The holidays are ending and a new term is upon us. With a fresh group of Year 12 students chomping a the bit to get started on their A level course, I thought I'd post a few tips on what you need to do to get an A or A* Grade in A level Religious Studies, though I'm sure many of the points apply just as well to other subjects. Most of them are pretty straightforward, but in my experience, successful students tend to do the basics consistently and do them well. So here we go...
- Put the work in. Attend every lesson, complete all the work set. In the event that you are absent for a lesson, don't wait to be asked to catch up on the work you've missed.
- Learn the jargon. You have a bewildering bunch of technical terms and strange names to get your head around: The Irenaen theodicy, Anselm's ontological argument, the fallacy of composition. You know the sort of thing, or at least you will. Write new terms into a vocabulary book or word list, and use mind maps to help you keep a grip on how they all fit together.
- Act on feedback. Those words your teacher scribbles in red next to your grade are not just there for decoration, they're actually the important bit. Your grade is like one of those "you are here" arrows on a map. The comments are (or should be) like a set of directions that tell you how to get to where you want to be. Read feedback carefully, act on it, and your work will improve.
- Talk in class. No, I don't mean about last night's Geordie Shore or, or that totes amazing party at the weekend. Ask questions. Clarify concepts and ideas if you are unsure. Participate in class discussions and respond to the contributions of your fellow students. Answer your teacher's questions, and don't be afraid of giving the wrong answer sometimes: you learn more from one wrong or half-right answer than you do from a thousand "I don't know" shrugs.
- Read. Questions. Carefully. Your A level grade isn't determined (at least not directly) by how clever you are or how hard you've work over the two years of your course, but by how well you can deploy knowledge and arguments that are directly relevant to the questions that appear on your exam paper. Whether you're completing an essay for homework or you've just turned over your final exam paper, take the time to read the question carefully and think about exactly what it's asking you do. Take it from me me, this is important: The last three minutes of my A level Sociology exam consisted of blind panic and a desperate attempt to write and the disabled above every other sentence. Not fun.
- Plan your essays. Again, this will help you to keep your answer relevant to the question. Your plans for homework essays should be detailed, but you should take a minute or two to sketch out a quick essay plan even in exams.
- Read widely. There is not enough time in lessons to cover every possible theory, argument or philosopher. To bag that A grade, you'll need to do some reading yourself. As well as your textbook, your classroom or school library has a whole bunch of other books, journals, and newspapers. Read them, and make notes on everything you read.
- Revise smarter. Revision should be constant throughout the year, and your serious revision should start a couple of months before your exam, not a couple of nights before it. Use your course syllabus to assess your own knowledge and plan your revision to address any gaps or weaknesses. Resist the temptation to focus on material you 're already comfortable with. Make your revision active: Don't just read through notes or your textbook, use them to produce plans, essays, and mind maps, or memorable stories, acrostics, and rhymes. Better still, learn from memory experts and use peg and loci techniques in your revision.
- Know what examiners are looking for. Exam mark schemes can be found online through your exam board's website. Use these to self-assess your work: How do you think an examiner would mark it? You can also find examiners' comments for specific past paper questions, which outline the material expected in a good answer. If you find something you don't know or aren't confident with, you need to learn it.
- Don't settle for less than an A. If you hand in some homework that gets below an A grade, use that feedback I mentioned in #3 to re-write it so that it's worth an A, then get your teacher to remark it. If you're using a computer to write your essays, improving them should actually be pretty quick. You're aiming to build up a store of good essays to revise from.
- Tackle as many essay questions as possible. If you look back at past papers, you'll notice that the same questions tend to repeat themselves in different years, perhaps with slight changes. Use past papers to compile a list of previous questions, and brainstorm with friends on other topics that might come up. Write answers for as many of these as you can, or create detailed essay plans, and use them in your revision. The more questions you've tackled, the better prepared you'll be for your exams.
- Practice writing in exam conditions. Fairly self explanatory, but get in the habit of writing timed essays without your notes in front of you.
- Work co-operatively. Share your best essays a revision resources with colleagues and copy theirs to revise from (this does not mean copying their homework!) Swap revision resources. Revise in pairs or as part of a group.
- Develop an academic style of writing. A proper description of essay technique really deserves a separate post. Briefly, remember to use a formal essay structure with introduction, a main body set out in paragraphs, and a conclusion. Pay attention to spelling, punctuation and grammar, and use relevant religious/philosophical vocabulary. Make sure your essay consistently addresses the question and avoid waffle. It takes time to develop a good essay style, but wider reading and drafting essays will help.
- Learn how make an argument. This links to the point above on essay technique. About a third of the marks available on your exam paper depend on your ability to put forward a reasoned argument. A good argument puts forward a clear point of view, supported by evidence. It also considers opposing views and shows why they are unconvincing, again using relevant evidence. Don't wait until your conclusion to give your point of view, make your overall argument clear from the first paragraph.
If all that sounds too complicated, a simpler method is this one outlined by Libby Ahluwalia (whose books you should go and buy immediately):
One method is to attend all the lessons, do all the work set, read and act on the feedback, read around the subject and start revising no later than March... another method is - no, there is no other method.
Great advice. If you think I've missed anything out or have any ideas of your own, please post a comment below.