Craig Fast - Elevate Your Exam Game
Strategies for Mastering Revision and Coping with Stress
Effective revision is a crucial element to succeeding in exams and academic pursuits. It involves reviewing and consolidating knowledge and concepts, practising and applying skills, and identifying areas that need improvement. By dedicating time to revise, students can enhance their understanding of the subject matter, boost their confidence, and increase their chances of achieving better results.
In this podcast episode, Craig Fast, Deputy Head (Academic), shares his insights on the most effective ways to revise and cope with the stress that often comes with exam season.
Welcome to College in Conversation, the official podcast of Lingfield College. Join me, Matthew Harris, alumnus and host. As I talk to the staff, students and community, showing you exactly what life is like at Lingfield. Hello, everyone, and welcome to another episode of College in Conversation. Now, by the time you're listening to this, we will be entering the wonderful season known as exam season.
So all you brilliant Year 11 students, Year 13 students, in fact, students throughout the school will be going into exam season, taking tests, papers and all of that fun stuff. But if you are having any form of anxiety, any fears around exam season, which is perfectly natural, we hope this episode might provide you with some comfort, some inspiration, and to bring that wonderful comfort and inspiration, I am sat here today talking to the brilliant Deputy Head Academic of Lingfield College, Mr. Craig Fast. Mr. Fast, how are you doing today?
I'm very well, Matt. Nice to see you and thanks for having me on.
Not a problem. It's really great to have you on because I think this was a really important topic to discuss today, and hopefully, we can give the students some information that could be useful to them. So, while students will take exams in all their school years leading up to year 11, it's never going to be the same as the real GCSE public exams. What should students be ready for during those weeks in the summer term?
I think the most important thing they need to do is maintain a sense of perspective. It is a big deal. They are important, but students have to learn to take them in their stride and knowing some of what to expect in advance will really help. So the most important things they need to be aware of, is they will arrive at exams just like they've done for mock exams.
They'll stand outside the sports hall, they'll wait to be registered. I'll then come up or Mrs. Folkard will come up. We will register the students and then once they're in the exam hall, it will be the sports hall for them. Then they have to get into exam mode. So, there's that time before. What they need to do is develop their routines of what works for them.
So for some students, it's about running around, shouting, being noisy, talking about the subject they're about to have, and that works for them. For others, that will do nothing but increase their anxiety. So they've got to go off in a quieter space, sit, breathe, focus on themselves, and it's really about students recognising in themselves what works best for them, what prepares them for walking into that exam hall and then sitting the exam. When they go into the exam hall, there will be these invigilators inside who are responsible for making sure the exam runs properly. The exams officer will be inside and their job is to make sure everything runs according to the regulations and I actually think once students are inside the exam hall, it actually gets easier because everything is outside of their control. They go to their seat, someone else is organising things.
They simply sit there and wait. And normally when they're in the exam hall, it's about a ten-minute wait between sitting down and starting the exam because they have to go through all the rules and regulations. They have to make sure everyone has everything they need. That time, as students learn how to manage that well, is a really useful time.
They need to be able to get themselves calmed down, focus on their breathing and just relax into it and not think too much about the exam and their worries. And then once the exam started, most students just get on with it. I think the most stressful time is before that first GCSE or BTEC or A-level where they really don't know what to expect once they get into the swing of things, most students actually find the real public exams less stressful than the mock exams because they're much better prepared. They've been through the mock exams and once it's up and running, that initial adrenalin rush dies down and they just get into it.
What's really interesting is you answered that first question. You immediately spoke about the routine before the exam, before actually mentioning the paper itself. Do you think that students using that time in mocks to really work on what works for them in that routine is almost equally as important as practising the paper itself? And then secondly, onto that, can we talk about a bit what happens right after you've finished an exam?
Because you know, it might have gone really well for some, it might not have gone quite as well for others. Is it important to work on that post-exam routine too, especially when you're in an exam season where that could have been your morning GCSE and you've got one in the afternoon, so you need to get ready to go again?
It's a good question. The first part of it, what was the first part of your question, Matt? That’s alluded me now. That was an awfully long question. I had it in my head.
I speak a lot.
And now I'm into the second part of the question. The first part is going to ask the first part. I've got the second part.
It was a mistake having us on the same podcast.
We both like to chat.
That’s the error we made. The first part of the question was about do you believe that using that time in mock exam season or earlier tests is just as important to practise what that before-exam routine is?
Yes and no. I don't want to say equally important, but it is really important. So ultimately, the most important thing is putting in the time, putting in the hard work before any sort of exams. And actually that hard work needs to be starting the minute they begin in Year Seven. If they develop the right habits for completing their work, their homework, when they're revising for an exam or a test, those habits have to start early and the earlier they start those habits the better.
However, in the mock exams, the whole purpose of those mock exams is practice and to get familiar with what it's going to be like in a real exam. So there's sort of the dual purpose they get to see if they actually know the stuff they think they're learning. You put yourself in that environment. That's stressful, that is unusual.
Sitting exams isn't a normal sort of thing for humans to seek out. You put yourself in that environment and the mock exam is ultimately a safe place to do that, where if you fail or if you do badly, the consequences are less pronounced. Ultimately, it's your chance to realise, ‘Am I prepared for this? I'm not prepared? And how does my body and brain react when I'm in that stressful situation?’
So by going through that and having that experience and learning how you actually respond to that situation, it's making it much easier when you get to the real exams to know what you've got to do to cope with that. So is it equally important to preparation? It's difficult to say, but it is a vital aspect of that preparation where there's the hard work on the outside of the exam and developing the right habits, skills and mindsets inside the exam.
So when you get to the real thing, you're flying and ready to go. Second half of your question, repeat it one more time for me.
It's about developing the routines for after an exam, depending on how well or not it went.
It's important, but less important. It all depends on how soon your next exam is. Some students love to run out of an exam and instantly start to try and answer every question with everyone around them. "What do you get for number two? What do you get for number three? What do you get for number?" And that works for some.
And for some they need that release in order to get through it and be ready to move on to the next exam. They have to process what they just did and then they move on. For others, that's the worst thing to do. For me, when I used to take exams, I didn't want to talk about it. I just wanted to refocus on the next exam.
But that doesn't work for everyone. However, if I was to recommend one or the other, my recommendation is to spend a few minutes on the exam. You've just finished, process it and then leave it behind as quickly as possible. It's done. There's nothing more you can do about it and get refocused on the next exam because if you spend too much time focusing on the one you've finished, you then start to second guess yourself. You second-guess your technique, you second-guess your answers. You don't know if your friend who's telling you the answers actually has them right and they may be super confident. ‘No, this was the answer.’ And you think, ‘No, I had a different answer,’ but you don't know who's right because you don't have the question there in front of you. You don't have the answers there in front of you.
So my recommendation is talk about it for a few minutes if you want to, but leave that exam behind very quickly and what you do after the exam? I think the best thing you can do is get some physical movement in your body, go for a walk, run around a little bit, get a little bit of exercise and movement to get your brain back and settled, get oxygen into your body so that you're ready to then settle quite quickly to move on to revising and thinking about that next exam.
So revision, it's not the most exciting word in the world.
Oh, it is. It is!
Not to some, not to some, but it is, you know, one of the most important aspects of your work to progress as a student at school, knowing those exams are coming up in future years. Can you give us some really simple, from your point of view, revision do's and don'ts?
Okay. First thing, if revision feels really easy, you're doing it wrong. Annoyingly, revision is hard, revision is work, and if you're doing your revision right, it should feel hard. It should feel like work and you should be tired afterwards. Otherwise, you're just staring at a page. So, students develop their revision skills. They often start off with this idea that you can read a book or stare at a page, and that's revision.
But revision has to be much more active than that. And active recall is an essential part of revision. So, what students shouldn't be doing is simply reading a textbook and making endless, beautiful notes. That has its place. It provides some learning, but it's not going to be the most efficient learning. So, the real goal for students is to really take that metacognitive approach, thinking about their learning and saying, ‘Is this actually helping me learn and is this an efficient use of my time?’
And so often what we do as humans, is we try and take the easiest rather than the best path. Revision: the easiest is just to simply get out the textbook, read, copy some of the things out, and that will not help get things in their mind. So, there's lots of different techniques that are useful, some that work better for some students, some that work better for others.
So, for one example I use is rather than making revision notes, doing mind mapping. And mind mapping, it doesn't need to be a beautiful poster that you put on the wall at the end. It can be, but it can be as simple as scrolling all the ideas that you're revising onto a page and then testing yourself on them.
And that's my second bit. You've got to be testing yourself. Now, that doesn't mean just doing past paper questions. It means at the end of any revision session you've got to take time and say, ‘What have I learned?’ And test yourself, see if you've learned anything. So what you can do is say, you know, practise writing down all the key words you learned.
You can practise saying, Can I spell all the key words I learned? Can you turn your page over and recite aloud everything that you were working on? Something to test, to see that you're taking things in and then the beginning of the next revision session. It's really useful to see, ‘Have I remembered what I learned in that last revision session?’ and test yourself straightaway to see what you need to go over again and see what you don't need to go over again.
One common mistake is thinking, I've read something once I've learned it, you may understand all you've read and that's great and that's very common in lessons. A student will hear what a teacher says. They'll have understood it. They'll say, Great, I've learned it. But if you go back to it a month later, you'll have forgotten a lot of the information, a lot of the detail.
So, recognising the difference between understanding and learning is key. You've got to learn everything and be able to retrieve it from your brain and recall the information before it's properly learned. It's not just understanding. And another thing students like to do is this many students who say, ‘Well, if I can say it out loud, then I've got it.’
But exams aren't verbal. There are language speaking exams, but most exams aren't verbal. So, students need to make sure they practise writing things down as well. You've got to do your practice as similar as possible to what the real exam will be like, and it involves a lot of writing. So do a lot of writing, but it's got to come from your head, a lot of information there, lots of things to consider.
And I could go on and on and on. But the main key point, active recall, active revision, so that you're really testing yourself to see that you're learning and not just reading.
Yeah, the stuff about active recall is particularly interesting to me because I remember when I was doing I think GCSE in particular I got better at A-levels, was a lack of that active record because I think what I was doing was, if I didn't test to know, to see if I knew at the time, I could just, you know…
You could you fool yourself into thinking you'd learned it. And it's very, very nice to say, ‘Oh, I put in a half an hour of revision. Well done, me. Gold Star.’ But if you haven't learned anything, that's misguided praise for yourself. You've got to make sure you're learning, and I really stress it's about being efficient and learning what techniques are an efficient use of your time.
Because there may be one student who can sit there making revision notes for 4 hours and think they've done a great job and learned very little. And a different student who spent half an hour with really intensive active revision, they've been more efficient. So you've got to think about that efficiency and doing what actually works.
100%. And you mentioned loads of brilliant revision techniques there and things for students to try, but for some students they need more help. It's just natural to them that they need more help. And I'd love to know what additional academic support does Lingfield College offer to GCSE and A-level students.
Well, the main thing is if students need help, all they need to do is ask and our teachers will provide virtually anything they need. Now, I won't say anything they need, but our teachers are available and it's really on the students to identify when they're struggling and they need that help. So some of the examples that we have is for in the sixth form, there's after-school study every day during the week there are Saturday sessions, The students can come in and just get on with their work.
So that's almost more providing a time and space for them to get help. But equally, there are virtually endless department clinics and those are run after school. Those run at lunchtimes where students can go and get targeted help from their teachers to make sure they're learning the things they need to do for specific subjects. Same for GCSE. There are lunchtime clubs and after-school clinics where they can go and get direct help from their teachers to work on whatever they think they need to work on, or if they're not sure what they need to work on, then the teachers can direct them.
We also have Saturday school for Year 11 students, where most Saturdays throughout the year they can come in, have 3 hours and just crack on with their work.
Absolutely. And I think, you know, sometimes people might think, ‘Oh, I'm not going to come into school on a Saturday. That's because, you know, I've done something wrong, or I need extra academic help because I'm not smart enough or all those type of things. But a lot of the time it's just you've got to get over that mental hurdle because it'll pay you back in dividends later on.
Absolutely. And actually, Saturday school, the point is just providing a distraction-free space for students to work and those who come in tend to come back again because they realise they've started their Saturday with 3 hours of solid work, with no one telling them what they have to do. They choose their direction. It will have been productive because it will have been teacher supervised.
So they've had a nice, quiet space. And I think the benefit that many don't see is the rest of their weekend is going to be less stressful because they'll start a Saturday feeling like they've gotten ahead. They've spent on 3 hours work. They get home on that Saturday at lunchtime and they're well ahead with where they expected to be instead of the more common approach of waking up Saturday morning, avoiding work, spending Saturdays slightly anxious about work and not getting it done as well as they'd like to. And then Sunday there's more work to do. And actually then anxiety builds over the course of the weekend. If you get it all done Saturday morning, the rest of the weekend is a much calmer, enjoyable experience and that's why many students come back again Saturday after Saturday.
It is not a punishment. It is something most students choose to come to. Occasionally, we will request that students come to compulsory Saturday school based on their performance in mock exams and things, but the vast majority of students are there by choice and they find it really beneficial.
Great. And you mentioned earlier on in the podcast, we're talking about looking at developing routines outside the exam hall, those moments before you go in. And as you mentioned, every student will have different preferences and will discover what works and what doesn't. Can we talk more broadly about the morning routine ahead of a 9am exam? Again, obviously everyone will have different preferences, but what recommendations would you have to students to make sure that they do or maybe not do?
And that might even begin from the night before ahead of that 9 a.m. exam, whether that's GCSE, A-level, whatever it might be.
Absolutely. It's all about consistency. So exactly. It starts the night before. The night before, go to bed early or go to bed on time. Go to bed at a time when your body is used to falling asleep, but make sure that's not too late. So, you've got to start before the exam season. If you're someone who tends to go to bed late, you've got to start in March or April starting to go to bed a bit early because you want to make sure you get enough sleep. Additionally, pack your bag the night before, make sure your pencil case is there. Your clear pencil case with everything you need. Make sure your water bottle is there, your water bottle with no label and see-through, just full of water, so that when you get up in the morning, no matter what happens, you know, you can grab your bag and you're ready to go. Early bedtime.
When you get up, make sure you have something to eat. Some students, especially during the first few exams, will be really nervous and they'll feel like they don't want to eat. But you've got to get something in your body, get water in your body, get food in your body so that your brain can work properly. If you don't have water and food in your body, your brain is not going to work as well as it otherwise would.
So have something to eat. And then also when you leave home, make sure you're leaving in good time. You don't want to be arriving at the exam hours early, but you want to be going there. So, you know you're arriving and you have a few minutes to get settled in. You're not worried that the car is going to be late because there's temporary traffic lights or whatever else the case may be.
So, get to the exam nice and early, but not too early so you're sitting around and starting to get too anxious and everyone's got use the timings that work well for them there. So go to bed early, eat a healthy, sensible breakfast, get to the exam in good time with all your equipment. And if you do those things then you're well set up to do well.
It's all about minimising the chances for you to feel derailed or stressed or distracted before the exam. One thing some students like to do is they like to revise to the very last minute. So, they bring textbooks and notes and they're actively revising at that last minute. I don't recommend that. I recommend you stop revising in good time the night before an exam.
So let's say you've got an exam at 8:30 the next morning. I wouldn't be revising at ten at night, I wouldn't even be revising at eight at night. I'd stop around that time. Give yourself some time to wind down because cramming at the end isn't the best way. And most students by 8:00 the night before will have revised everything they need.
And so this last-minute cramming isn't really going to be beneficial. It's just going to be stress-inducing. So, I recommend not cramming before. However, if a student hasn't done enough revision and they're massively behind that last-minute cramming may help, but they shouldn't be in that position in the first place. They should be able to stop well in advance.
Absolutely. I think there's some wonderful tips there, and that's what's quite interesting is obviously the bulk of the work happens way before that exam day. And we've mentioned that, you know, the revision has to be done. The mock exam seasons have to be sat, all those things. But those little additional things can add up to a real big effect on the day.
You know, if you do get that night's sleep, if you do have a good breakfast, you can be amazing. You know, these big grades that make the difference between going to the university you want to or not. It can be between 1, 2, 3 marks at times. And maybe just having that good breakfast on that day made the difference and got you into that university.
It certainly can make the difference. I thought of something else I was going to say. It's fled from my mind.
That's fine. We'll move on to the next question. But if it reappears, you let me know. So obviously you can do all that prep. You can have the perfect morning and but even if you haven't, there are moments in exams where you might come under a huge amount of stress and anxiety. If a certain question comes up that just hits you for six, you’re lost.
And if you're panicking in the exam hall, it happens to everyone. It's probably going to happen to everyone. It may be some stage hopefully in the mocks and they can learn routines to adapt to it, but you never know. So for those students, when that happens in the exam hall, what would you recommend they do to get themselves back on track?
I think it's about trying to maintain a sense of perspective, and that's hard for all of us, particularly hard for some people. There's nothing wrong with pausing when you're in the middle of exam and paying attention to how you're feeling and it's okay if you lose a few minutes, it's better to lose a few minutes and get a hold of that stress and panic than just try and plough on and have that stress and panic flowing through your body when you're trying to write the answer to a question.
So I would encourage students to put down their pen, take a break for a moment, take some deep breaths, try just not to think about the question. Try not to think about anything and just focus on their breathing, a meditative sort of technique. Take a few deep breaths, pay attention to their body, let themselves calm down and be accepting that actually that one or 2 minutes spent doing that is going to have a much bigger positive impact than one or 2 minutes trying to rush and figure out the question.
The other thing you notice is that when you're in a state of panic or fight or flight, your brain is not able to deliver that information as effectively. So, the key thing is to get out of that and you'll find that sometimes the information comes back to you. This podcast is a perfect example. I had something in my head that I wanted to talk about.
Then I forget if I pause, let myself just drift away for a minute or so, the chances are it'll come back to me. Now, in an exam, it's even easier to do that because you've got a lot of time. Exams aren't short these days. They're long. So, you can afford to waste a minute or two.
I said waste. I don't really mean waste. You can afford to spend a minute or two just trying to find that relaxing state. And if you get to that, you may want to skip the question that was stress-inducing in the first place and come back to it later. And very often you'll find as you work through other questions, ideas will come back to you and you'll be able to answer that question that you previously thought might be unanswerable.
One added sort of tip I want to give is, if possible, avoid leaving any question blank no matter what. It's always better to give a guess than to give no answer at all because your guest may very well be right and it may turn out that you actually had learned that and you're just not remembering that you learned it.
But that information is there in your brain. Key thing, though, slow down, take a break. And many students sort of think, ‘Can I really take a break during an exam? Can I afford those 2 minutes?’ If you're in a panic state, you can most definitely afford those 2 minutes.
100% agree with you. And I really like the idea of just putting something down on paper as well, because it feels better to put pen to paper in that moment as well. Or once you've done the breathing as you explain and then maybe you'll have that moment where you leave the exam and 5 minutes later you think, ‘Oh, I did get that right.’
Or, you know, we speak about the students with the confidence that might not be correct in those moments, but I totally agree. Get something on the page.
And some of it's a matter of they'll be able to write a few key words down or a sentence involving some key words that they know connects to that question. They may not understand the question, but they may know some language related to that. And very often mark schemes will give you marks just by using some of the language related to the topic.
So it's always better to put something and students often say, ‘But I'm not sure it's right.’ Well you still put it down. An answer you're not sure if it's right is better than no answer at all. Every time.
True. And it's been wonderful to sit down with you this morning and talk about a subject that could be quite, you know, is intimidating for all students. It's a huge, huge deal. It affects a huge part of your lives. But it's great to sit down and get some genuine, immediately applicable advice on that subject. And I speak for the whole of the length of college community to wish all of our GCSE, A-level and BTEC students the best of luck in their exams.
We know you can do it, put in the work. It's going to be great. Thank you for talking to me today, Mr. Fast.
Thank you very much.
Thank you for taking the time to listen to our podcast. We hope you enjoyed it and look forward to welcoming you back for another conversation at Lingfield College very soon.