Yay. Exam-time is upon us. That couple of month stretch where the most I could hope for is not shouting so much I lost my voice, or using language that would put my [lazy, idle and frankly ungrateful] little angel into therapy.
To help my son sort out his revision – and to help me keep my cool – I’ve worked up an agile project based method. It helps his track what he needs to do and how he’s progressing. Each of us work in different ways and if you – or your child – find it hard to focus on what to do this might be a helpful aid. It works around a scrum style board, a backlog of revision topics and a way of tracking what’s been done.
Procrastination, the reviser’s worst enemy
When I was doing exams there was nothing worse that facing the blackhole that was revision. I’d had timetables, of course. But when confronted with a looming 2 hours of history, for example, I’d spend 30mins sharpening pencils and looking for a fresh index card, then 30 mins pondering what to study. The next half an hour might be brushing up on a topic I was already familiar with, to boost my confidence. Leaving ample time for a final burst of self congratulation that everything is in hand.
My son is about to do his GCSEs and the apple hasn’t fallen far from the tree. Through out mocks he spent unproductive time at a desk shuffling paper, because that was the lesser of two evils (the other being a ban from iPhone, friends and sunlight for the rest of his natural life). Rather than repeat the mistakes of the past – his and mine – we’ve approached this a little differently. It is definitely a little over the top. But in my defence it is as much about him getting into good behaviours for later life. And who doesn’t love a good spreadsheet and whiteboard combo?
How we worked it – the preparation
Key to success was to take the thinking out of what to study and when. So we (by which I mean I) went through his exam boards to find out what topics he had covered in his exams. You can’t do this by looking through text books. At least not his. Each exam board has really comprehensive syllabus guides – look them up on Google. And to be fair a number of his teachers had given them to him too.
For some topics, like Business studies, the topics are fairly self contained; Marketing, Accounting, etc. While for others there might be sub topics. Geography is split into 3 categories of Population, Natural Environment and Economic Development. Then each of these have half a dozen subtopics.
The idea is that I reduced the topic to a level that could be done in less than an hour. This list of items (about 192) became his “backlog“. It was everything that he would need to be fully prepared for his exams. Now all he had to do was the work…
The Scrum board
His mum writing to do lists and timetables hadn’t ever worked before. The trick here was for him to be involved in this and active. But before that could happen we needed a whiteboard, magnets and sharpies. Each item was written onto a magnetic strip.
Then the fun of creating the scrum board – a cheap magnetic whiteboard marked out with bits of black tape. Firstly a grid to represent days and hour slots. The rest was space for the backlog items.
The first Sunday we sat down and work out what available time there was. Marking out things like school, sports, clubs and parties. With the available time we allocated an item to a unit of available time. Sometimes an item might span two units. Other times two items might fall inside an hour unit. We definitely got more a feel for this as we went along.
As strange as it sounded, when talking to someone intrinsically lazy, it was important to get across that each unit would include a 10 min break at the end. And on full days we’d allow extra breaks, lunch etc. You can’t keep going to too long. This was all about effectively studying, not just spending loads of time at it. How much he could achieve in a week varied, but we were aiming for about 10 units a week.
Then at the end of the first week – and every Sunday after – we go through the board. He’s 16, so this has to be quick a painless. But a quick chat about how the last week’s gone is really useful. The board is then cleaned out of ‘done’ items. Anything not closed was move back to the backlog. No recriminations. It still has to be done.
The last task of the week is to get the board ready for next week. So availability is sorted out and then new items are allocated to free units. Monday comes and he knew EXACTLY what he had to do. No faffing in sight.
I guess the same effect could easily be achieved with a week to view calendar and a biro, or post its on a wall. The point stays the same; be really clear about what is being done.
The spreadsheet came about because I am a nerd. It was a great way of showing how far he’d come and also keep a sense of perspective (and healthy focusing fear) over what was left to do. Each topic and sub-topic was written into the spreadsheet. e.g.
Each Sunday, when he was confident that he’d done an item and it was cleared from the board, we marked them as completed. The summary sheet would give a really quick view of how things were going.
To keep things in perspective I also added the exam dates. This way we knew what to panic about with a frame of reference!
Yes this is over the top. He’s doing his GCSEs. But given my own experience, getting into good habits now is critical as he’s mapping out a career that will have more exams through A-Levels and beyond. Breaking bad habits only gets harder the longer you live with them!
We’re about 4 weeks into doing this now and it’s going well. Really well. And no matter what happens he can feel really proud that he’s put a lot into these exams.