How to help your students prepare for their first exam

Sitting an exam can be a nerve-wracking experience – especially when, for some students, it may be their first formal external exam in ages. After two years of pandemic, the overwhelming majority of students facing GCSEs, A-levels and others have never sat an external exam in their lives.

However, being able to face this pressure may be a key component of their success. To make the preparation process easier, we have outlined our top 10 tips to help students feel more prepared. Let’s take a look at what they are…

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1. Space out your learning

Little and often is key. Instead of cramming the night before, it is better to space out your learning.

But what des this mean? Well, it’s all about leaving gaps between each study session when revising a topic, to give yourself the time to almost forget the information before re-learning it. As shown in a study, the further away the exam is, the bigger these gaps should be. The researchers found the following timelines to offer a good guideline:

How Far Away The Test Is

7 Days

35 Days

70 Days

350 Days

Gap Between Revision Sessions

3 Days

8 Days

12 Days

27 Days


Does spacing work? Well, having time to forget and re-learn the material makes the information more likely to get cemented into long-term memory. This was also shown in another study, where students who spaced out their revision performed much better (74%) than those who crammed their learning (49%).



2. Avoid looking at your phone

A worryingly high amount of students are addicted to their phones. We now know more about the damages of having their phone nearby when learning are just too big to ignore.

Some of these include:


Overall, it can have a huge impact on their grades. Researchers found that for every 100 minutes a student spends on their phone a day, they drop 6.3 points in their school ranking. Encouraging them to keep their phone away from them when studying, even if they’re not using it, should make a big difference.


3. Test yourself

Students often struggle to figure out which learning strategies to use. This leads to them doing what they prefer, as opposed to what is best for them. Research has constantly shown that one of the most effective strategies is retrieval practice, which requires students to generate an answer to a question.

But why does this work? Well, recalling previously-learned information helps create stronger memory traces. This in turn makes it more likely students will remember the information in the long term.

Some ways to use retrieval practice include:

  • Doing past papers
  • Answering multiple-choice tests
  • Using flashcards
  • Answering questions out loud


4. Surround yourself with positive people

Knowing how to study is only half the challenge; it also helps for students to ensure that they are in the correct mindset. During the exam season, it is easy for pressure to spread. This is known as stress contagion, where one person’s stress causes their peer to become stressed too.

It is therefore important to create a good environment. This can start by students surrounding themselves with positive, supportive people, as it can help relieve their nerves before the exam.


5. Schedule in time for yourself

As well as having a good environment, students also need time to do things they love. Students often believe that during the exam period, they should spend all their time studying. However, this can make them feel overwhelmed and burnt out.

Therefore, scheduling in regular time to do different activities that aren’t about studying or stressing out about exams will help. By implementing this in their revision timetable, they will feel rejuvenated and ready to face what’s coming.


6. Use positive self-talk

Test anxiety happens when students experience severe anxiety when thinking about or taking an exam. This can become an issue if stress levels are very high and hinder their normal functioning, making it difficult to concentrate.

In a study, students reported that a common cause of test anxiety was negative self-talk. This is not surprising: the way you talk to yourself not only affects how you feel, but how well you perform. Therefore, using positive self-talk can be one way for students to overcome test anxiety and help them feel more relaxed for the exam. Some good ways to talk to yourself include:

  • Saying “stop” after a negative thought
  • Using energising language
  • Giving yourself instructions


7. Ask for help from your teachers and support systems

The lead up to an exam can often feel isolating. Reminding students that  there are always people around to support them, whether that be teachers, family, friends or support system, and encouraging them to reach out for help when they need it can make a huge difference.


8. Exercise regularly

Another simple way to help relieve stress is exercising. Not only does it help put people in a good mood, but did you know it also has many academic benefits? These include:

  • Better memory recall
  • Better concentration
  • Enhanced cognitive functioning


9. Get enough sleep

It is recommended that 16–18-year-olds get around 10 hours of sleep at night. However, during exam season, students often get much less. This can have a negative impact on your concentration, memory and recall – getting enough sleep can give students the little boost you need during exams.

Some tips to help students sleep better include:

  • Having a regular bedtime
  • Turning down the brightness of your phone
  • Taking a hot bath before bed


10. Visualise yourself in the exam hall

Visualising successful performance is one technique that can increase confidence and help manage nerves. It is all about students imagining themselves walking to the exam hall, sitting an exam and doing well. Just knowing what to expect can help them normalise their feelings and make the experience less daunting.


Final Thoughts

Sitting their first exam in a long time can be difficult. Students often struggle knowing which learning strategy is best to use, and how to get in the right mindset. Using these top 10 tips can hopefully help them feel more prepared and ready for them.


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