Revision tips: Work smarter not harder

Revision tips: Work smarter not harder


I've definitely adopted a trial-and-error approach to revision over the years. GCSE me was really keen on colourful flowcharts that I'm pretty sure did jackshit, but at least I have pretty diagrams of chlorophyll for life now! You might be thinking - what qualifies Sam to give revision advice? Another student offering tips can sometimes feel a little bit like the blind leading the blind. So, I'll let you in on a little secret, I'm one of those over-achieving people who actually signed up and went to the revision seminars on offer at university. After my fourth or fifth one repeating basically the same thing I know consider myself an expert. However, my grades from last year probably took a hit from nearly 10 hours spent on seminars.

What follows covers the basics of time management, ensuring your brain is working at optimum levels and when to move on from slogging the books. 

1) Make a plan and don't try to learn everything

“Knowing how much I can realistically achieve and not being too specific has been the sweet spot for me. “

Planning your revision schedule is key to ticking off your long term goals into bitesized chunks. But, knowing how much I can realistically achieve and not being too specific has been the sweet spot for me. When I was doing my GCSEs I had a very detailed minute-by-minute revision plan that slotted in chocolate reward breaks every hour. In reality, I had no idea what I was doing and so wasn't hitting any of the targets I was setting. Having to constantly re-arrange my schedule and realising I didn't have enough time stressed me out no end. Even thinking about it now gives me goose bumps.

So, start by writing a list of everything you would like to learn. This is where past papers and learning outcomes from your university can be really helpful. Next figure out what's the bare minimum you need to learn to feel confident enough to take the exam - colour coding can be helpful at this stage. Most experts recommend starting with your last exam and this where covering the bare minimum is important. Next work back through to your first exam filling in an over-generous amount of time to get things done. Be specific about what chapters or any other way you can break it down, but definitely over-compensate on days needed.

Thinking about how you want to digest this material is important too. I like to approach the subjects from as many different angles as possible (this comes into the types of learner test down below). But, if we're taking the most common way of learning through notes. Reflect on what's worked in the past: is it mind-maps, queue cards, bullet points or condensing notes? Try to make it as active as possible. 

For example, I like to start in the morning by bringing together material from textbooks, lecture notes and seminars that I already have. Next I like to build on that material by additional reading or friends notes for stuff I might have missed. In the afternoon this can be a good time to test yourself because it's hard to learn new things later in the day. This is where past papers, queue cards or people from your course can be invaluable.

In terms of past papers, it's important to pencil in time a week before the exam to really complete as many as possible. Especially allowing for timed papers to get a feel for how rushed you should be. This is why when scheduling I like to be over-generous and commit to one week before the exam just to go over what I've learnt from a month before.

2) Find out what kind of learner you are

There are mixed opinions on how effective learning types are, but I personally have found them very useful. For most people you'll find this will re-iterate what you already know, but for those of us that have slightly unconventional learning styles it's great. For example, I didn't realise how much of an aural learner I was and so have since started implementing lecture recordings, informational YouTube videos, podcasts like In Our Time and explaining things to friends and family really useful. At the very least it can help you be more intentional with your revision game plan.

Try the quiz here.

3) Daily routines

The balance between structure and freedom is key for a successful revision period. For example, implementing non-negotiables like exercise and down-time can help make this time more manageable for you. In terms of meals I like to keep my breakfast simple and consistent like yoghurt and granola or porridge, but then give myself more freedom with dinners and leftovers for lunch. These superfluous things to studying might seem irrelevant but really your mental outset is so important. 

“Little things like what you’re wearing and getting ready can also switch your brain into the right mindset.”

Another way to mix up your daily routine within reason is changing what library/cafe/study space you use or just changing the desk. Your memory can be tied to the physical space you're in. We've all had the experience where you walk past a place you haven't been in a while and you're transported. Well recalling facts can have a similar effect, so even switching to the other side of the desk gives your brain the opportunity to tie the new visuals to the new material you are learning. 

Little things like what you're wearing and getting ready can also switch your brain into the right mindset. So, try and resist the uniform of leggings and a hoodie. Applying a little bit of make-up, straightening your hair can boost your confidence and in return your study sessions can feel more purposeful. All in all, don't punish yourself just because exams are coming up!

Getting outside is especially important during these periods. Personally, I carve in time to get some fresh air and give my brain a break by playing tennis - but even walks can be highly effective. If you really feel like you can't afford to take the time out, why not take a different route to the library and shake your brain up a little bit. Half the game of revision is not letting your brain fall into passive automatic mode and keeping it stimulated by new environments.

This is where evening routines can be important to, your brain doesn't function well when it's static. So, no matter how much fun watching Pointless and Come Dine with Me every evening can be. Take this time to chat to your housemates or friends about other things. Whatever you do don't get your brain worked up right before bed allow a buffer zone - if you're lacking inspiration check out my bedtime ritual article.

4) Use friends and family

“If in doubt give grandma a ring for guaranteed gratitude and feel good vibes. Bonus points for Facetiming your pet.”

I've already mentioned that I'm an aural learner, so one of the techniques I use is to explain the concepts I've learnt to patient friend and family members - s/o mom and dad. But, going beyond explicit help with revision, make sure to carve out time to connect with loved ones. Try not to talk about how stressed you are etc. Ask them about their day and forge deeper relationships. I'm lucky that most of my school friends have now graduated and they can provide necessary perspective for life on the other side. If in doubt give grandma a ring for guaranteed gratitude and feel good vibes. Bonus points for Facetiming your pet. Anything to get you out of the stressful study bubble of university life around this time of year.

5) Don't stress out

“I know it’s easier said than done, but studies have shown that your level of confidence is crucial to success.”

If in doubt calculate what percentage you'll need in a given exam to pass. This should definitely put your mind at rest. I know it's easier said than done, but studies have shown that your level of confidence is crucial to success. Not to mention, your mind finds it hard to recall long-term memories when you have too much cortisol (the stress hormone) in your system. So, take some deep breaths, don't worry about it the night before by switching off by watching tv or doing exercise and have faith that everything will work out for the best.

I hope you find these tips useful! I'll definitely be putting them into practice again next year. As a final note, most of my friends have noticed that I'm calm during exam season. I don't do over-nighters in the library. I continue to exercise, meditate and eat well. My motto is that if you can't go through revision period without looking after your mental health - what's the point? At the end of the day when you go into the workforce it's these skills to look after yourself first that will keep you happy and healthy! I know you can do it.


All my love, Sam

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