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The Best Ways to Revise for Exams

Cesca Ferguson, BSc (hons) PGCE (Cantab) MA (Lon) Senior Science Teacher and ICT Consultant


Every year I see students copying endless piles of notes and sections of books and internet articles. When asked what they have just written they simply don't remember. Eek! Copying is not revision, copying does not allow your brain to process the information for you to remember or understand. So it turns out that some of us just simply don't know HOW to revise... don't panic if you are one of those, this article will show you exactly which steps to take to make sure you succeed.

So what do you do?

  1. Although copying is probably the worst thing you can do, paraphrasing is probably one the most useful. Instead of writing out your notes (or someone else's) again word for word, try to write them so they mean the same thing, but you you have written them with different words. For example 'Lithium is in Group 1 because it has 1 electron in its outer shell' could be rewritten as 'All group 1 elements, such as Lithium, have 1 outer shell electron.' Obviously this applies to some subjects better than others but you get my drift.
  2. I am not a massive fan of Mind Maps for my subject, Science, but in other areas such as English Literature or History they can be invaluable. In subjects where you are expected to provide explanation like mine, Mind Maps don't really allow the learner to practise writing explanations, which is what you really need, so don't waste any time doing them. When you need to remember links and cause and effect then they are useful.
  3. I love sticky notes. But you need to do this well in advance. At exam time at uni my whole room lit up with a bright yellow glow of information. Write a small chunk of info, or a mini diagram onto the note. Put it on a wall or door where you will see it every day. When you are sick of seeing it and can remember it off by heart, move it to another wall or door and go back to it every so often to check you can still remember it. Use different colour notes for different subjects or topics.
  4. You really need to test yourself. Answering questions is the best way to get practise. And I am not talking abut single word answers either. I see so many kids with flash cards asking each other questions like 'Name a...' and 'What is...?'. You aren't going to get very many questions like that in GCSE and even fewer at A level so it's a waste of time. Get some past papers, it doesn't matter which exam board too much and get the mark schemes with it. First have a go at the question off the top of your head. Then use your notes to add to your answer. Then check the mark scheme to see what marks you would have got. Finally, use the markscheme to write a perfect answer (Ideally then add it to a sticky note - see above). The trick here is to keep answering similar questions until you regular get full marks.
  5. Use your teachers. Don't abuse them. Don't go knocking on their door close to exam time expecting them to give up their lunch times for a whole week because you haven't done anything all term and need to catch up. That's not fair, is it? BUT if you start revising when you should, i.e. several months before exams start, then go to your teacher and ask them what they think might be in the exams. Ask them if they know of any good revision sites, if they have any leftover worksheets from other classes lower in the school that you could have to have a go at. Then in class you have the opportunity to ask questions and have anything clarified.
  6. You have probably heard this before but stop yourself every 30-45 minutes for a break. Your brain is like a computer processor, it needs time to find somewhere to store all his information. If you overload it it will lose some. Have a break, drink some water or fruit juice (stay off caffeine, it will make you want to pee and interrupt your studies, as well and stop you getting a good deep sleep) get some daylight and come back refreshed.
  7. You need to eat well. Eat brain food. It's an organ after all. Fish like salmon is full of Omega-3 which is known for enhancing brain power. Stay away from energy drinks. They're fine for sports but the type of 'energy' they supply is no good if you need to sit still for a while. I won't get started on how bad they are for other reasons.
  8. Sleep. Even the night before the exam. If you don't know it by 10PM you are never going to know it, so don't stay up for the Sun and expect a miracle. You are far better off getting the extra few hours sleep and get up and hour early to eat properly, read through your notes to get your brain into subject mode.
  9. Have confidence in yourself. I have never had a student go in to an exam saying 'oh I am going to fail' and then been so surprised at the top grades on results day. If you find yourself thinking (or saying) negative things - STOP! Firstly, it's annoying to other students, you might not realise it, but it is. The others want to feel confident and keep their stress levels down too. They can't if someone is whining constantly about how hard it is and spiralling stress out of control. All that happens is they start saying the same because they feel the pressure and it spreads. Ugh. Instead tell yourself you can do this. You CAN do it. If you can tell yourself that you'll fail until you believe it and do, you can tell yourself that you will be successful until you believe it and are.
  10. Plan your time. If you are reading this then you are hopefully in the right track and looking to plan your revision. With a lot of subjects, you won't be able to cram in several years of work in a few days, so give yourself months. If your friends don't think that's cool they aren't your friends. Friends don't want their friends to do badly. If you've got a few weeks all is not lost but it's going to be tough. If you've got a few days, umm.... all the above can still work but it's going to depend on you and how much work you did during the whole course. If you start the night before, you've shot yourself in the foot I am afraid. The best thing you can do is practise answering some longer answer questions and go to step 8.

Good luck, you'll be fine. Remember to be positive!

© 2018 Cesca Ferguson

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