I have just returned from teaching on an OSC revision course at the Anglo-American school in Moscow, and was impressed by the focus of the students there towards revision, and how well they were able to sustain that focus over a fairly gruelling week. By the time this blog is published I hope to have seen some of you at the Oxford revision courses as well; my aim, and that of all the teachers on OSC revision courses, is to help you fill in gaps in your knowledge, understand your subject better, and – particularly in Maths – provide plenty of directed practice of past paper questions. But, as you get closer to your exams, it’s down to you: what should you be doing to ensure you are as well-prepared as you can be?

In some ways Maths provides an easy path to revision. In other areas you need to read around the subject to improve your knowledge and understanding; learn vocabulary; understand what examiners require from essay questions; have an excellent knowledge and understanding of set texts. But in Maths, all you will be required to do is answer maths questions! You won’t be asked to compare and contrast the approaches of Newton and Leibnitz to the development of calculus; provide a proof of Pythagoras’ Theorem; analyse different mathematical models of the insurance industry. So, in my view, by far the best way to revise is to get hold of as many past paper questions (and their answers) as you can and work through them – preferably on your own – and any problems which arise should then drive your revision.

So what might happen when you work through a question?

  1. You have no problems with it and you get the answer(s) correct. Outcome: a pat on the back, and a tick against that item in the syllabus.
  2. You thought you had nailed it, but when you looked at the answers you were wrong. Outcome: you must find out where you went wrong, either by working through the mark scheme, asking a friend (who is better at maths than you!) or your teacher, or searching on the internet (you will probably find favourite sites which explain things just the way you like it). The important thing then is to try a few more similar questions to make sure you don’t make the same mistakes again; in other words, change the mathematical pathways in your brain.
  3. You know what the question is asking you to do, but you’ve either forgotten or never really understood the method. Outcome: back to your books, your notes, your revision guides. Look for similar worked examples and see if that helps you through the fog. Then try the question again. But also, be realistic: there may be some types of question or areas of the syllabus which, by and large, defeat you. Don’t spend hours if you think you won’t get anywhere – learn your limitations. However, even if you can’t fully answer a question, there are always strategies to gain some method marks – see my next blog on exam technique for more about this.
  4. You don’t really understand what the question is asking you to do, or you get to a “roadblock” – you just don’t know what to do next. Outcome: you will probably have to ask someone to help you through. Then decide whether this was a “one-off” question, not worth spending too much time on since it will never happen again, or an important technique which you need to master because the same type of question occurs often.

The end result should be a series of notes reminding you what you have learnt, and a series of questions to discuss with friends or teachers. Go back to these notes later to ensure that you have really learnt the lessons that past paper practice has taught you, and go into the exam room feeling confident that, although you won’t be able to answer every question, those that you can do you will be able to get the best marks you can.