My son is in the middle of his GCSE exams, taking a well-earned break from the intensity of revision. It’s part of the annual ritual of exam season for people to bemoan the stress that young people are put under, to demonise terminal exams for their emphasis on memory and to denounce our system’s grading system for placing so much weight on how well students perform in exams.
Whilst I recognise that exams have different effects on different people, I’ve got to say that the exam revision process has been really good for both of my children and I think we should try to keep perspective. The first benefit, as I see it, is they learned to work extremely hard over a sustain period. Sure, they haven’t always loved it – but because we support and value it, normalise it, and because they understand that it will pay off and it’s normalised amongst their peers, they’ve developed an amazing capacity for really intense study – and that only seems like a good thing to me.
The second and most important benefit is simply that the intensity of revision yields so much learning. My daughter had a serious chemistry awakening during her GCSEs. The process of finally getting down into the dirt with it, allowed her to make sense of it all in a way that she found incredibly rewarding. She chose it for A level at a time when she was leaning towards Arts and History. Now she’s studying medicine – where the need to study hard is ever-present.
For my son, we’re seeing a similar effect. Although, over the years, we’ve had various moments of engaging with what he’s learned at school, the GCSE revision period has revealed so much about the depth of his understanding in various subjects. I have captured some of this in some tweets:
Of course it helps to have teacher-parents who can support you can answer your questions when you get stuck. Of course it’s not all plain sailing…. my kids aren’t immune to being nervous or feeling overwhelmed from time to time. And, for sure, that bedroom floor has been tidier:
But I’m absolutely certain that the intensity of the revision process yields so many benefits in terms of learning. This is the period when by reviewing all that has been learned, probing deeply to really make sure that concepts are understood, that key facts and ideas can be recalled when needed – there are learning gains and a depth of understanding that simply wouldn’t arise otherwise. If you have to finally understand something at the level a top GCSE grade demands, you commit to the learning in a way that you might not do otherwise.
Is it worth it? In my view – yes it is. Absolutely. However well my son does in his exams in terms of his grades, he’ll have benefitted from this period hugely – probably for life.
For one thing, he’ll never forget how to rationalise a surd-form denominator. And forever he’ll be able to discuss Shelley and Priestley and say ‘Ou que j’aille, quoi que je fasse’ in French. I doubt he’ll ever forget the meaning of ‘Space is a salvo’ (Heaney) or ‘Suddenly he awoke and was running – raw’ (Hughes). Nobody is going to tell me it’s a bad thing to make kids learn poetry by heart.