The best ways to get your children to revise for their GCSE and A-Level exams

Although summer is eagerly awaited for many, students must first pass their final exams.

In the months leading up to my son’s end-of-year exams, there wasn’t a flashcard or repeat folder in sight. At 15, he’s in his first year of GCSEs so we’re not in a quandary yet, which given that his daily reading is limited to captions on cute puppy tiktoks and my texts urging him to GET YOUR DIRTY BOWL AND BRINGING CUP DOWN Down! is a godsend.

My son is bright and extremely capable (as his frustrated teachers keep telling me), but he’s also completely disconnected from his schoolwork. Homework has always been a struggle; he would much rather play soccer, meet friends, or lie in the bath until his fingers are shriveled and circumcised and watch the pup TikToks.

The school environment of sedentary study at desks never quite worked for him – as it doesn’t for many teenagers. Studies show that girls are more likely to spend time in the classroom more productively, which is why they outperform boys in formal learning at all levels and in every age group, from early years through Sats, GCSEs, high school, university admissions and degree classifications. It’s not just happening in the UK, but in every developed country with few exceptions.

dr However, Jane Gilmour, a consulting clinical psychologist at Great Ormond Street and co-author of The Incredible Teenage Brain, claims that boys have the same learning ability as girls and there is no clear difference between the sexes.

“Learning is underpinned by the brain’s executive function, which is a set of cognitive skills required for self-control and behavior management, and includes skills such as working memory, organization, prioritization, and initiation that underpin academic Predict success very well.” explains Dr. gilmour “There may be individual differences in executive functioning, with everyone having different strengths and weaknesses in learning, but there is no evidence of a gender difference.”

What the formal learning environment of schools fails to do is capitalize on this crucial time in the teenage brain.

“Once puberty hits, the teenage brain is marinated in hormones and has a unique set of drivers,” explains Dr. gilmour “These drivers are the desire for novelty, self-identity, autonomy, peer integration, and following a passion. Didactic teaching in schools is not conducive to young people’s brains and does not exploit these drivers. In order to have pedagogical engagement, schools need to take on the passions of the teenage brain and make the most of it.”

I think of my sociable, athletic son, who loves to crack jokes and listen to music, who is forced to spend most of his day quiet and still – and it makes sense that he would come home desperate for everything to do other than sit quietly and work more a desk.

The only subjects he’s passionate about – and excels at – are PE and English, both of which, unsurprisingly, are taught at his school by teachers who make classes fun and interactive.

But even if a school’s learning style hampers your teen’s motivation, parents can still use the same teen brain drivers to motivate learning at home.

“You can meet their need for autonomy by playing an advisory role and not telling them what to do,” says Dr. gilmour “If he’s calm and you’re calm, ask him what he thinks he should do to motivate himself and what you can do to make his plan run smoothly. Ask him to write his own review schedule—which he’s far more likely to stick to. Encouraging breaks as little daydreams after a phase of concentrated learning actually consolidate what has been learned. The key is that you are the support system but not in control – he is.”

dr Gilmour encourages parents to encourage their teens’ desire for socializing and novelty, too.

“Teens focus on integrating with their peers in ways that never happen before or after that age,” says Dr. gilmour “So harness the power of their social brains and host a study group with his friends to keep them interested. Learning to teach instead of just studying for a test has been shown to lead to better retention, so it’s a win/win strategy. Also mix where they learn. It can feel boring sitting at the same desk in their bedroom night after night, so consider inviting them to a coffee shop where they can work every now and then, or change the scenery and work at the kitchen table.”

Blending their passions with learning will help even a disengaged teen, adds Dr. Gilmour adds, “Can they keep up with the rhythm of repeating a physics equation or a poem? Think about what they can do to make their learning more interesting.”

And if your teen is very disorganized, with loose notes from textbooks, and no system for revising, is it okay to let Marie Kondo have her desk and pay Ryman a small fortune for binders, highlighters, and labels?

“I wouldn’t do the organizing for them, because how are they supposed to learn to organize themselves?” says Dr. gilmour “Try to work together and come to an agreement that something needs to change and develop a system together with your teenager. But it won’t happen overnight, so think about it before exam season if possible.”

One mistake I keep making with my son is telling him that if he doesn’t work he will fail — and adding an especially unhelpful one: “So where will you be then?”

parents, says Dr. Gilmour, should try to provide a quiet “sorting room” and address their own fears of failure before putting them on their child.

“Some students get stressed and overwhelmed during exam season,” says Dr. Gilmour, and a small minority may have more serious mental health problems at this point.

“Parents need to encourage their teens to keep talking and asking how things are going, and when they’re open about their fears of failure, not dismissing them or shutting them down with, ‘Don’t worry, it’ll be okay’ or ‘Go ahead not ridiculous”. Teens need to know that failure is an option and that whether it’s repeating something or doing something else, there’s always a way back. They need to know that their worth does not depend solely on their success in exams or in school.”

For conscientious teens who are all work and no play, there needs to be a different message to counteract their perfectionist streak.

“Look at their schedule and make sure they’re taking appropriate breaks with short bursts of study, followed by waking rest and good sleep, which is the glue for memory,” says Dr. gilmour “If they’re working too hard and they’ve lost their balance, think about why they’re so worried. What do these exams mean to you? What are the messages in the house? Is their studies or exams the first thing you ask them about when they get home? Perfectionist kids need to be told they’re fabulous without being perfect. Reward them for taking care of themselves, taking breaks, and exercising. Take them to an activity that you’re both new to, and if you fail, have fun – they need to know that failure is a life skill and that it’s okay.

Of course, the pandemic has left many teenagers catching up, and parents need to be aware that exams may not be going as well as they would like. “Be prepared and talk to your teenager about this possibility before the results are known and explain that this won’t be the end of the world,” advises Dr. gilmour “On results day, it’s your job to stay on top of things and empathize. Tell them it sucks and it’s really disappointing and don’t jump right into problem solving. The key message they need to hear is that there is always a way back.”

Top tips to help your teen study for his exams

dr Gilmour shares her top tips for helping teens deal with the pressure and thrive The best ways to get your children to revise for their GCSE and A-Level exams

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