Some exam technique tips for the new GCSE

Reports are filtering in to Flying Colours Towers about the mock exams recently taken by year 11s. Words like 'bloodbath' and 'disaster' feature prominently (my students, I should add, have acquitted themselves well and are in line to be mentioned in dispatches for bravery.)

There's a reason the new-style papers are generating significantly lower scores than their counterparts from last year: the new papers are going rather further into the syllabus at the top end at the expense of a few less demanding questions at the beginning. Where a candidate around the old B/C borderline might have expected to get on a roll with the first few questions and bank 10 or 15 easy marks, this year's paper is unlikely to be so generous.

So, what can you do, if you're aiming for a 5 – a grade somewhat better than a C used to be, but not quite an old-timey B? You can employ some exam technique, of course.

Some suggestions:

  • Expect it to be tough. Even if you're used to getting 90+% on tests, the new paper is likely to challenge you. Adjust your expectations accordingly: don't think about the marks you're dropping, think about the marks you're picking up.
  • Write down relevant information. I expect the grade boundaries, especially in the higher paper, to be quite low. You will get marks for making a reasonable start on a question, and those add up quickly.
  • Slow down and read carefully. This is my top tip for these exams: you can't just say 'this is a ratios question, and this is how I do ratios questions, bish bash bosh' any more; you need to look at the information you're given and try to understand the situation carefully. Your ratios skills (for example) will play a part, but the days of predictable template questions are gone.
  • Revise your formulas. It used to be that you had a page of information telling you trig rules and shape formulas – that's gone. You need to know those. Use something like Anki to test yourself so you can generate them in your sleep.
  • Don't panic. If you go in and expect everything to be obvious and easy, you are likely to stumble and get distressed. It's rough, if you have two or three questions in a row you can't make head or tail of – but that doesn't mean the next one will also be impossible for you. Do what you can.

I sympathise, by the way: the roll-out of the new papers has been somewhere between shambolic and inept; as I say, I expect the grade boundaries to reflect that. Best of luck!

* Edited 2016-12-19 to include advert for Exam Technique, an excellent gift for anyone with an imminent GCSE.


Colin is a Weymouth maths tutor, author of several Maths For Dummies books and A-level maths guides. He started Flying Colours Maths in 2008. He lives with an espresso pot and nothing to prove.


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