour is painful, perhaps only worth about 15 minutes of effective study so I always worked in two hour blocks. I would work really hard from 9.00-11.00, then break until after lunch. Before lunch I would meet a friend for tennis or a swim or a walk.
From 2.00-4.00 pm I would work really hard, then take another break until 7.00 pm. In that break I might doze or listen to music. From 7.00-9.00 pm I would work flat out again then watch a little Television and have an early night. Take at least eight hours sleep per night.
During the two hour sessions your rule needs to be, ‘head down, absolutely no distraction’.
What a day! I’ve had six hours of really effective study and I’ve had great relaxation also.
What about my study location? What about playing music as I study?
Clearly you need peace and quiet, with absolutely no distractions during the blocks of study. That might mean your own room. I had an incredible experience all those decades ago with my A-levels. My room was being decorated so my parents gave over the lounge to me; it was like my own flat. It had a full-size grand piano, and two massive oil paintings of the sea, so I had the most amazing environment. I could even go over and play the blues (badly) when I wanted! Make an intentional choice of your environment. It’s great if you have your own study. I never understood the idea of wearing earphones when I studied. I find music a very bad distraction. If it’s what you do, may I suggest you try studying without it for one session to see if you can concentrate better?
How should I study?
Well. Learning is the construction of mental models, whether those are of events and consequences in history, or organic chemistry reaction schemes. You will have already constructed many of these, so it’s a matter of making them more robust, more polished. For others you will need firstly to ‘scaffold’ and to build metaphors and images associated with the particular subject matter, then tie it all together into a model that makes sense. The examination system, once focused on the simple recall of information, has moved on. It could be argued that it has become harder, despite what many assert. You are now required not only to have a firm grasp of the information and to recall it, but also to apply it to unfamiliar situations. While you wouldn’t do well in a chemistry paper from the seventies (who cares?), your parents wouldn’t have a clue about the challenges you are set in a modern chemistry paper.
I know that you have been going over past papers and mark schemes. These are important, but beware an over-reliance on them. The key to great success lies in constructing the mental models of understanding that will equip you to cope with this year’s brand new questions.
You wrote about meals. Are they significant?
I have to believe so. You really should stay away from fast food, caffeine drinks and cream buns! Eat wisely and well and definitely stay away from all alcohol, weekends and all, throughout this incredible time in your life. Get plenty of sleep. This is a life-changer for good or ill, and this time it is completely up to you to show the examiner, your school and your parents just how great you can be.
And on exam day, should I bring in study notes, so I can cram up until the last?
No once again. Leave all books and notes at home. Project coolness and calmness among your jittery friends, and when it’s over, be equally cool. Don’t go over your answers. Don’t look in the rear view mirror! Bring on the next one! Tick-tock and it will all be over – here comes summer!
Follow the instructions from your school to the letter regarding appearance and uniform. I have seen students wanting to make a point to friends by growing a beard, then parents complaining that the school was too strict when they refused entry to the school. Be sensible.
Have you advice for tackling the paper?
Such advice tends to be subject specific and I’m sure your teachers have given you the very best guidance which you should follow closely.
What did I advise my chemists? Should they scan the paper in advance? No. All questions are now compulsory so what’s the point? You have seen the previous years’ papers so you know the format. You have already, I hope, worked out your time allowance for each question, which you must stick to rigidly. Say 2 hours, eight questions, so 15 minutes per question absolute maximum; don’t look around at friends in the exam room; concentrate hard on reading and understanding exactly what the examiner is asking; get a minute or two ahead if you can in case a difficult one appears; for calculations, show your working; you can be awarded 3 out of 4 even if you get the wrong answer as long as the work is on view (even on additional sheets, though I would try to put it all neatly on the paper itself). Be precise in naming colours of solutions or precipitates!
If you find that you have got stuck in a question and have overrun, don’t panic – leave it; continue to stay ‘in the zone’ and work calmly on with the next question. You may make up so much time later on through an easy question that you can go back to it. Our brain works subliminally so that you may see the answer easily when you return to it.
If you have 5-10 minutes left, do not stop. Quickly scan the paper for silly omissions which may take you through a grade boundary A to B if not corrected.
I offer you all my sincere best wishes.