It’s getting to that time of year when you need to start preparing for your exams. Whether you’re at school, college or university, exams are a measure of how much you’ve learned during your course.
For some people, exams are nerve wracking. You’re usually seated in a room under controlled conditions and have to prove – in a relatively short period of time – how much you know and understand. Although some are open book or oral exams, you still need to be very familiar with the subject content.
If you’ve attended all your classes and completed ongoing assessments, you’ll have a good base to start your revision. This article will give you lots of tips and suggestions on how to go about your revision, but as we’re all different, you’ll need to experiment to discover which techniques help you.
1. Produce a revision timetable
To avoid last-minute panic, start your revision as soon as you can. Setting out a revision timetable outlining what you will study and when should stop you procrastinating.
- Be realistic about how long you need to spend on each subject or topic. Give yourself more time for topics you find difficult.
- Whilst it’s motivating to start with something you know relatively well, prioritise the subjects or topics you need to work on the most.
- Break down what you need to learn into manageable chunks and set yourself achievable goals. Too much at once is likely to feel overwhelming.
- Are you a lark or an owl? Think about the times of the day when you work best and schedule revision slots accordingly.
- Consider all the other things you need to pack into your life and plan your revision around these. Exams are important and, although it’s not always possible, you could consider putting certain commitments on hold for a few weeks so that you can concentrate on your revision.
- Quality is better than quantity. Much can be achieved in short bursts. Just because you plan to spend ten straight hours revising, doesn’t mean that you’ll use that time productively.
- Make sure that you build in time to exercise and relax.
- Stick to your timetable wherever possible. If something crops up, review your plan so that you can still cover all your revision.
It may seem obvious, but make sure you plan to revise the right things. Check with your teachers or on the website of the exam board you are using.
2. Find a suitable place to revise
To avoid distractions and get the most out of your time spent revising, you need a calm space to concentrate. This may not be easy if you live with other people. If you haven’t got a permanent study space of your own, perhaps agree when you can use a suitable table or desk.
A lot of students find it helpful to spend time working in a library. It should be quiet and there may be fewer distractions than at home.
Wherever you revise, make sure that your study area is well set up, that you have plenty of light and that it is clear of clutter.
3. Create the right vibe
Some people need complete silence to revise, whereas others prefer music or other background noise. If you listen to music, find out what sort helps you study, otherwise it may be distracting.
If you’re the type of person who is always checking your mobile, put it somewhere where you won’t be tempted to pick it up. Turn it to silent mode.
Collect together everything that you need for your revision – pens, reference books, stationery, class notes… If your revision’s going well, you don’t want to break your flow by having to get something you need.
4. Get support from others
Doing revision can feel solitary. If you enjoy working with others, find out whether there are students on the same course as you who would appreciate getting together to revise, but make sure that they are committed to their studies or they may end up being more of a distraction than a support. You could discuss your understanding of different topics and explain things to each other.
When you are ready, a good way of reinforcing your learning is to get someone to test you. If you give them your notes – see below – they don’t need to be experts in the subject themselves.
If revision sessions are run at your school, college or university, take advantage of these. One of the main benefits is that staff will be on hand to explain things and help if you get stuck.
5. Make revision notes
One of the most common revision techniques is to make notes.
- Revision notes can be made from books, web content, class/lecture notes etc, or a combination of these.
- Some people struggle to produce brief notes. It can be a good idea to start by highlighting key information. Rewrite and refine your notes until you are left with the main points.
- Using bullets and diagrams will force you to really understand the topic and be brief.
- Research shows that the process of handwriting aids memory, so this may be better than typing up your notes, but only if your writing is legible.
- It can be useful to use different colours for different themes, but avoid spending too long making your notes look pretty.
- It’s essential that your notes make sense to you. If you use your own abbreviations, make sure that you’ll know what they mean in the future (and don’t use your own shorthand in exams). It’s fine to use recognised abbreviations and acronyms – the first time you use them, write them out in full and then put the shortened version in brackets.
6. Do past papers
If the course you are doing has been running for a while, you will probably find that there’s a bank of past papers; you may find these on the exam body’s website or your teachers may be able to provide them for you.
Having a go at past papers, preferably under exam conditions, will familiarise you with the format of the exam, help you get used to the time constraints, and help you identify your strengths and weaknesses.
7. Make your revision active rather than passive
Mixing up the way you revise and actively doing things can really help you learn. Here are some ideas.
- Produce revision flashcards to test yourself or get others to test you. You can also use these to learn key facts whenever you get a chance – whether on the bus, train or waiting for an appointment.
- Put sticky notes up around your home – by the kettle, in the bathroom, on the hallway mirror… They will help you form associations and memorise information.
- Make voice notes and replay them until you’re learning something new.
- Teach someone else what you’ve learned. This will test whether you’re able to explain a topic in a way that is understandable.
Find out more
There is all sorts of information on revision techniques on the web and you may also find books on study skills in libraries. For revision tips in general, see sites such as The Mix.
There are a few sites that not only help you revise certain courses, but also offer advice, useful resources and support with producing revision timetables.
- BBC Bitesize can help you revise GCSE and other qualifications; there are lots of videos and you can test yourself as you go along. You can also download the Bitesize app.
- Get Revising also provides interactive revision tools to help with GCSEs, AS/A Levels/Highers and the International Baccalaureate.
- S-Cool Revision can also enable you prepare for GCSE and A Level exams.
Having things to look forward to will help you stick at your revision. Tell yourself that after a productive study session you’ll treat yourself – it could be your favourite snack, time spent with friends or watching the latest TV series.
If you get bogged down in revision or feel you’re not taking things in, give yourself a break. And if you’re not in the mood for studying, doing even a little work can be beneficial; something is always better than nothing!
It’s essential to look after yourself when you’re revising. If you’re stressed and tired, it will be harder for your brain to take in and retain information. Fresh air, exercise, a balanced diet and sufficient sleep are not only good for the body, but also the mind. And of course, try to avoid last-minute cramming the night before an exam! YoungMinds has advice on looking after yourself at revision and exam time.
If your revision starts to feel tedious, mix it up to make it more interesting. Try the different techniques mentioned in this article and explore what works best for you.
Debbie Steel, February 2022
With a background working with apprentices and teaching in further education, Debbie was employed as an in-house careers author before establishing herself as a freelancer. As well as co-authoring numerous careers books, Debbie has produced resources and web content for a range of high-profile clients. She is an enthusiastic proponent of impartial and reliable careers information.