February half-term is nearly here...
If you can start revising early, you will inherit the world. Not got your flashcards yet?
You’re not alone - human nature means we put things off, but it’s never too late to get going. The longer you learn something, the longer it “sticks”.
Before you begin, the most basic step is to ask why you want to pass the exams, says Lucy Parsons, a former teacher and academic coach who advises a reassuringly methodical approach to revision (lifemoreextraordinary.com).
“This goes way beyond knowing that you want good grades,” she says. Where will they take you – to a career as a vet, or a lifestyle you aspire to? “Work out what these exams are actually for – this is the bigger picture.”
She recommends starting revision in earnest in February half term, with a day or two off. Likewise, Easter holidays should be all about revision, perhaps with a long weekend off.
More difficult is developing the right mindset. “Many pupils believe they are a B or C grade student and always will be so there’s no point in striving for higher.” And the flipside is that those who firmly think of themselves as A star might think they don’t need to work. “It happens when parents and teachers tell you the same thing again and again ‘you’re clever’, for instance. But if you put in the right effort, you really can lift your results.”
Take the same “no pain, no gain” approach that you might with sport, says Mike Ransome, assistant head at Bristol Grammar School, who’s helped students through exams for decades. “You need to commit. Revision is hard work but it isn’t rocket science. But you can’t bypass the effort required.”
Educational psychologists recommend concentrated 30-40 minute blocks of concentrated revision with a proper short break – a walk around the block or time away from the screen rather than rifling through Snapchat. “After four to five hours a day, your brain can’t take any more,” says Mr Ransome. “If you start by nine, you can be done by four – with breaks.”
When you organise a fixed time table you feel calm, says Ms Parsons. “This can help you decide when you should be doing revision and when you should be having fun. When students have this, they can relax in a guilt free way. They need balance.” Schools can help by advising how many hours each subject requires – use a paper year planner or online diary to set it in stone. Part of organisation is simply having the right tools, says Ms Parsons – revision guides, stationery, access to the internet. A new set of felt tips can go a long way.
Habits are important for consistency. Sounds dull? It shouldn’t. Doing just five minutes a day of revision from the start of the year will really help you in the long run. Psychologists’ research shows one of the best revision methods is learning over a longer period of time, and not doing all your revision on one subject in a single block. This might mean learning part of the periodic table one evening, or memorising a literature quote says Ms Parsons. “You quickly accumulate factual knowledge without a last minute cramming fest,” she says. Clear up any points you don’t understand on the day you’re taught, rather than waiting until April to realise there are large chunks you can’t face.
Part of your planning must be to identify what areas you need to work on. “You could be tested on anything on the syllabus, so you’re only as good as your weakest area,” says Ms Parsons. Review how you performed in practice tests, says Mr Ransome. “Be brutally honest. Go over maths formulae or French vocabulary – wherever you haven’t performed.”
And know too how you revise best. Of course this varies hugely, but a general rule is that the more actively you engage with the syllabus the better. This could mean testing yourself, teaching willing family members something you’ve just learned (this is a great way to cement facts and concepts), revising with friends, having someone test you, planning answers to past papers and so on. Simply reading textbooks isn’t effective for many students. “The more actively you engage with information, the better you’ll remember it,” says Ms Parsons
And you might want to use different methods depending on the subject, says Mr Ransome. Mind mapping, for instance, might work with history or English literature, while maths requires plenty of practice.
Where you revise matters. “Try and create conditions that will help trigger your memories in the exam,” says Mr Ransome. If you sit at a desk in a quietish room with fewer distractions, you’ll probably be more likely to remember what you need in the exam room. This means lying on your bed listening to music while you revise is out.
If, like thousands of others, you’re struggling to get on with it, you could ask yourself why. “Procrastination is a choice,” says Ms Parsons. “What’s behind it?” Are you tired? Distracted or worried about other things? It goes without saying you should eat and sleep well, and stay hydrated. Once you’ve begun, revision becomes less of a mountain to climb.
The WALTER guide to revision, courtesy of Bristol Grammar School
Are my notes complete? If not, back them up with a revision guide or text book.
Learning – how do I do it best? Main methods of remembering are visual, verbal, and auditory. If you’re reading information, writing it out and saying it out loud you are engaging all three learning memories.
Test yourself – with exam questions and recall.
Exam technique – get a better mark by completing the whole paper rather than acing the first half. Don’t forget to turn over the last page of the exam pamphlet says Ms Parsons – some students miss questions.
Review how it’s gone, especially in practice papers. Don’t let yourself off the hook if you simply didn’t know enough.