Updated: Aug 5, 2021
Strategic advice for the exam room for our Religious Studies A Level students.
Religious Studies A Level exams, while extremely rewarding, can also be daunting. It is perhaps the subject where time is the most precious, and you might feel like answering all the questions in the short amount of time given to you is impossible. However, this essay will give you five simple tips for the exam hall, to help you to ace Religious Studies.
1. Check: evaluate or analyse?
Your exam question will most likely begin with a word such as “analyse”, “explain”, “discuss”, or “evaluate”. Now, these words should direct your approach to answering the question. You could look at this article for guidance of what these individual words actually mean, but broadly, these words can be sectioned into two categories.
The first category is evaluating. When the question asks you to “evaluate”, or “assess”, it requires you to have a position; to argue whether the statement is correct or not.
For instance, the AQA June 2018 exam paper 2A presented the question:
“For Buddhists, secularisation is an opportunity rather than a challenge.” Evaluate this claim.
For this question, you would need to argue for one side of the debate. It requires a strong conclusion that makes a clear statement of what the essay has been arguing for. The examiner’s report on this question stated “an answer which does not state a point of view can achieve a maximum of Level 1”.
The second category is analysing. Words such as “explain” or “discuss” ask you to examine a concept in detail. This looks mainly at your understanding of the text or idea.
2. Know your AOs
The first word of the question will most likely indicate which assessment objectives (AOs) it requires you to fulfil. No matter your exam board, AO1 is to demonstrate knowledge and understanding of religion and belief, including comparisons between beliefs, and their influence on society. AO2 asks you to evaluate and closely analyse these beliefs, and their influence.
It would be a good idea, before your exam, to go through a past exam paper for your exam board, and check which AOs each question is asking for. Try to memorise these – it will save you time in the exam, and avoid you spending time on evaluation where only AO1 is assessed.
If you are still unsure about the AOs, check out the government’s summary of the Assessment Objectives for Religious Studies.
3. Keep your eye on the time
Depending on your exam board, in paper one you will be required to answer up to eight essay questions in an hour. Because of this, time management is paramount, ensuring you devote equal attention to each question. Ask your tutor for advice on how much time you should spend on each question, and try to spend a couple of minutes when the exam is about to start figuring out what time you need to finish each question.
If timing is something you struggle with, I would advise figuring out how much you can reasonably write in the amount of time you have in the exam, and then plan your answer accordingly. Push yourself, but don’t be unrealistic – it’s much better to have a finished essay with three main points rather than a four-point essay without a conclusion.
4. Think big
Now, there is some truth in the idea that Religious Studies exam papers often recycle questions, simply rephrasing them year to year. However, you may have a question which you have never thought about before, and you won’t have much time to think in the exam.
The key to this is thinking of what you already know, rather than coming up with new ideas. You will have covered a lot of different philosophers and aspects of religions throughout the ages, and you could probably apply one of these to the question, no matter what it is.
This principle applies to Religious Studies overall: think outside the box. Maybe you can think of a recent news article that can be used as an anecdote to show your understanding of a concept, or perhaps you can compare the thinking of a religious principle to that of a current societal norm or value.
I’m sure your tutors will have drilled this into you already. In nearly every case, I think writing a short plan before you start is imperative. This may take the form of annotating the exam question, or writing bullet points before your answer.
However, for some questions, you may have written out the exact answer four or five times already, and not think that writing a plan is worth your time. If you cannot bear to write a separate plan, try to integrate your plan into your introduction.
Your introduction should be signposting your whole essay. The last sentence of your introduction may say something like “this essay will be evaluating the success of the ontological argument, first looking at the idea of possible worlds, before looking at Gaunilo’s perfect island objection, and necessary existence”. By writing a signposting question like this, you have hit two birds with one stone: you have signalled to the reader the direction of the essay, but also have made a small plan for yourself.
Exams can be stressful, and under the time pressure, you may well forget what first came to your head when you first saw the question. These can be the best ideas. In fact, it should save you time thinking of your next idea if you have jotted them down at the top of your paper, or written them in your introduction.
If you can master the race against the clock that Religious Studies exams can be, you have developed an excellent skill. The exams will really challenge your on-the-spot critical thinking and essay skills, which will put you in brilliant stead if you plan to go to university. The skills are really transferable to other humanities subjects as well, so investing the time into these exams will really benefit you, no matter your future plans.
Until your exam, mind-maps and practice essays will be your best friends. It’s over to you now – good luck!
Blog Post Crafted by Genevieve
Genevieve is currently working towards her bachelors in English Literature at the University of Warwick.
Born in Coventry, she now tutors English SATs and GCSE in her free time, as well as working for the university as an outreach ambassador in local schools.
She also enjoys playing piano and flute, and often performs as a backing singer at local gigs.
Whenever she has a moment to spare, you might find her driving to the beach or catching up on her reading!