• Dushan Attanayake

The difference between ‘working hard’ and ‘working smart’ for your GCSEs

Updated: Dec 23, 2018

Majority of students work hard for their GCSEs, but many wonder why they do not get the desired results of their hard work. There are a number of reasons for this and the methods used by students is one of the main factors behind exam success. Different students start revising for their GCSEs at different stages between year 9 and 11. Some start at the beginning of year 9 and continue all the way until their GCSEs, whereas some start at the beginning of year 9, facing their ups and downs and becoming consistent at some point around year 10 or 11. In my experience as a teacher for almost 15 years, most students start to think about proper revision for their GCSEs in year 10. A minority of students procrastinate until the last minute and unfortunately, a large proportion of them do not obtain the grades they deserve. They may get acceptable grades, but it would always be less than what they could have achieved if they worked at their full potential.

The intention of this article is to explain the difference between ‘working hard’ and ‘working smart’. Many students waste a lot of time with ineffective activities around studying. For example, imagine that you are a year 11 student and need to learn how to solve simultaneous equations for your Mathematics examination. You have had a test recently at school and did not get any marks for the simultaneous equation question as this has always been a difficult topic for you since missing the first lesson on it at school in year 10. Now you are lost and this had an adverse effect on your marks in a few exams.

Let us see how many students would address this issue. A large proportion of them will keep postponing learning topics that they find difficult for various reasons. We, as human beings are quite reluctant to start learning new things owing to a psychological reason. That is we hate to ‘feel stupid’. When everyone around you are capable of doing simultaneous equations, but you do not know how, we hate this feeling and this forms a barrier, preventing us from trying to learn it. You might even deceive your own self by making excuses such as ‘ I am going to do this tomorrow’, ‘I am going to ask my friend to explain this when I meet her’, ‘ I am going to ask my teacher later’, ‘this topic might not be in the test this time’, ‘I am going to eat something now and do this later’. ‘I am going to watch this movie and then do this later’, ‘Now it’s a bit too late and I’m tired, I will do this when I’m feeling better’…etc. But, if you think carefully, you should be able to recognise that these are just excuses that you are making to postpone learning the topic.

Another way of losing your valuable time is to spend a lot of it making the environment for your learning. For example, some students spend a significant amount of time on tasks such as tidying up the room where they are going to study or making a beautiful folder in which they are going to file their work once completed. Some students spend 10-15 minutes writing the topic and decorating/colouring it. All these are acts that are performed to deceive yourself in to thinking that you are doing something related to work, but the productivity of this kind of work is extremely low. People around you (e.g. your parents, teachers, friends etc.) will see that you are engaged in some work, but the effectiveness of your work actually is very minimal. Many students do not want to know how much time they actually spend doing productive work as they know the answer is scary.

But, the problem here is that they will get to know the extent of their irresponsible acts only after they receive their GCSE results. If you face the harsh reality now, there is an opportunity to do something about it.

Let me take another example to explain how a student can spend time on a task, but not make progress. Imagine a student is going to visit one of his/her friend’s place to study together. He might wake up at 7 am and spend 1 hour getting ready and having breakfast etc. and leave home around 8 am. He might walk to the bus stop and wait for a bus and arriving at his friend's place by 8.45 am. They have a chat, eat something, have some tea and then gather books/resources and start to study at 9.30 am. They might study Maths for 1.5 hours and during that time, they might talk about things at school, have a look at their phones, watch some YouTube videos, text some friends..etc. and the effective time of work could only be 45 minutes. Then the first student might leave the friend’s place at 11.15 am and go back to his home by 12 noon. Now, let us do the math and see how effective the studying process was.

Time at which he woke up: 7.00 am Time he came back home: 12 noon Time between 7 am-12 noon: 5 hours Effective study time: 45 minutes (0.75 hrs) Percentage of effective study time: (0.75/5) x 100 = 15% :-(

You might think that this is ridiculous, but many students actually spend their working time in this way and they are so tired by the end of the day even though they have only used something like 15% of their time for actual revision.

So, what can we do to improve the percentage efficiency?

Step 1: Identify the task you want to do. (e.g. Learn how to solve simultaneous equations)

Step 2: List the resources you can use ( e.g. Text books, mathswatch or a similar video resource or even a YouTube video, worksheets, exam questions etc.)

Step 3: Avoid any distractions and start immediately (If the video clip takes only 12 minutes you can agree with yourself to spend that time now rather than procrastinating it.)

Step 4: Start with what matters most. Any topic in your GCSEs have certain bits that comes up almost every year. Learn those parts first and then move on to additional information even if you have to change the order that it appears in your book.

Step 5: Make a flash card on the topic. You do not need everything about the topic on your flash card (a common misconception among students). You just need one good example to remind you of an exam style question. For example, a GCSE Maths simultaneous equations flash card can be just a single exam question solved step by step.

Step 6: Revisit the topic in two days (may be just for 10 mins revision), then in a week and then in about a month. This is important to put the subject in to your long-term memory.

I am certain that you can revise a lot better if you follow the instructions above. There is one certain way to know if your system works. Have a small chat with yourself at the end of the each day and ask the following question.

“Am I in a better shape (academically) than I was at the beginning of the day?”

If the honest answer is “yes”, then you can be certain that it has been a good day. If the answer is “no”, you need to make a plan for tomorrow so that you can have a positive answer by the end of the day. If you have many days with “no” as the answer, you final GCSE grade will not be as good as you want it to be. On the other hand, if you work in a way that your answer to your question is “yes” on majority of days (no one is perfect, hence the word ‘majority’) , you will be a happier student on your results day..!

Dushan Attanayake



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