Monday, 24 March 2014

History Exam Revision

This advice is based on four decades of experience as a teacher and as an examiner. I hope it is useful to you.

1. Practise.

My good friend the Director of Sixth Form (now a headmaster) once brought in a university expert on revision to talk to our senior pupils. He gave everyone a post-it note and asked us to write down (a) something they were good at and (b) how they got good at it. Answers to (a) ranged from hockey to playing the bagpipes, via cooking. Answers to (b) almost all included the word “Practice”. I have rarely seen a point so effectively made.

All exam boards publish past papers on-line. Even if your teacher does not provide you with past papers, get hold of old questions and use them for practice. This is by far the best thing you can do for revision.

Earlier in the course it can be useful to write massive essays of thousands of words in length, as a way of getting to grips with a topic. During revision-time, however, practice essays should be strictly limited to the length possible in the exam. The obvious method is to set a timer for the appropriate length and stick to it. However, it can also be useful to spend as long as you like researching and crafting an essay that is of the same number of words you would manage in the limited time.

My two other recent posts on essay-writing may be helpful here. I very much hope your teachers will read your practice answers and take a few minutes to go through them with you. If you are doing self-assessment, make sure you refer at all times to the published exam-board mark-schemes.

Not all exam questions are essays. Also practise source questions, short answers and so on. Always practise with an appropriate time limit.

2. Learn stuff

This obvious advice comes second in importance to practise, but it is still important. There is no quick and easy way of doing this; you just need to put the time in. Some pupils would say “Oh I find it so hard to remember things” – and then one would find they knew the names of all the Premier League managers, or had recently played a large part in a school play. You can do it, but you have to give time to it.

In History there is no precise list of what you must know. The best candidates know lots, but they do not all know the same things. However, your factual revision should be closely related to the syllabus content as listed on line by the exam boards. When I sat A-level (before the first Moon landings) we had a loosely defined syllabus and a wide choice of questions. The modern approach is to have a tightly defined syllabus and a very limited choice of questions. Make sure your memory work fits with the syllabus topics.

Your memory work should include broad outline and general points. But do also make your own list (not too long) of statistics and quotations and other specific details for each topic and memorise them. This sort of detail, well used, can give answers a terrific lift.

Different people’s memories seem to work in different ways, so I’m not going to tell you how you must go about the learning. Do what works for you, whether it is saying aloud, mind-maps, coloured highlights or whatever.

3. Plan out your time

You should by now have a copy of your exam timetable, and it is essential that you use this to work out when you are going to revise what. If you have French, Biology and History on three consecutive days it will be no use trying to do all your History revision once French and Biology are over. Many people seem to have greater powers of focus and time-management than I have, but I have learned the hard way that it is well worth doing.

4. Keep interested

If you are a conscientious pupil you probably studied the topic well in the first place and revised it carefully for the “Mocks”. Revising all those notes and text-books again can make the whole business insufferably boring.

To combat this I would always include some new, stimulating material in your revision. Do not start reading some weighty tome at page one. However, the following are recommended.

-         Go to a library for an hour, gather round you a stack of relevant books and look up a few relevant pages in each.
-         Look out for books that are collections of essays. Forty years ago Penguin published a collection of AJP Taylor’s book reviews, lectures and so on called “Europe, Grandeur and Decline”. That was ideal for this purpose, on the nineteenth century. There will be equivalents.
-         Those magazines specially produced for history candidates are very good at this point. “History Review”, “New Perspective” and “Modern History Review” are all written for this purpose.
-         Use the internet. You are NOT looking for the labour-saving quick fix. You are planning to use search engines to roam around your topics looking for a few new details and ideas. (BEWARE: Much dedicated revision material is designed to help very weak candidates pass. If you are a strong candidate hoping for an A, this may do you more harm than good.)

5. Work with a friend

If you can find a like-minded friend for some joint revision sessions, this can be invaluable. Where you know more than they do, it helps your get your ideas in order to explain it to them. Where they know more than you, their points may be really useful. To give purpose to such sessions I suggest using past paper questions as the basis for discussion.

If these sessions turn out to be waste of time, or merely work you both into a panic, abandon them!

That’s quite enough. There is no short-cut. Above all, practice.

6. Build in some relaxing, leisure time.

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If you find this post useful you might like the pieces I have written for Kindle that cover various popular exam topics. I guess they fit under sub-heading 4, above. I’m afraid you have to pay for them but they are only about a pound each in the UK.

There is a list of them all here:

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