Planning for success in your AS-Level exams

graduation success 300x200It is difficult to overestimate the importance of one’s AS level results. For most students, the AS level exams provide the final school-leaving certificate which is used to gain entry into university, other tertiary study options, or perhaps to apply for a job. If one’s results are poor, one may miss life-changing opportunities such as the opportunity to study medicine or engineering, or even the opportunity to enter university at all.

Apart from the formal issues like results and recognition, effective study at AS level helps to prepare a young person intellectually and personally for future studies, for the working world, and for life in general. 

Unfortunately, it often happens that students who expected to excel in their AS level exams fail to achieve the results they hoped for, and are forced either to repeat some or all of their AS level subjects, or to choose a very different career option — both of which are highly demoralizing. Is there anything that can be done to avoid this unfortunate situation?

I do believe that there are a few important principles which, if diligently applied, will help students to excel in their AS level exams.

1. Don’t be beguiled by good results at the IG level

Did you obtain excellent results at the IG level? Wonderful! Be encouraged! But don’t allow those good results to make you overconfident or complacent about your AS level studies.

The IG subjects are designed to develop 'creative thinking, enquiry and problem solving'. They are very good at this, and expose students to a fairly wide range of topics in each of the subjects. However, the IG curricula do not require in-depth technical knowledge. AS level, on the other hand, requires much higher order skills like in-depth subject knowledge, technical skills associated with the subject, independent thinking, the ability to make judgements, recommendations and decisions. (See here and here for details of the skills required at the IG and AS levels respectively.)

Because of the substantially higher cognitive abilities required at AS level, most good students who work very hard on their AS level studies will find that their results drop between 5% and 10% from IG to AS level. A small number of exceptional students, who also work very hard, will be able to maintain or improve on their IG results. Students who do well at IG level and think they can coast at AS level may well find that their final marks for AS level are 20-30% lower than their IG results.

2. Be an active learner

One of the most important principles of education is this:

Learning results from what the student does and thinks and only from what the student does and thinks. The teacher can advance learning only by influencing what the student does to learn (Herbert A. Simon). [Ref.]

We all understand that we need to be physically active to develop our bodies. A soccer player will never learn to dribble the ball simply by watching his coach weave rings round the defence. A weight-lifter will not develop the muscles required to bench-press 150 kg just by watching his trainer do so. In the same way, you will never develop the skills required at AS level just by listening to a tutor, watching videos online, or reading a text book. Developing the brain involves actual physical changes in the brain itself, and this only happens through intense engagement in the appropriate learning activities. In English you must practise writing text analyses; in Biology you must write explanations of biological processes; in Maths you must actually solve problems.

It goes without saying that you need expert guidance to provide you with the appropriate learning activities in each subject. Good text books will do this to some extent, but you may also need to obtain well-designed study guides and enlist the help of expert tutors. If you don’t have the right learning activities you can spend a lot of time on a subject (say, reading and summarizing the text book, memorizing definitions, etc.) without gaining the skills expected of you at AS level.

3. Learn to evaluate yourself realistically

Failure to evaluate oneself realistically may be one of the biggest reasons for disappointment at AS level. For whatever reason, a student may believe he has mastered a subject, only to be deeply disappointed by his exam result. This is often an indication that he did not learn to evaluate his abilities realistically. This problem is not peculiar to Cambridge studies; research has shown that people in general battle to estimate their strengths and weaknesses accurately, and that students in particular tend to overestimate their abilities.

How should an AS level student address this particular problem? Here are some pointers:

  1. Expose yourself, as early on as possible, to the type of challenges and problems you will encounter in the final exam. A good study guide will help you with this.
  2. Get a realistic assessment of your performance. This will often require the assistance of an experienced subject expert, preferably one who understands the Cambridge system. In subjects like English or Biology, where answers require written explanations and discussions, it is usually essential to enlist the help of a subject expert.
  3. When you mark your own work, say using model answers for mathematics exercises, compare your answer very carefully to the model answer. Take note of details that are easy to ignore. Take note how the model answer approaches the question and how the answer is set out. Be strict on yourself and get advice from a subject expert if you don’t understand where you are going wrong. Remember, it is in the nature of the case that you will miss things which are obvious to a subject expert, so don’t allow yourself to be left in ignorance.
  4. Adjust your approach to your studies in the light of these assessments. Ask yourself questions like, why does my answer look so different from the model answer? how can I approach this problem differently? what relevant knowledge and skills did I fail to apply?
  5. Allow at least four to six weeks before the final exam to practise past papers. At first, you may use the past papers to identify areas of the curriculum that you need to revise, but before long you should be writing the paper under exam conditions in the allotted time. Write as though you were going to submit your answer to an examiner. Don’t just read over the questions and ‘answer in your head’. Evaluate your answers carefully according to the mark scheme and the examiners’ reports, where possible. Obtain help and guidance from a subject expert.

A general comment that applies to all these points is that you need to be strict on yourself from very early on in your AS studies. It is highly likely that the first few evaluations will throw up a number of issues that you had overlooked, or that seem to require detail which you had either not considered, or which you had considered irrelevant. Make sure that you adjust your approach in line with the evaluation.

4. Start working hard as early as possible

Remember that the purpose of your AS studies is to develop intellectual maturity. Maturity (in any field) is not something that can be crammed in a few weeks. It is a case of developing patterns of thought, ways of seeing the world, the ability to analyse unfamiliar situations and apply knowledge and skills appropriately.

Think, here, of someone training for an ultra-marathon. It is one thing for your heart, lungs and muscles to be fit enough for the race, but success requires much more than that. Only experience can teach you what to do when you get a sudden cramp; how to pace yourself properly so that you have enough energy to finish the race; how to handle the press of thousands of other runners.

In the same way, success in your AS exams requires intellectual experience and maturity. Don’t try to coast for six months and cram for two. Start early on; build up your knowledge and skills progressively; get feedback early on so as to maximize your subsequent study time. If you are writing in October, the work you do from January to July will count far more than what you do in August and September.

5. As a parent, be involved with your child’s studies

It is understandable that parents, who are not Cambridge subject experts and who have their own pressing responsibilities (work, home-schooling younger children, etc), often leave their children to study on their own at the AS level. And, of course, nobody can do the work on the student’s behalf (see point 2 above). However, there are some strategic ways in which you can help your child without having to become a subject expert or teacher, and without overloading yourself unnecessarily. Here are some pointers:

  1.  Make sure that you understand the general educational principles outlined here, and that your child’s need for adequate text books, study guides and tutors is met.
  2. Help your child to ensure that she is working effectively. This is perhaps the most important way in which you need to help your child. You have a degree of personal maturity and experience that your child does not have, and you are in a unique position to help her to plan her work and evaluate her progress. Even when children are attending school full time, this kind of support makes a huge difference to their progress. Some practical things you can do:
    1. See that your child has a workable programme of study in each subject.
    2. Help to ensure that your home environment is conducive to effective study.
    3. From time to time, review with your child the work that she has done. Read through some of the written exercises together and help your child to ensure that she is keeping up with the study programme, that she is setting out her work neatly, that she is completing the prescribed exercises, and that she is evaluating her work in a meaningful way.
    4. On the matter of evaluation, it is important for a student to mark her work in detail and to note, in writing, where the answer is inadequate. (E.g. in mathematics, note errors and identify things like copy errors, arithmetic/calculation errors, conceptual errors; in English, note things like poor grammar, bad paragraphing, inability to identify the style and tone of an article.)
    5. Still on evaluation, even if you do not use tutors on a weekly basis, it may be helpful every month or two to get a tutor to make an incisive evaluation of your child’s work. This will maximize the effectiveness of future studies.


As I stated at the beginning of this article, it is difficult to overestimate the importance of the AS level exams. They need to be approached with caution, with understanding and with diligence.
I do hope that these guidelines will help you achieve all you hope for in your AS level exams, and that this in turn will give you the platform for the next important stage of your life’s journey.


[1] Quoted by Susan A. Ambrose. How learning works: seven research-based principles for smart teaching. Wiley. Kindle Edition. (See Introduction.)