Become a self-guided study superstar

School closures have presented a lot of challenges. Students are away from their friends and peers, getting less exercise, less access to their teachers, less resources for study.

But the one thing that makes the biggest difference to their chances of success is the one thing that makes the difference every year - independent study skills.

Preparing for exams, both in school and out, requires a lot of hard work and self-motivation, which sets the top achievers apart from the pack.

This is the first thing I teach to my personal tuition clients, and I'm going to share my top tips with you here today.

Understand what is needed

When you're learning in school, your teachers are responsible for preparing a study plan that incorporates all of the content you need for your exam, and providing a complete set of notes.

With less time in class, it is even more important to self-regulate, and so I advise that students find a copy of their exam specification for a complete list of what is expected for their exams.

These can be downloaded from the exam board's website. If you're not sure of your child's exam board, you can usually find the details on your school web page. The common ones are Edexcel, AQA, or OCR in England.

These are written for schools and teachers, so you can skip parts about 'why choose this specification', etc. It might also be quite heavy reading for students, so its helpful to have someone to help decode it.

Suitable resources

Once its clear which topics need to be covered and in what detail, the next step is finding suitable resources to learn from.

There's lots of resources online, but sometimes there can be so much that it becomes overwhelming and you don't know where to start.

In my free Facebook group I have shared a list of the best GCSE revision resources online. Most of them are free, but any costs are highlighted in the spreadsheet.

Effective study techniques

On the top five list of 'things students say every year' is, "I've spent loads of time revising this but I just never remember it."

And it's true - they probably have spent a lot of time 'revising' but if it isn't active revision, they may as well be colouring in.

The best revision methods require students to actively process information, so they should be answering exam questions, recalling formulae or quotes, transferring information into a different format, explaining it to someone else, etc. Anything that requires them to think about and process that information, is transferring it from their short term memory to their long term memory, which is where they'll retrieve it from in the exams.

Short term memory is good for recalling the cramming students do in the queue outside the exam hall, but that's about it.

So make sure that time spent revising is used wisely.


All effective study plans should have some form of assessment involved.

Not only does that mean that you can see what works, but it is also motivating.

Think about any goals you've set yourself in the past. Perhaps you went on a diet to lose weight, or opened a savings account with a goal in mind.

Now you were almost certainly checking those scales or the account balance, or whatever else you were monitoring, on a regular basis. And if you see the numbers going in the right direction, you're motivated to keep going.

It works the same way for exam prep as for any other goal - tracking your progress helps to keep you motivated.

But as well as that, it shows you when something isn't working and changes need to be made.

So they could be doing practice papers at the end of every month.

They might be doing online quizzes.

They might see how quickly they can recall relevant quotes.

All of these things should be recorded and tracked over time to help keep them on track for success.

Revisit / review

Remember when I was talking about long term vs short term memory? Hopefully, because it wasn't that long ago...

That movement from short term to long term happens through repetition.

It is a long held understanding that, immediately after learning something knew, we start the process of forgetting it bit by bit.

Its the way the brain makes sure it keeps track of the important things, and doesn't waste energy on the unimportant things.

Something you look at once, like the Quadratic formula, is deemed unimportant if you never go back to it.

Something you look at every day, like the advert on the side of your bus, is deemed very important because you give it daily attention, so that will stay with you always.

Frustratingly, we'd usually prefer the reverse. But we can work around that by reviewing information after learning it.

Now I'm not suggesting reading all of your notes every day. Ain't nobody got time for that!

But I always tell my students to review notes we've made on a new or challenging topic the evening of or day after a lesson with me. And then once more before I come back. And then we review it again in the next lesson. And I'll bring it back up again a couple of weeks later to make sure it worked. And then we'll review it again in the revision period before the exams.

Because that level of repetition is essential to ensure all of the relevant details have been transferred into the long term memory and can be recalled when needed.

Build the foundations first

One major stumbling block students have when they are working independently is that they don't work from the bottom up.

Everyone does it - we want to be able to lift heavy weights so we dive right in with lifting our entire bodyweight on a barbell and get a hernia.

Its important to build the foundations before moving on to the heavy lifting. Even Dwayne Johnson started small (at some point, I'm sure...).

So if you're struggling with a tricky algebra problem, we need to make sure you have a clear understanding of basic algebraic principles, negative number rules, rearranging equations, working with fractions, basic arithmetic, use of a calculator, etc. Working one to one with my clients I can spot those gaps and fill them there and then. When working independently, it is harder for the student to see what they don't know, if they don't know it. The usual assumption is that they just 'can't do it' and they get frustrated.

If you see this happening to your child, do reassure them that there's just one piece of the puzzle missing, and when they can fill it in, they'll see the whole picture clearly. They should still be able to reach out to their teacher with these issues, or to a one to one tutor if you can.

It will be challenging, and they will have to push themselves, but if they focus on the right things, and remember to take care of their health and wellbeing along the way, they have every chance of doing well in 2021 exams.

If you have more questions about how to help your child prepare for the 2021 exams, I'm holding a FREE webinar 20th July at 11am via Google Meet. Ask all your GCSE and school closure questions. You can sign up here to get the webinar link, and make sure you receive a copy of the recording afterwards.

For more revision tips, and a step by step guide, join my free Facebook group and check out the units.

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