If there is one thing that teachers, parents and – of course – pupils have discovered now all phases of GCSE reform have gone through is that exams are getting tougher.

The challenge has been ramped-up in several ways. First of all, in terms of the number of GCSEs that students now have to sit. With the emphasis firmly shifted away from coursework, most subjects are now assessed by two exams (each typically at least 1 hour 30 minutes long).

Most subjects have also done away with tiering – meaning that a ‘Grade 1’ student will be faced with exactly the same exam paper as a ‘Grade 9’ student. And – last but not least – the questions are just harder than they were before – with more demands placed on students to write extended responses as well.

Students often ask if there is a secret to success in exams. The Key to Success (or something similar) has probably been the subject of literally thousands of Year 11 assemblies up and down the land over the years.

But what is the answer? Is there a secret?

Consistent hard work is the key

Of course, the best preparation for success in any exam and any subject is consistent hard work throughout a course. Generally, if a student always tries their best in lessons, commits to homework, and revises on a regular basis (not just when an exam is looming), they are positioning themselves to succeed.
At the end of the day – typically – most students do ‘get what they deserve’ in exams. The old message of ‘getting out what you put in’ to something generally rings true with exams.
But, it’s not quite as simple as that. Especially with the new regime of reformed GCSEs, working hard – even really knowing your stuff – doesn’t guarantee success.

Facing 15-20 gruelling exams in a condensed time period is a tough ask. Even the best-prepared can buckle under pressure.

Revising a little a lot and giving yourself space

A complete cynic might say that some GCSE courses have now been reduced to little more than two years of ‘Exam Preparation in…’ Certainly, students are getting much more exam practice than ever before. This is unsurprising, with some courses now being assessed by 100% terminal examinations.

Students should at least be better practised and prepared for exams. It’s still good advice to avoid ‘cramming’. Research shows that if you put space in-between revision sessions on the same topic, it gets better results. So, 45 minutes of revision on ‘Macbeth’ one evening followed by 45 minutes the following day is going to be more productive than a single 3-hour marathon.

You don’t need to have an exam to revise

Most people wouldn’t dream of revising a topic unless they have an exam coming up. Wrong!
If a student writes down a list of all the topics that they could (or will) be asked questions on in their exams, they would end up with a daunting (and mammoth) list. This is why you can’t simply leave revision until you have an exam coming up.

Getting into the habit of spending a bit of time at the end of each week revising or brushing up notes on the topics that have been learned that week is a really smart move.

Make revision active not passive

As well as making revision part of the weekly routine, it also needs to be active. For most learners, passive reading of pages and pages of revision notes is unlikely to have the desired effect. We tend to learn best by doing. It’s always advisable to do something with notes –

even making a new set of notes from the original notes is better than simply reading through them.

Practice makes perfect

As previously mentioned, most schools are giving their students more opportunities for exam practice since the emphasis of assessment shifted so heavily in favour of formal exams.

But still, although exams are about demonstrating knowledge (and remembering ‘stuff’ about a topic), ultimately success is defined by the extent to which students actually do what a question has asked them to do.

Too often students write down what they can remember on a topic and don’t answer the question specifically enough. Students need to understand explicitly what the demands for each type of question are. There should be no surprises when they turn over the exam paper.

This is why practising exam responses – in a formal setting, and in the classroom or for homework – needs to be done throughout the duration of any course. Practice really does make perfect.


1- Exam season looms: keep mental health in mind
2- How to move from modular to linear exams
3- Exams – How could they be done differently?
4- Should the SATs be boycotted?
5- Is our obsession with testing ruining education?