May 25, 2023
During exam season, understanding the keys to success is the first step in the preparation process itself. Preparing for an exam goes far beyond learning contents and relating concepts. It is a combination of several factors that, when well articulated, help students achieve the desired results. Family involvement, for example, is one of the essential components, and in this sense Spanish families are among the most involved in their children’s studies, according to the Indicator of Parental Involvement in Compulsory Education (IPPE), recently carried out by a group of universities and organisations as part of a research project funded by the European Commission.
James Petrie, Headteacher of Secondary and Pre-University at The British School of Barcelona, delivers study skills and exam preparation workshops to our students between the ages of fourteen and eighteen. This is the age group when they have to sit the official exams that determine their access to higher education, namely GCSEs, A Levels and IB Diploma exams. He explains: ‘We know that preparing for an exam is not a young person’s idea of having fun, so it is important that we help them to approach it in a thoughtful way, both at school and at home, using the most appropriate strategies and with a positive attitude. It is important that the student sees this challenge as an opportunity to grow. It is also important that we all work together and understand that there is no “one size fits all” approach’.
To achieve this, Mr Petrie says there are a number of interrelated variables: family support, study environment, organisation and time management, learning strategies, and stress management. Taking control and designing an effective, efficient and, above all, personalised study plan is the key to tackling this challenge with motivation and confidence. ‘Preparing for the final exams is in some ways like preparing for a marathon. We have to make sure that we reach the finish line with the same strength and energy as when we started. With the right, personalised study programme and a degree of discipline, students can achieve great results on the day of the exam’.
To this end, Mr Petrie offers five tips to help young people turn this experience into a positive opportunity, because ‘any learning that requires effort is good learning’:
- Involving families in the process: ‘It’s a team effort’, says Mr Petrie. That is why at BSB we have started the exam preparation period with a practical session for families and students to discuss goals and how to achieve them. This is because families play a fundamental role in supporting their children, helping them to study and providing a positive emotional environment. To this end, it is essential that families have first-hand knowledge of the amount of work their children have to cope with, the resources available to them and the extent to which they can support them. It is also important to help them maintain a sense of perspective about the complex period they are going through, especially during adolescence.
- Creating a supportive learning environment: Environmental stimuli can have a positive or negative impact on students’ wellbeing and concentration. Mr Petrie recommends eliminating distractions of all kinds, even if it means changing their work environment. They should avoid mobile phones, music players, computers and keep only the necessary study materials at hand, such as markers, post-its, notebooks for summaries, diagrams, etc. They should also create an atmosphere of wellbeing and find time to rest. ‘During exam time at BSB, we create environments that are pleasant and quiet, with soothing music in the open air, spaces that invite you to relax and escape from stress and nerves’, explains Mr Petrie.
- Organisation: ‘This is one of the study habits we teach at BSB and it certainly applies directly to exam time’, says Mr Petrie. Firstly, he recommends setting a goal and being disciplined: setting a realistic study schedule that combines study and revision time and includes periods of leisure or rest. He also stresses the importance of ‘using time wisely’. He advises students to organise their timetable according to the areas that require the most attention, to divide their studies into fixed periods of intense concentration of the same length as the exams, and to be flexible in their execution. ‘We should not make the mistake of thinking that the more hours we spend studying, the more effective it will be: it is essential to take into account periods of rest, eating, sleeping or exercising in order to make the most of the time spent studying’.
- Implementing learning strategies that work: To be effective, each student must choose the study method that best suits their needs. Mr Petrie suggests a variety of approaches and encourages them to try whichever works best for them, such as interleaving topics when studying, relating ideas, making diagrams, lists and notes, using colour coding, relating ideas to pictures, doing practice tests, explaining the topic to someone else, making mind maps, answering questions in a set time frame, using mnemonics, and so on. The list is endless, ‘but it will only make sense if, at the end of the day, they spend valuable time reflecting on what worked well and what they need to keep working on’.
- Being resilient: Although experts agree that stress should not always be seen as a negative thing, as in the right dosage it can improve concentration, focus and the acquisition of new skills and knowledge — key aspects that facilitate learning and performance — it is also true that when stress exceeds optimal levels it can create feelings of emotional blockage, insecurity, excessive worry or anxiety. This is particularly sensitive at exam time. In his preparation sessions, Mr Petrie emphasises the need to spend time practising resilience to protect young people’s emotional stability. ‘At BSB we teach them coping mechanisms to deal with stress or anxiety. We encourage them to practise meditation, mindfulness or yoga, and we prepare them to calm their minds, either through relaxation techniques such as breathing, or by learning to express their feelings and put their discomfort into perspective’. He adds: ‘We never tire of stressing the importance of maintaining healthy eating habits, getting enough sleep and doing sports or other activities that help them escape and re-energise’.