This year has been a bit of a odd one. Students have been forced to move to online schooling, parents have struggled to cope with juggling working and teaching at home, and students have been worried about how this year may affect some of the most important years of their schooling leading up to GCSE and A-Level exams.
Exams are always a scary time, no matter how confident you feel about them. Sometimes you think that you’ve smashed that exam and done everything right, only to not reach your target grade, barely pass, or sometimes not pass at all. Hopefully, this list of handy tips will get you one step closer to your dream grades and the opportunity to continue in your educational or vocational journey, and achieve what you need to succeed.
Most of these tips will be aimed more towards answers for humanities or written answer exams, but some of the more general tips will work for the long answer questions in a Science exam.
1. Perfect the structure
One of the best pieces of advice that I inherited from my GCSE teachers was: Remember to PEE. Aside from good advice to do before an exam to settle a nervous bladder and to help with concentration in your exam, using a Point, Evidence and Explain structure for each paragraph helped myself and most of my friends keep our answers concise and focused, minimising the nervous exam waffle that many students fall into.
For most of my exams, when planning my structures, I would use a spider diagram with an introduction and conclusion on one side, and three stems, each with a brief idea of what point I want to make. The PEE structure, that I will explain below, would then be used for each of my paragraphs.
Point – What is the question asking you and what point are you trying to make? As I say, I would usually have three strong points, if possible, to cover everything I could without rambling or running out of time.
Evidence – Now you’ve made your point, but how did you come to it? What evidence – whether a quotation or highlighting part of a visual source – are you going to use to show that your point is valid? Sometimes, this evidence doesn’t have to be very much or very obvious, as long as the next part is absolutely water-tight and well-written. I have known students to pick up on the way commas are used within a poem, and create incredible points based solely on that.
EXPLAIN – Arguably the most important part of the whole structure. What do you want to say about this point? How have you come to this point? Why do you think this point is important? What does it tell us about the text? Answering any of these questions in this section should guarantee you a good mark, answering multiple of these should give you a great mark, as long as you make sure to answer the most important: Why is it important and relevant to the question you are trying to answer?
Handy Hint – To help keep yourself on task and focused on the question, and as a bookmark for the exam marker, use the wording of the question in your summary sentence for each PEE paragraph, to emphasis that you understood and are actually answering the question. As my English Literature teacher used to say, “You want to hit the exam marker with these ‘bookmarks’ like a fish to the face. Make. It. OBVIOUS!”
2. Learn how to Develop or Link your Points
This becomes more important at A-Level, but doesn’t hurt to think about for GCSE if you are really wanting the high marks, or if you’re writing an agree/disagree, argumentative answer. Once you’ve mastered a PEE answer, thinking about how to create a PEED or PEEL answer can be the next step up. PEED answers add a layer of development to your explanation, placing the source section of a text or the visual source into the wider context of the whole book, or the era that it’s from, or the work of the author. An example of this could be the section of a story that talks about one character’s feelings for another, and how this section may influences a future event in the storyline.
A PEEL answer, on the other hand, can be really helpful when writing argumentative answers, by linking your points together in each paragraph, rather than just solely in the conclusion, to create a stronger argument overall. This may be how one point influences or leads to your other points – if discussing the rise or fall of a subject within your answer – or by highlighting that all these points are important to the main argument you want to make – for example, if your answer requires you to argue which group is most at fault for something.
Both of these types of answer structures help students to focus even more on keeping their answers concise, as well as how to think outside the box with their answer to find a deeper, more academically developed writing style that will serve them well for the basis of university-level essays.
3. Think about the wider context of your source
To help with explaining or developing your points, here are some lines of inquiry that you can use for yourself to help guide your answer further, especially if you are struggling with a tricky, unseen source.
Think about the author – How does who the author is affect the source? Sometimes this can simply be a question of gender, which can influence the perspective on the writing. An example of this could be a discussion of pregnancy and childbirth, which men and women have different experiences of. This can also usually be a good point to fall back on for an unseen source if the gender of the author is very obvious, and you are unaware of them or their other works. If it is an author you know well, even discussing the work as a whole, if you know the full storyline, or this work in comparison with other works of the author, can help you to identify key themes in their work or highlight their character development, the way they describe landscapes, and their writing style, that can lead to a closer reading of the source, and a better answer overall.
Think about the context – The context can cover a variety of things – the time in which the source was created, the subject the source covers, or the context of the full source in comparison to the section of source being discussed. If a section of a text is given, discussing the specified section against the full source – the full storyline of the book, the rest of the speech, what a visual source may have been used alongside – can further your development and understanding of the source, by emphasising your understanding of the creation of the source against its wider historical or authorial context. This can also be used to highlight why a historical or modern piece of work is important for its era, because it goes against the stereotypical ideas of that age, or to highlight injustices faced by characters in a source due to the historical context the source was created in when those injustices were the ‘norm.’ Emphasising and rationalising your sources against the context in which they were created will help you to develop more interesting answers, and help you to gain higher marks in the end.
4. Prioritise importance of points.
When thinking about the question, after carefully reading your source, it is important to take your time – maybe five minutes or so – to consider the order in which you want to write your answer. This can be for:
- Time purposes – to make sure that your strongest point is first in case you don’t finish the answer fully;
- To provide a foundation for the rest of your answer – highlighting points in chronological order to highlight how things developed over time (best used in an argumentative question within a history context, if discussing the successes or failures of a group, but does have other uses);
- In level of importance, either to you or your argument;
- and sometimes just in the order of most to least obvious point that you picked out during your initial read.
None of these options are wrong, but some work more effectively for particular questions and help you to create a more thorough, dynamic structure and a more successful argument.
Now these tips are all helpful to varying degrees, but how does a student know when they are fulfilling these points and truly writing the best answers they could? We all know teachers would love to be able to do one-to-one in-depth feedback, but unfortunately, there is not enough time in the day. And classroom coursework and exams are two very different environments. So, how do we help these students improve?
Practice! Practising in exam conditions and having these answers marked is one of the best things that I had at my disposal whilst I was at school. However, not every student has access to a teacher that is willing to mark every paper they do, or have friends they trust to mark their work and tell them where they can improve. This is where tutoring can provide an alternative perspective and all the time they need to help these students succeed and focus on raising their answers. This can be through analysing unknown sources and discussing what the student would write in an exam, looking over perfect exam answers and analysing what they could steal to use for their own, looking through the students own answers and marking them together, or through setting exam condition answers for the students to answer in front of the tutor to get them use to those conditions, and potentially help dissipate the nerves a little bit.
Although the schools are only just heading back, it is never too early to think about exam skills, and if you decide to choose We Make Academics to help your student reach their full potential, we will be happy to provide whatever help we can.