Senior Tutor, Matthew Uffindell, gives his time-tested advice for revising A level English examinations.
1. Know you assessment objectives
This means knowing the particular information required to gain marks in an examination and the percentage of the marks the examiner will be giving for context, critical perspectives, comparisons with other texts etc. in each of the questions. Some answers simply do not require all the information you may want to write down – and some may require more. Your examination specification won’t be the most exciting read of your life, but at least you will know what is being tested! It’s your examination, so look at the examination board websites for the information.
2. Know what to practise
For an essay-writing examination like English you need to practise what you will be doing in the examination – writing timed essays. And practice makes perfect. Exactly what you practise is crucial, so this point is connected to the first tip. However, in addition to Assessment Objectives, remember to weave in the facts you learn to enable you to develop your argument. Memorising that a particular passage in a text is an example of irony probably won’t help much until you have had the experience of working your example into an actual written answer. Ask a friend to try to identify the Assessment Objectives you think you have put into your essays – it’ll be good practice for both of you!
3. Know the point you want to make
Always practise linking facts to the meaning of the text in your revision essays.
The next tip, following from the previous one, is that you should always practise linking facts to the meaning of the text in your revision essays. Looking at students’ notations on texts, one often sees isolated words or phrases such as ‘alliteration’ or ‘iambic pentameter’.
Essays are not lists of literary jargon but an argument, so it’s not very helpful for the examiner if you write: ‘This is an example of antimetabole in Richard II.’ So what? Your knowledge may sound impressive, but the examiner wants to know the link between the fact you know and the point you are making (and also whether it is answering the question). You might know the meaning of ‘antimetabole’ but unless you can show how the grammar of the sentence ‘shapes meaning’ (in the language of the Assessment Objective) then I’m sorry to say the examiner will remain mostly unimpressed.
4. Know what you’re answering
This tip is as simple and as obvious as it gets! The most common complaint of examiners is that students simply dump knowledge indiscriminately onto the page, regardless of the question asked. The questions at A level will actually be framed (to the surprise of most students) in a way that helps you address the Assessment Objectives – and you now know how important they are! So practise answering the question – and as another extra tip, plan your essay for a few minutes to ensure you write a brief introduction, a logical development and a brief conclusion to your essay.
5. Know your texts
Really? Well, again, this sounds a statement of the obvious – but it’s alarming how many students won’t have read all their texts…
Many, for example, will be vague about the minor characters or important developments of the plot.
If you really are panicking about your lack of knowledge in these last few weeks, my advice (for remedial action only) is the following:
- choose half a dozen passages now (of a page or so in length) and;
- concentrate on a close analysis of the language of each;
- move on to another half a dozen more when you are ready.
These steps will help you avoid unnecessary panic, restore some confidence and really contribute to your knowledge and understanding of the text.
And after five positive action points, here are five possible errors to avoid in the examination itself:
- Don’t misspell the name of the author (or the title of the text, characters, etc.)
- Don’t write in incomplete sentences
- Don’t ask rhetorical questions
- Don’t use slang
- Don’t try to be humorous.