There are a number of important things to consider in order to make your revision as effective as possible. Scroll through the sections for more information.
A good exam will require a number of practical planning steps as well as efficient and effective revision.
First, you need to plan the logistics;
- Be sure of the time and location of the exam
- Be sure of the length and format of the exam (i.e. multiple choice, essay, performance based)
- Familiarise yourself with the marking criteria so that you know what goals you are shooting towards!
- Check what you are allowed to take into the exam (calculators, dictionaries) and make sure they have been approved
Second, you need to plan and allocate the time you have available for revision. Print off a weekly timetable and allocate the time you can spend on revision;
- Block out the time you have other committments (shifts at work, family)
- Make space for important 'down time' (going for a run, skyping your mum)
- Highlight the study blocks available
Third, you can now make a plan for what to do with these blocks of time. For each exam you are facing, break down the content into the individual topics that you want to cover. Now you can begin to match these individual, focused study topics with your calendar;
- Make sure to change topics through the day
- Try alternating hard and easy topics
- Allow time for recall and review of topics after your initial session
The rationale for reviewing topics is simple. As explained in the diagram below, our capacity to store information in our short-term memory is very limited, so it is important to pay attention to the process of transferring information into our long term memory.
Diagram from: Kohn, A., 2015. Brain Science: Testing, Testing... The Whys and Whens of Assessment. Learning Solutions Magazine.
If you avoid last minute cramming by planning your revision well, you will be able to take into account some choices you can make to optimise your learning.
On your revision schedule, you can focus the times you allocate to work into short and efficient blocks. If there are times of day that you know you struggle to concentrate, use them as ‘break times’ and recharge your batteries rather than feeling stressed to keep working when you are ineffective.
If you miss an allocated block, or fall behind on y our targets, don’t worry. If possible, re-schedule things in for a later time, and keep your momentum up. Remembering that revision is a cycle, rather than a one-off event is helpful.
Having a well thought out revision timetable is a great first step, but your goals, motivation and success can easily be de-railed if you don't have a good place to study. There are a few important considerations that can help you to quickly work outthe best revision environment for you.
- Match up the hardest tasks you have with your best working time
- Watch out for hunger - if you need to eat (or have recently eaten too much!), your concentration and energy will suffer
- Make time for exercise (anything from a game of football to a walk around the campus) - as well as being a good break, it can function as a reward, be an opportunity for some social interaction, or increase your focus for your next study block
- What options do you have, and what distractions do they offer?!
- What level of noise do you need to concentrate (none, or background chatter?)
- Is it bright enough to be able to read and write comfortably?
- Is it a comfortable temperature? If you don't have heating on at home in the day, perhaps the library would be better!
- If you are working at home, do you have a space tidy enough for your books and files (or will 'tidying' become an evasion technique?!)
- If you are working independently think carefully about the styles of revision you are using and if they are effective
- Is it helpful for you to work in company? Explaining and discussing revision can be helpful, and motivating, but peers can also be distracting!
- You should have already considered what time blocks to use when you planned your timetable, but make sure to keep it to manageable chunks
- Similarly, you should have decided on topics in your timetable, but remember to vary what you are focusing on through the day
- The best motivation is to be invested in the task - that means you care about the outcome and have an interest in the topic
- Rewards can be helpful (a nice coffee at 10.30, or a jog after 3.00)
- You can download apps, or use another person to be accountable to about meeting your targets
In gearing up for exams, it's worth considering how you might use the four VARK modalities that fall under the umbrella of ‘learning styles’. These propose that:
- Visual learners favor information presented through images and diagrams
- Auditory learners prefer learning through listening
- Reading/Writing learners have a preference for learning with written text, and
- Kinesthetic learners prefer hands-on experiences.
The idea of learning styles is sometimes misconstrued as classifying learners into a single modality, confusing personal preference with innate abilities. But sticking to your preference doesn't necessarily enhance learning effectiveness (see the video below).
However, the usefulness of learning styles is that although everyone has strengths, weaknesses, and preferences across these modalities, the most effective learning combines all four, and the mix depends on various factors and may change over time.
So, in preparing for exams, the key takeaway from the concept of learning styles and modalities is:
To learn best, we should try to engage our whole brain.
The range of methods identified in the learning styles spectrum can all be used to vary the ways in which we obtain, retain and explain important knowledge, relevant for exams. Using a variety of learning modalities and revision styles will help ensure we are being active learners, rather than ineffective and passive.
Another way to think about this is that efficient revision will help you do a few different things:
- It will make sure that you understand the content of the topic you are study
- It will make sure that you can remember the essential ideas and terminology
- It will be contextualised within the broader field of your study so that in an exam you can apply the information as well as remembering it
If you struggle with your memory and recall, there are a range of techniques you can try to improve this (for example here, from the BBC). These include adding rhythm to information, turning written information into diagrams or pictures, repeating things out loud, adding colour to information or acting things out. When we do things like this, we add a layer of processing onto the information we are looking at and this makes it more memorable to us, and easier to recall on a factual and a conceptual level (how to apply it).
The least effective revision techniques are simply re-writing your notes, or highlighting them to make them look pretty. In both instances, you are just filtering information through your brain without really engaging its content and this will make it difficult to recall, or to apply in an exam context.
We remember what is interesting, vivid, unique and amusing!
There are a number of more effective ways to tackle revision, so long as you have broken down your courses into discrete topics of a manageable size. Some may work better than others for you, but ideally you should use a variety of them, and make sure to review each topic. Engaging with your revision creatively is a great way to make what you learn memorable.
You might find that revising with pens and paper is the most effective for you, but if you want to experiment with digital technology there are lots of options. Many project management apps allow you to curate content including visual, audio, pdf and personal comment.
The ideas below are separated into different ‘styles’, although many do overlap. The most important thing to consider is that each option is asking you to do something with information, to re-organise it, re-process it and engage with it.
- Make posters or charts - focus on making connections between information and summarising key things
- Attach images to written content
- Re-arrange important information into mindmaps – emphasise connections, examples and contradictions
- Use colour coding
- Use a voice recorder to explain your topic to yourself, and listen back when you are walking, or driving.
- Use music in your revision (either to create a calming atmosphere, or to create ‘links’ with the content).
- Listen to podcasts and lectures (again, choose a time when you are active but your mind is free to ‘think’!)
- Explain your revision to someone else, or use a revision study group to discuss it.
- Try to add rhythm or a ‘story’ to something hard to remember (for example to remember that Riyadh is the capital of Saudi Arabia, borrow from Amy Winehouse – ‘they tried to make me go to Riyadh, I Saudi no, no, no’)
- Create quizzes for yourself and practice (if you prefer to use an app, many are available).
- Create glossaries or flash cards to test yourself on
- Use past papers or course questions to write 5 minute essay plans
- Condense and reformat notes
- 30: 10: 5: 1 (start with 30 key words for a topic, and condense accordingly)
- ‘Make it strange’! If you are really struggling to remember something, revise under the table (really).