Revising for exams is a key skill that can make a big difference to your future. If you’d like to know some tips on how to be better at revising, then you’ve come to the right place…
This article is part of my How to be Rubbish at Everything series, the objective of which is to highlight all of the main reasons why you fail at revising. If you want to pass exams, you’ve got to get good at revising.
Leave it too late
Learning stuff takes time, and if you leave it too late then you will struggle to learn enough stuff to pass the exam. Start revising early – a good rule of thumb is 2 to 3 months before the exam date.
Learning over a longer period of time will increase your chances of embedding the knowledge into your long-term memory, this making it easier the access in the exam hall.
For example, you might wondering when to start your GCSE revision period. I would plan to begin your revising plan for GCSEs directly after your mocks have been completed. This should give you plenty of time to cover the syllabus for each exam, and your knowledge gaps are fresh in your mind.
Don’t create a schedule
To pass this exam you need to cover the length and breadth of the material in the syllabus. One of the challenges of revising is making sure that you have covered everything, so you need to be organised and efficient. Create a schedule that allows enough time to be spent on all the parts of the syllabus, and track your progress against your initial plan. You will need to be flexible as you may find that you fall behind, so it’s wise to build in some contingency (by leaving yourself a week or so before the exam is due).
There are lots of simple products out there that can help you; this wall calendar from Amazon only costs a couple of quid so it wins my vote. Keep it simple – you only need enough space to write the category or topic you are covering that day – so you definitely don’t need to spend loads on a flashy wall calendar.
Continuing my GCSE revision example, it can be quite daunting to revise multiple subjects at once. You have upwards of 9 GCSEs to revise for – including killer subjects like GCSE maths and science! My advice is to schedule equal amounts of time for each subject, otherwise you can end up over-weighting your revision plan for the harder subjects, and drop back in those you find easier.
Gamble on topics
So many people do this; play the topic guessing game with the examiner. By this I mean choosing a limited scope of topics to revise in the hope that they ‘come-up’ in the exam. The only way to be confident of success is to cover the whole syllabus, which completely removes the element of luck from the process. This gamble may seem like a good idea if you have limited time (i.e. you have ignored my ‘leave it too late’ advice) but even then I would prefer to cover everything slightly more thinly than a thick coat on a chosen few topics.
For the gamblers amongst you this may seem like an exciting game to play – unfortunately if you lose this game then you fail your exam!
Don’t use your best time of the day
Revising is hard; you need to take in facts and constantly test your ability. If you are not using your best time of the day then you are hamstringing your efforts. Set a time for revision and stick to it. See my post here on prioritising important activities that is particularly relevant to revising.
For me I have always found that I work best in the morning. When completing my CIMA exams I was working full-time in a busy finance job so needed to get the best out of my limited revision time. I found that I could squeeze an hour of revision in every week day between 5am and 6am, which meant I was working at my best.
Don’t find somewhere quiet to work
Revising needs your full attention and a clear mind. There’s a reason why loads of people troop down to the local library to do most of their revision – it’s quiet and they’re able to concentrate. Have you tried to revise with the TV or radio on? How about revising on the computer? In my opinion these techniques will distract you from getting the most out of your revision time and contribute to a big fat fail.
Revising somewhere similar to an exam hall (e.g. library) also helps get you psyched up for the big day. On the day of the exam you want to be as calm as possible, so mimicking the conditions in the exam hall is a really good idea.
Avoid testing yourself
Exams test you. So you need to test yourself.
Whether your memory or technical ability is being tested you need to start practicing past papers at an early stage. This is great because it shows you how the examiner phrases his/her questions, plus gets you ‘match-fit’ in terms of exam technique. Most exam boards have published past papers you can access so make sure you download all of these and build these tests into your schedule.
At the start of your revision schedule I would recommend picking out questions one-by-one, answering them with an open-book (i.e. with your textbook open) so you get the feel for the flow of the question. Always compare your answer to the official answer to learn what you may have missed. Scale this approach gradually up until a few weeks before the exam you are answering full exam papers under timed exam conditions.
Letts are a great company who make lots of revision guides and practice paper books.
Don’t use revision cards
We all have dead-time in our lives – however when you are in a revising period you need to make sure you are maximising this time fully. Using A5 or smaller revision cards you can write out the main points and then carry the cards with you everywhere. This means next time you’re waiting for a bus you can invest that dead-time into value-adding memory sessions.
You can buy blank revision cards from Amazon for less than £2, which is pretty cheap in my opinion so no reason not to take this tip seriously.
My wife and I disagree on this point: I believe that ‘cramming’ (the act of stuffing last minute facts into your brain the night before the exam) doesn’t help you retain facts in the exam hall. Our brains are amazing things, but when stressed out they lose the ability to prioritise facts. When you cram you are forcing your brain to remember the last things you remembered rather than the most important things.
Cramming also represents a macho revision style that I encountered at medical school. People who revise like this want others to believe they are clever enough to pass exams with the minimum of effort – they don’t need to put all those hours in… Anyone who thinks like that is a tool in my opinion.
Being unhealthy during a revision period is easy! Your brain is so tired from all that reading and testing that all you want to do is eat chocolate and watch TV, right? Being healthy will lengthen your revision days and keep you awake longer. Key tips are:
- Avoid too much Caffeine (you get a crash the next day)
- Don’t live on junk food
- Sugar – instant high followed by a crash
- Take breaks from study by going outside for walks or bike rides
- Avoid too much screen time (i.e. computers and tablets) when not revising
Don’t believe in yourself
Finally – you need to believe that you can pass this exam. If you go into your revision period with a negative mental attitude then you are far more likely to lose confidence and motivation along the way. Close your eyes and imagine the feeling when you open the exam results and find that you have passed! Imagine phoning your mum to tell her your good news! You can do it – but you’ve got to believe in yourself.
I hope you have found this article helpful – you can print off the checklist PDF below that will help you work out which of these problems you are still guilty of. Revising is pretty simple really – if you put in the hours you get the rewards, so don’t follow these Rubbish tips and you’ll go far. Good Luck!!!