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The challenge of revising in 2016

For students facing A-level and GCSE exams in 2016, getting revision right is more important than ever as the changing nature of exams adds extra uncertainty to the task.

Update March 23 2016. OFQUAL to allow a final retake of old exams. Read our news item about retaking for further details

Revision has been a unwelcome aspect of learning ever since teaching began. Sooner or later, exploring the subject must give way to the tense business of preparing for exams. Every year a fresh group of students grapple with revision, relying on experience of exams past, help from teachers and their own ability to plan and to cope with stress. How to do all that effectively is described in our series of revision articles.

Last year students could expect the task to lead towards a well-signposted destination - they were preparing for exams which had been around for a while and which posed a familiar set of challenges. But this year the nature of the exam is changing, and students are entering uncharted territory. The major reform to A levels and GCSE, described in more detail in 'The new A-level and GCSE exams, is the most radical changes for years, and even students whose programme doesn't include any 'new style' exams need to be aware that the context of the exams they face is less forgiving than it was in 2015.

Students taking A level in June 2016 will be taking the old, familiar syllabuses, but for just over half of the subject entries (the 'Phase 1 subjects' which comprise around 56% of the total A-levels taken), this is the very last time that 'old' exam will be set. Unless the powers-that-be relent and allow a final resit session in 2017, anyone wanting to improve a grade in one of those 'Phase 1' subjects will not only have to wait until 2017 but will have to take the 'new' A level, involving a different syllabus and a different exam format in which the whole two years' work will be examined at once. Retaking will thus be a lot harder in future - yet more reason to get revision right in 2016. Good news announced on 23 March 2016 ! There will be a final retake opportunity.

Students half way through the sixth form face a complex patchwork of exams this summer. Those not taking Phase 1 (new) syllabuses will take the old AS exams as before, but in Phase 1 subjects, while there's still an AS exam available in summer 2016, it won't contribute anything to the A level score. Whether students take the new AS is up to their school, and many schools have decided against using it. However, any new AS exams taken have to be declared on university applications, so students must take them seriously! Those schools which have abandoned the new AS face a different challenge: what sort of exams to set at the end of lower sixth and how to get students to take them seriously. Threatening poor UCAS predictions for poor internal exam results may or may not do the trick.

And then there are the students coming up to GCSE exams, which have also become tougher. High GCSE results remain crucial for getting into a good sixth form and for university entrance two years later. Although university admissions tutors look very carefully at GCSE results, at the moment a good performance at AS can offset disappointing GCSEs. If the new AS isn't so widely available an increasing number of university applicants will find their GCSE results are the only public exam they have to show. That puts even more emphasis on getting GCSE revision right first time

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