Preparing for Arts Exams

Everything about revising generally for exams obviously also applies for arts subjects. Below are some additional points to help you with your revision.

April 11, 2024
Article by:

1. Background – Shakespeare did not write his plays thinking they would be good GCSE English Lit texts. He wrote them to make money and attract audiences. What was current in the arts at the time of whatever you are studying? What genres were in vogue / fashionable?

2. Find out something about the creator of your subject. Dickens was greatly influenced by his father’s bankruptcy and imprisonment. This meant that he was inspired by a prodigious work ethic and was sympathetic to the poor and disadvantaged. The arts are not created in a vacuum.

3. What were the beliefs and values of the time and how did they influence the arts? Medieval England believed in fairies. Most Victorians thought that women were second-class citizens. Censorship of the theatre in Britain was only abolished in the 1960s. The first thing you see today in the cinema is still the censor’s certificate. Look at changing attitudes towards religion and morality. There will always, of course, be those who want these values and ideas to change.

4. The arts have been revolutionised by technology. Some examples are printing, reproduction of prints in colour, photography, film, radio, television and the internet. How different is studying a play by going to the theatre or seeing it on film or television? Under Milk Wood was written specifically for the radio.

5. Arts students should aim to write in clear and analytical English, (so too should other students!). Examiners will not mind occasional errors but make a big effort to get things right. Notice words that you misspell. Check homophones or any words that get muddled – such as there/their and its/it’s. Social media have not helped the cause of getting capital letters right. Punctuation obviously also matters!

6. The arts are meant to be interesting and enjoyable. Look not only at what you are studying but also at comparable examples and analyse if they are successful or not and why. Hopefully, studying the arts will open new doors and provide fresh insights.

7. Developing good technique skills is essential. There are, for example, definite ways of writing essays, analysing source material in history and understanding poetic techniques. Practise these with help and guidance from your tutor. Some courses may ask you to do a review, speech, talk, letter or argue a controversial issue; sort the formats in advance. Exams are stressful events but having a planned mindset will greatly help.

8. GCSE, A levels and degrees are about developing analytical skills. Look very carefully at the specifics of the question. What are the key terms and expressions? Are you asked for a balanced evaluation or a personal opinion? Highlight keywords in the question.

9. The arts, like every other subject, has its own terminology and expressions. The examiner will be impressed by usage of terms, such as imagery, enjambement and pathetic fallacy, but only if you use them correctly and appropriately.

10. Good answers in arts subjects are planned answers. Develop a thought process of think, plan, write and revise. Never start to write without a plan in front of you and always check and proofread.

11. Nearly every arts course has a backup, supportive guide, published by the exam board concerned. Students have generally found them helpful. A few, like poetry anthologies, are compulsory. There is a vast array of independent study guides to most aspects of arts courses. York Notes are probably the most prolific and are usually of a high standard. There are a lot of general study guides. One that my students over the years have found helpful is: Open University, the Arts Good Study Guide.

12. The internet has revolutionised studying the arts. Want to know what it was like to go ‘over the top’ in 1916 when soldiers emerged from the trenches to attack the enemy? A recorded veteran will tell you. You can’t get to Rome to explore the Colosseum; a guide will take you round. There is a lot of very helpful stuff out there but be careful; there is also some bizarre material as well. Don’t drop your critical guard.

Above all else, the arts are there to be enjoyed and stimulate you. Good Luck! If you’re looking for more tips on how to revise effectively (for any subject), have a look at my earlier article on revision tips here: