Exams cancelled? Think like a university student to get ahead


A-level exams in England, Wales and Northern Ireland have been cancelled, along with Highers in Scotland. It’s not yet clear what the replacement for these exams will look like, and many students may be feeling anxious or despondent about their prospects.

However, some kind of assessment will take place – so now is not the time to give up on studies and revision. One way for students to take control is to adopt university-style ways of working.

This can help A-level and Highers students prepare for the potentially varied forms of assessment ahead, and will provide them with a head start if and when they make the transition to university. These tips will also help to maximise the skills that employers value.


University students – and lecturers – often work together, using online platforms such as TrelloSlack and Zoom. A-level students can use their tech skills to set up a peer group on one of these platforms and arrange for each person to take it in turns to give a short overview of a topic they feel confident about. Asking questions means that knowledge on that topic will increase, both individually and collectively.

The chances are that someone will cover the area another person in the group lacks confidence in, so everyone benefits. This is exactly what happens in seminars and conferences, and is how people learn collectively and advance ideas.

Be proactive

Making small changes can lead to better grades. Students should reflect on occasions when they got good marks, and review feedback from teachers to identify recurring weak points. Asking teachers for help in tackling these points can lead to quick wins.


While the exact form of the upcoming assessments are unknown, they are likely to involve writing, such as essays and reports, and verbal communication techniques such as presentations. Communicating clearly when writing and speaking is vital to all of these assessments.

A good way to increase confidence in communication is to identify no more than three key points on a topic and present them in clear, simple language. Practice explaining why things happen and why they matter. Communication doesn’t have to be in essay form. It can be as a blog, on video, as a slidedeck with pictures – the point is to convey a message clearly.

Play to your strengths

We learn and take in information in different ways. Some people like reading a newspaper, others watch the news on TV. Personally I prefer the radio. Recognising our learning preferences can be helpful in identifying why we find learning some things easier than others.

Those who take in visual information most easily could make use of coloured pens and try creating a mind map as a revision tool or study plan. Others who prefer creative writing could use a reflective log or diary to note key points, phrases and how they feel about them.

It helps to vary the format: write a haiku or limerick about Trump’s presidency, for instance. And don’t dismiss this as ridiculous. PhD students take part in activities such as “bake your PhD”, presenting their research in cake form, or three-minute thesis competitions, where they present their work in a very short space of time. Activities like these provide a way for students to creatively explain ideas in simple ways.

Make use of varied resources

Watching television and playing games can contribute to learning. A-level students can make use of the new BBC resources. Watching TV shows such as Blackadder can help in thinking about history. Even Fortnite and e-games can help – they require the verbalisation of precise instructions and quick decision-making.

Another option is to practise debating – taking a stance on an issue and defending it with evidence-based arguments. This could take place among friends or family and cover any topic, serious or silly. It is a skill that is very important at university.

Be compassionate

This is a very difficult time for school students. It’s important to remember to take breaks, get fresh air and reward hard work, such as putting together study notes on a difficult topic or completing the questions in a past exam paper.

If we have learnt anything this last year, it is that we need young people who are flexible, resilient, creative, articulate and able to solve problems. Now is the time for them to hone their skills and prepare to help change the world.

Author Bio: Karen Clegg is Head of Research Excellence Training at the University of York