Contrary to popular belief revision is not a black art and need not take over your life. Equally, there is also no one size-fits-all revision solution. It is a question of finding what works best for you but there are guiding principles that will help.
A crucial first step is to ensure that you are thinking about it sufficiently early on and have built in ample time to do yourself justice on the day of the exam. The worst thing that can happen in the run-up to exams is to leave it too late and as a result panic sets in. The key to revising effectively is proper planning and a methodical approach and, crucially, good time management.
Where to start
According to George Turnbull, the “exams doctor” at the Company of Educators, which provides a forum to bring together senior representatives of all education sectors, the hardest part of any revision programme is knowing how to start.
“We all have that problem, students aren’t alone,” he explains. “They will create a space in which to study but are then distracted by calling friends and checking inboxes.”
Turnbull, who himself studied mechanical engineering and has worked for examination boards as well as the qualifications and examinations regulator Ofqual, advises students to adopt a ten minute rule.
“Study for ten minutes. Don’t call anyone, or look out of the window or play with the cat, just study. Then take a ten minute break and start studying again after this for another ten minutes so when you are working you are working and when you are relaxing, you are relaxing. Remember that the two don’t mix.”
He suggests then gradually building up the study periods to 20-40 minutes but limit the interval breaks to ten minutes.
“If you adopt the ten minute rule, you will study more in half an hour than you would normally in a whole evening,” he says.
Turnbull adds that you can ease in an extra half hour of work a day by either getting up earlier or taking less time for lunch.
“If you do that over five days, it gives a minimum of two and half hours quality study time so maybe you could go out on Friday night with your friends.”
What to study
If you are the type of person that likes scheduling, then you will feel more comfortable with a revision timetable or plan. Turnbull cautions against spending too much time creating a schedule at the expense of study time though.
When determining what to study first, he recommends covering two or three topics in one session, beginning with the least liked rather than putting them off until the end.
“Spend whatever time you think appropriate on these at the beginning and then look forward to studying those you feel happier about,” he says.
Include previous examination questions as part of your programme. Also use the revision time to familiarise yourself with what is expected on the day.
“Like an athlete, you aren’t just training for the race, you run the race, too,” he says. “Find out whether there will be compulsory questions or whether you have a choice, as well as how many questions will you have to answer on the day. Then you won’t be a stranger to it all when you get into the examination.”
How to study
Practice whichever style of study that suits you best, whether that takes the form of jotting down key points on Post-It notes and sticking them around the house or using notes on cards that you take to bed and read last thing at night and first thing in the morning. Your ability to learn will build over a period of time.
Learn how to mind map as this will help strengthen your notes and improve your powers of recall. Also make full use of new technology at your disposal: create some revision notes to listen to or view on your iPod or mobile phone when travelling, or download specific revision apps to use. See also last year’s Revision - is there an app for that? article for some other useful technological aids.
Finally, some individuals like to have a study partner and while this can work well it’s important that you’re comparable in terms of competence.
“If you are the more knowledgeable one, you will end up teaching them not learning yourself,” says Turnbull.
Study to avoid
While last minute cramming is standard for many students the night before a big exam, it’s not advisable to try to take on board new information at this point.
“Ideally you should be looking through your notes and refreshing your knowledge,” says Turnbull. “Looking at a topic for the first time is more likely to push some of the other information out of your head. Everyone is different but last minute panicking generally doesn’t do any good.”
Try to have a relatively restful evening and a good night’s sleep so you wake up refreshed.
“Remember the main [revision] tool is you so it is a matter of [being] primed to do the job.”
Remind yourself why you are studying: to get a good exam results and ultimately a great job. This will help to motivate you and remind you that it isn’t study for study’s sake. Keep things in perspective: chances are you already have sat countless exams before and while these may be the most important ones you take, passing them is well within your ability or you wouldn’t be on the course so stop doubting yourself.
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