A simple guide on how to revise

What even is revision?!

The answer is because you should want to pass your exams.

You’ve been in education for so long now (at least 12 years if you’re at GCSE stage) and what’s the point in spending all that time doing something if you end up with nothing to show for it?

Plus, let’s face it, the more qualifications you get, the more opportunities you have for your future. Let’s try and open doors for you, not close them.

You might have some idea about what you want to do with your future, so maybe getting your Biology GCSE doesn’t seem like it matters right now. But the more qualifications you earn, the better your chances in the future and the better your opportunities. Think, how much would it suck to have to go back to completing GCSEs again when you’ve passed your compulsory school age?

French might seem unimportant to you now, but what happens if you grow up and fall in love with a French person, or realise how amazing the French Alps are to go on holiday? You might wish you’d paid more attention to learning French when you had the opportunity in school, when it was free!

Take every opportunity you get, for yourself and your future self too.

How to revise effectively

Ok, we’ve all been there.
Ten different subjects, piles of books and you just don’t know where to start or how to get any of it to stick in your head. You read your notes over and over again but for some reason it just doesn’t stay there. There doesn’t seem to be enough time and there’s way too much to learn. Some of your exams are even back-to-back. Welcome Panic mode!

Let’s get some perspective and start making a plan to get you through this. Not to get all cliché on you but genuinely; if you fail to prepare, you prepare to fail.

Take on board the following pointers to help get you started. No nonsense, no procrastinating just what we’ve done and how we did it.

Make a revision timetable

Take a look at this timetable template we created to help one of our students revise over the Easter school holiday (colour coded for your viewing pleasure):

Mix up your subjects! Don’t spend an entire day revising one subject only, instead focus on two or more. Timetable yourself so you’re splitting up your revision into 30-40 minute blocks with a break in between where you have a break and move away from your books or computer screen.

Prioritise your subjects

You should spend more time focusing on the subjects you find the hardest. In the example above you may have noticed Maths was slotted in 6 times, Physics and French 5 but Religious Studies and Sociology only appear 3 times. That’s because the student who used this timetable found the first three subjects mentioned the most difficult, and they were stronger at RS and Sociology.

Just because you find a subject easy doesn’t mean you shouldn’t give it attention, but you should prioritise and focus your attention more on the subjects you find hardest.

Take regular breaks

It’s been said that your attention span is 2-3 minutes multiplied by your age. So, if you’re 16 years old that would mean you should be able to maintain your optimum focus on something for between 32-48 minutes. This is why you need to schedule regular breaks.

Be strict with this as well. Make sure there are no distractions around when you’re focusing on your revision. Turn the TV off, turn your phone on silent and try to stay focused when you’re meant to be focused.

The Pomodoro Technique

The Pomodoro Technique is a time management method where you use a timer to break down work into 25 minute intervals, separated by short breaks (traditionally 3-5 minutes) until you’ve completed 4 blocks of work in which case you can take a longer break (15-30 minutes). If you’re looking at how to revise effectively and how to revise fast in a short time, this might be the technique to try out.

Let’s look at the same revision timetable I showed you before, but this time lets apply the Pomodoro Technique:

Notice the changes in timings with the larger break shaded.

This is a particularly useful technique if you have a short amount of time before your exam and you haven’t yet started your revision. It’s supposed to help you increase your productivity in a short space of time.

Location, location, location!

You need somewhere you can get in the zone and maintain focus without any distractions. Politely ask the people you live with to give you that space but if your house is overcrowded and there’s no way of getting it there are other options:

  • Your local library
  • School
  • A park (if it’s a sunny day)
  • A friend’s house
  • A family member’s house who doesn’t live with you

Worst case scenario, if you can’t find anywhere at all, use some headphones to drown out the distractions around you. I’d recommend playing music without lyrics, as you want it to drown out all distractions you don’t want it to distract you further. You’ll find that when you really start concentrating and get in the zone, you won’t even acknowledge the music you’re listening to anyway.

Getting down to business

There aren’t many unusual revision techniques here. You may well have tried some of the revision ideas I’m going to address but, just like with subjects, what you may find easy someone else may find difficult and vice versa. There is no best method of revision that universally works for everyone.

By all means experiment with different revision techniques but stick to what works best for YOU.

Revision notes – write stuff down!

Revision notes are key. Of course how you write revision notes down might differ from your friends; your friends might prefer to only make notes in a notebook, another may prefer to make notes onto flash cards, another may prefer to make revision notes onto mind maps.

At the end of the day your exam is going to be written so you must get used to writing stuff down.

Footballers don’t train for matches by watching videos or listening to podcasts about football. They get down to business and practice what they’re going to have to do on match day.

It’s the same for you. On exam day you have to write, so buckle up and get writing some revision notes because that’s exactly what you need to train yourself to do quickly and legibly.

Basic notetaking

If this is your technique of choice, then do this properly. SIMPLIFY.
If you’re using a textbook or your classwork, don’t just rewrite the whole thing, there is absolutely nothing gained from copying. You want to make REVISION NOTES not duplicate entire pieces of text.

Read the information first, then summarise the points. Let’s show you an example here:
I want my students to remember the following information on ‘Sampling for Sociological Research’:

Sampling Method Description Strengths Weaknesses
(PROBABILITY)

Simple Random Sampling

Where each member of the target population has an equal chance of being selected – e.g. selecting names out of a hat A truly random sample has the most chance of being representative – every member has an equal chance so there is no researcher bias. 

It is also quick and easy to do.

Being completely random is very difficult, some people argue that it is impossible to be truly random. Also, it’s unrepresentative of the entire population as certain people may be left out e.g. there may be 20 men but only 2 women asked.
(PROBABILITY)

Systematic Random Sampling

A sample in which every 10th or a 100th name on a list is selected for example. The list contains every member of the target population/sample frame Generally quick to complete and avoids researcher bias. Not truly random, every 10th person. Unrepresentative of the entire population as certain people may be left out.
(PROBABILITY)

Stratified Random Sampling

A representative sample of the population is chosen by e.g. Dividing the population up into males and females and then taking a 1% sample of each. This method increases representativeness to make it more possible to generalise. The researcher would need a lot of information about the population to enable them to do this.

 

Just look at all that text (yuk!) They have exercise books filled with massive pieces of text so rewriting it all is so pointless. They need to break it down to remember the KEY POINTS. Like this:

 

Sampling Method Description Strengths Weaknesses
Random Equal chance for anyone Avoids researcher bias 

Quick

Easy

Is it random?

Unrepresentative

Systematic A sample in which every 10t or a 100th name on a list is selected Quick

Avoids researcher bias

Not truly random

Unrepresentative

Stratified Representative Possible to generalise Need info on the population.

Reduce the words in your notes to prompt your memory. Write notes in YOUR OWN WORDS to help you remember too. By constantly revisiting your notes they will go into your long-term memory so the brief revision notes you make will simply become memory triggers.

Colour code your notes using highlighters and different coloured pens – this also helps to section your notes into different topics which ultimately helps trigger your memory (e.g. highlight information on aerobic respiration in one colour and anaerobic respiration in another colour in your Biology revision notes).

Make them neat, make them clear and make them concise.

Mind Mapping

The general idea behind this is to write the main topic in the middle and then branch off with lots of different subtopics:

You can also colour code the branches of your mind map to help you remember different things.
For example, a mind map to help you revise the Cold War for your History GCSE could have causes branching off in one direction and effects in the other.

Mind maps help connect topics and link all your learning together. They’re a great visual tool.

You can stick them on the walls in your bedroom as revision posters so you’re regularly seeing them to help the information stick in your mind.

Chunking

This is something you can build into mind-mapping and note-taking. It’s basically grouping information together in a way that makes it easy for you to remember.

Chunking strategies work by breaking down information into more manageable pieces and rewriting these ‘chunks’ in your own words.

Chunking big pieces of text helps the brain digest information. Create subheadings or number your points. Just like with notetaking, you should end up with a paraphrased version of the original text, on your own words.

Flash Cards

Due to the size of flash cards the notes on them need to be summarised. I’ve seen students writing big long paragraphs in the smallest handwriting to fit it all onto one tiny little card and it just doesn’t make sense. That is not what flash cards are for!

Flash cards are for summaries, very brief summaries to trigger your memory.

As a student I used flash cards to learn and remember key words by writing the word on one side and then the definition of the word on the other side. Then I would test myself by laying them all out in front on me and seeing if I could remember what the word/definition was on the side that I couldn’t see.

Diagrams

Sometimes it can be easier to remember information when it’s in picture format.

Not to get all ‘teachery’ on you (it’s instinctive, I can’t help it!) but there’s an educational theory called ‘dual-coding’. This refers to how mental images can aid learning when combined with verbal material.

Labelling a diagram of the heart in Biology or producing a timeline of events to revise the Cold War in History can be so much more beneficial than simply listing what you want to remember.

Mnemonics

I will never ever ever forget the 10 Commandments as taught to me by my Religious Studies teacher when I was 12 years old! Partly because the use of the word ‘idiots’ in this mnemonic was rude at my young age so I found it funny, and partly because it was such a simple sentence:

Only Only worship One God

Idiots Do not worship any Idols

Never Do not take God’s Name in vain

See Keep the Sabbath holy

How Honour your parents

Much Do not Murder

Agony Do not commit Adultery

Smoking Do not Steal

Fags Do not bear False witness

Causes Do not Covet

Notice how my key trigger word to remember in the 10 Commandments is capitalised and in red for you to see. The letter that word begins with is the same letter used for the word in the ‘silly sentence’ (or not so silly in the case of this particular sentence).

This was always my go-to memory technique. I used this technique for revision for GCSE subjects and all the way through university!

I would make up ridiculous sentences, often personal to me about my friends, sometimes rude but funny. I remembered so much information from the silly sentences I made up.

Last but not least, practice makes perfect

Past papers and sample papers are crucial for you to get used to how the exam is structured. Get online and check them out.

Make sure you know what exam board you’re being examined in though, obviously.

Complete a paper and then check out the mark scheme for it to see whether you answered the questions correctly. If you struggle with this, you can always ask your teacher or tutor to mark the paper for you and better explain what the exam board is looking for in your answer.

To really secure your knowledge you must test yourself and make a habit of doing this regularly.

Testing comes in all forms, not just practise exam papers. Hand over your notes, flashcards or whatever you’ve made over to your friends or family members to test you too. Get them to ask you prompt questions from what they can see and then see if you can tell them what you’ve written down.

This will all help improve your confidence before the big day and help combat any anxieties you might have about the exam.

If you’re revising for GCSEs have a go at one of our assessments which are tailored to the topics covered in the core and Ebacc subjects, you’ll get real time results to see where your strengths and weaknesses in these subjects are.

Why I don’t think group revision sessions work (and why I hated them when I was a student in school)

Different people have different strengths and weaknesses. What works for one person doesn’t for another. The topic one student is struggling with isn’t the same as the topic another student is struggling with.

You might find writing Geography essays easy, but analysing maps and sources difficult.

This is why I strongly believe that if you need help with your revision you need more one-to-one support. Ask your teacher to do this, or seek out a private tutor (hello, yes we’re here for that!)

When it comes to revision you want to prioritise practising and reviewing the topics and skills YOU find hardest. Not what Sarah or Jessica find hard. Their exam performance really isn’t your concern at the end of the day. By all means help your friends with their revision (this is actually a good revision technique too), but don’t neglect your needs.

As a student, and as a teacher, I’ve never been a fan of revision lessons for exactly that reason. I don’t think forcing all students to revise the same skill and topic at the same time is equally productive for every student in the class – some students will have already aced that topic you’re reviewing. It would be much more beneficial for them to review something else in that time.

If you’re reading this blog as a teacher, I really think you’re better off teaching your students HOW TO REVISE and then giving them the opportunity to pick a technique that works for them and a topic they choose to review. Then of course, be available to provide clarification and one-to-one support while they do this. Maybe even incorporate The Pomodoro Technique into your revision lesson.

Down time

To be most effective and work to your best ability you MUST maintain a healthy work-life balance. I’m going to throw another cliché statement into this blog post right now; MIND OVER MATTER. You must make sure you mind is right, otherwise you’re going to burn out and nothing will stick.

Get a decent night’s sleep by making sure you turn off all electrical screens. I find I have to switch off my laptop at least 3 hours before bedtime otherwise I just can’t sleep.

It’s not uncommon for students to report that they haven’t been able to sleep and when you enquire about their sleeping patterns, they tell you they play video games right before bedtime. It’s no surprise then that they’re struggling to sleep. Your brain needs time to wind down, so let it.

No to energy drinks, yes to water!

I know this is a blog about revision but trust me, staying healthy in both body and mind will seriously help your productivity with your revision.

Part of maintaining a healthy mind is maintaining a healthy lifestyle. That’s not to say you shouldn’t treat yourself with a bar of chocolate every now and again.

But honestly, those energy drinks are total garbage so much so they’ve been banned for students in every school I’ve ever worked in! Energy drinks with high doses of caffeine contributes to dehydrating you and did you know that dehydration leads to a 10% drop in brain function? Sure, you might feel more alert initially, but when that caffeine high wears off you can suffer from headaches, drowsiness and even anxiety and tremors in the long haul.

You should also know that sugar is not your friend. Fizzy drinks are full of the stuff and, just like caffeine, they might give you a “high” at first but believe me you will come crashing down and you do not want this crash to happen while you’re sat in an exam.

One final piece of advice

Start early!

Don’t leave revision until the last minute, it will only cause you unnecessary stress and anxiety. If you need support with the revision process, then make sure you seek help from your teacher or tutor. That’s our job, it’s what we’re here for!

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