Surviving the exams: Tips for parents

Posted on 23rd March 2023 by Hazel Packer

Mrs Hazel Packer, Director of Sixth Form at Norwich High School for Girls GDST

If you are the parent of an A Level or GCSE student approaching their exams, how can you help them navigate this time? Our Director of Sixth Form, Hazel Packer shares her revision top tips for parents.

How much study?

Students (and parents) often want to know ‘how much’ revision they should be doing over study leave. Six hours represents a normal working day and is a good target. However, I’d urge them, and you, to remember that quality of preparation is as important as quantity.

Intense revision should be broken-down into slightly shorter chunks of 40 minutes before a short break. When returning to their work, they should test themselves on what has gone before then move on. Each morning they should then test themselves on the content from the day before and set aside anything they don’t recall or understand to be revisited later in the week.

Practical support

As your students’ support team, simply be available to listen and do things to make their day better or easier. Being available can be a difficult line to tread – often popping in with cups of tea and checking in, little and often, is the best way. During exams, the usual family routine can often fragment with mealtimes happening at different times of the day to normal, and students eating in their rooms. Resist this shift if possible, as students need moments of family routine to check in and have a dump of their emotions. Try to ask specific questions to unlock communication. “How is your day going”, might not get a response … if you can know what is coming up for them, you can ask more specific questions.

Where should they work?

Lots of our pupils like the structure of the school day. They come to the Sixth Form centre and work during their normal lesson times. Revision hours can quickly add up and students haven’t had to actively design a bespoke timetable. Others will prefer to work at home so they can start at times to suit them, and have longer breaks to stretch their study out over a longer day.

If students are at home, give them a quiet space – somewhere to revise which they don’t need to pack away at the end of the day. If space is at a premium at home, this could be a drawer in the kitchen with noise cancelling headphones or could you give up your home office or bedroom during the coming weeks?

Should I take away their mobile phone?

The student’s concentration will improve if they remove their mobile phone during study time – but they need to be involved in that decision.

What if they can’t focus?

If your student is having a bad day – is it a bad day, or just a bad morning, or a bad few hours? A bad morning doesn’t have to mean a bad afternoon. Encourage the student who is stuck to have a break, go for a walk, have some food and get ready to try again. Give them the space to verbalise what might be worrying them. Many students find it works to split time into chunks – we recommend 40/45 minute chunks but if that seems too much, can they focus for 20 minutes? If they can get past that, they might find they are into a good and focused period of revision.

Are they spending too much time studying late at night?

Whilst sleep is massively important, many parents think their teenagers’ sleep patterns are unhealthy – but they may not necessarily be a concern if it is the right kind of sleep. Study hours before midnight are better than hours after, but for some, working in the evening can be a really productive time.

How to get a study-life balance

Often students give up clubs, hobbies or activities to focus on their revision … whilst they will need to undertake a reorganisation and rationalisation of their time, they don’t give up valued hobbies. Whilst for a while they will need to spend more time studying, the balance of relationships and things they enjoy is vital to maintain good physical and emotional health during what is undoubtedly a stressful time.

How to manage pressure

Help to actively coach students’ negative internal voice which puts additional pressure onto students by being overly critical and focusing on negatives – particularly for girls. Unfortunately, many of us are preprogrammed to speak to ourselves internally in a different voice and with a different message with how we would speak to a friend. Encourage students to recognise and be aware of this, and keep it in check.

Find a calming technique which works for them – deep breathing, mindfulness, progressive muscle relaxation, guided imagery… there are several choices and it’s worth experimenting. They could write about their feelings too – it is a well-documented belief that writing feelings down can make individuals feel better and overcome and exorcise feelings of anxiety.

And remember, a degree of stress can actually improve performance. How the individual thinks about stress matters. Try to coach them to see stress as a positive, and reach out to others to help manage their feelings if they feel stressed or anxious.

Challenging negative thoughts

A negative way of thinking and self-talk becomes easily engraved. Often when testing a student, they will respond to your test question: “this might not be right, but …” or “I’m sure this isn’t right, but …”

It is much better to frame responses to welcome, promote and celebrate challenge. Multi-faceted questions can, on the face of it, feel impossible to answer. However, when the student starts to draw the question back to first principles everyone will be able to answer some of the question. Exam questions, as for university entrance interview questions, are supposed to be challenging, and very few will be able to get the maximum marks from a question – but encourage your student to break it down to see what they can do. Girls often want to be perfect but need to understand it’s ok just to be good enough, to have potential and to do things their own way. With a six mark question – encourage the student to answer some and move on – and come back to it later.

What is your top tip?

At A Level, you need to demonstrate content knowledge, but also application. For applying knowledge, past papers are the best way to prepare. Make sure to encourage the student to read exam marking schemes. Past paper examiners reports are also a really important tool – listing the main misconceptions from previous students which can really help in exam preparation.

Moving forwards

Once exams are completed, and as Results Day approaches in the summer, it is natural that stresses and anxieties will build. Please remind students to practise self-care (eat well, regulate their sleep patterns, exercise, find time to relax, talk with family and friends) and seek help and support if needed.