A Guide to Passing Your A Levels

A Guide to Passing Your A Levels

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For some students, the mid-August A Level results have been either a celebration or a time of disappointment. With the late-August announcement of GCSE results also imminent, the focus is once again thrown onto how students are taught, how they learn, and how students revise, along with exam techniques.

There is no magic formula – passing any exam, including an A Level, is about reading widely around your subject, understanding the question being asked, answering the question, revising well and putting in plenty of effort and time.

And so this guide is for you! We have hints and tips on everything from revision techniques to essential exam techniques, all of which are great for when you are facing your A level exams early next year.

Stay on Track with Your Course
Any A Level course is a significant step up from its GCSE level. These are not a qualification that can be picked up within a few weeks of the exam (although some students seem to pull this off, this is not recommended!).

For any A Level student, a prime piece of advice would be to stay on track with your course. For long distance and home learners, this can be difficult without a schedule of classes and field trips to attend. This means that you need to create a timetable.

  • Timetable – Just like you would have if you physically attended school or college, create a timetable for each coming week and stick to it. However, this is the best bit about flexible learning: if you need to shift your study time around due to unforeseen circumstances, you can adjust!

Tip – why not create a long-term timetable, similar to those found in school or college terms? Create a timetable for a 6 or 8-week block, or create one that fits with the broad modules and topics of your chosen A Level.

  • Read, Read, Read – Most A Level courses some with a recommended reading list. The course may not refer to each and every book in the course documents, but reading widely around your subject will help you to understand differing opinions and ideas on certain topics.

Tip – vary your reading with textbooks (you can buy second-hand textbooks online for a few pence!), journals, online journals and other authoritative websites. Make use of your commute time by reading a few pages from course notes or textbooks downloaded on your e-reader.

  • Recap and Review – When you reach the end of the topic before you move on to the next, perform a recap and review exercise. This takes a little pre-planning before you start the topic, but here’s broadly how it works:
  1. BEFORE you start a topic, ask yourself key questions:
    1. What do you already know about the topic?
    2. What do you need to know?
  2. AFTER you have completed the topic, ask yourself the same questions again:
    1. What do you know about the topic now?
    2. What else do you need to know – and how can you find these answers?

Tip – produce your own summary sheet whilst the topic is fresh in your mind. This helps to jog your memory when it comes to revising each topic.

Revision Techniques
Most A Levels consist of a course spanning several weeks and an examination, sometimes two, at the end of the course. Thus, it is imperative that you use a variety of revision techniques to make sure you recap all the topics covered prior to the exam.

  1. Make a revision plan

woman sat on grass drawing on a notebook
Before we plunge headlong into revision techniques, the first step is to make a revision schedule for the coming weeks. A Level exams and courses are comprehensive, and so you will need to start recapping and revising course content several weeks before your exam date:

  • Note the date and time of each exam
  • Make a list of topics that will be covered
  • Create your schedule around these topics, making sure you devote enough time to each
  • Don’t be too rigid with your revision timetable – imposing a strict routine can exacerbate pre-exam stress and nerves. Accept that there will be days that you will not feel like revising. Rather than pressing ahead (possibly wasting time) use your time to do something productive instead. Stretch, go for a walk, cook a meal or tidy your room.
  1. Get everything together

You have likely noticed during your course that the more organised you are, the easier your work seems to flow. This is certainly true when it comes to revision.

If you only have half an hour between work and picking up the kids, spending half of this time searching for sticky notes and a stapler is wasting valuable time. So, before you start revising, tidy your workspace, gather all your learning tools – now you’re ready for revision techniques.

  1. Topic by topic

Consult your topic ‘end notes’ that you created when you finished each topic in order tojob your memory. Create a mini-schedule for each topic to ensure that you get through everything that you need to.

Revision is not just reading notes – it is about questioning the information you have in front of you and how you can apply it to exam questions. Your revision needs to be active and upbeat. There are times when you need to practice writing (see Point 5), but chanting rhymes, having sticky notes around the house, flip cards for key points etc. are all valuable learning tools.

  1. Revision tools and techniques

There are many ways that people revise. Some may suit you while others may not. Why not try some from the list below and see what works for you:

  • Create your own notes – Using headings and sub-headings, create notes on the topic, noting the main points, issues, key dates and names.
  • Create mind maps – Put the topic at the centre of the mind map and branch out from there. Consider the main points and how they connect to one another. Also, bear in mind how this topic connects with others within the course. REMEMBER – don’t revise topics in isolation, as you may need to marry two or three topics together in the exam.
    girl studying
  • Create a timeline of events/topics etc. – Sometimes ordering information along a timeline can be useful, especially across topics and subject areas. Creating a timeline of events or ideas is a brilliant way of re-ordering information and tying things together.
  1. Practice A level exam questions

It is essential that you not only know what you are facing in the upcoming A Level exam, but you also know the format, what you need to do and the time you have to do it in.

Importantly, you also need to practice exam questions.

      • Format and instructions – Each exam board for A Level courses have different formats for their exams, and so it is important that you know what you are doing. For example, are you answering two out of three questions? Are you writing an exam answer that is 1,000 words, or do you need to write an answer worth 35 marks? Understanding what you are going to face in the exam room and how to tackle the paper is critical to success. Past paper questions are available online, and may also be provided as part of your A Level course.
      • Read the question – Read the question thoroughly, and make notes on the exam paper. Once the exam has started, the exam paper is yours to keep. When you enter the exam room, you will be told what to do and when. Some people suggest that you should first read through the whole paper and decide which questions you will answer from each section.
      • Underline keywords in the question – Look for what the question is asking you. For example, is it asking you to ‘describe’ or ‘explain’? Is it asking you to ‘discuss’ or ‘examine’ a certain topic? Underline the keywords and make notes – what topics do you want to bring in, what quotations can you recall that answer the question?
      • Check your answers against marked assignments – You will find a variety of information and tools online, one of which includes the ‘marking schemes’ that examiners across the country use when they mark A Level exam papers. These are published after each exam has been marked. This means that when you have answered your practice questions, you can compare your answer to that given by previous students and the mark that they received.
      • Timed assignments – Timed assignments that mimic exam conditions are provided to schools and colleges across the country. Do the same for yourself, making sure you stick to the timing that you would allocate in the exam. REMEMBER – you will only be allowed the time allocated and no more.

      Top Tip –You should spend more time on a question worth 25 marks than on one worth 10 marks.

      Level courses are the stepping stones needed to access higher education, such as university degree courses and other vocational courses.
      With revision and hard work, you will pass your A level exams!

Nick Cooper
Nick is NCC's resident blog author and covers a range of subjects, including teaching and health & social care. NCC is an international learning provider with over 20 years’ experience offering learning solutions. To date, NCC has engaged with over 20,000 employers, and delivered quality training to over half a million learners.
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