How to revise for exams

What would happen if I locked the door, right now, and put an exam paper in front of you?  English literature, say?  Write 500 words about the feminist subtext of Vanity Fair.   Or maths.  Could you work out how much change you’d have from a twenty if you bought three pairs of socks at £6.50 apiece?  Chemistry?  What is the atomic weight of unobtainium?   (one of these is a trick question, btw)

Let’s call the stuff you know now, without any preparation, knowledge.  The good news is that, if you’ve been on a course, turned up at lectures, participated in seminars, done the coursework, you should already have some of the course material there in your head, as knowledge, alongside all the other stuff you’ve picked up from watching Pointless and reading fanfic.

Now what you need to do is revision, which essentially is taking as much of the material you’ve read, written down, heard and studied as you can, and actively getting it into your head so that it moves into the knowledge category.

How to do that?

Organise.  If you’ve got pages of notes, sort them out.  Put them in order, sort them into topics, see how the material fits together.  A useful way of doing that is to use those coloured index cards and write one card for each topic.  Write the name of the topic, and three bullet points explaining what the topic is about.  Maybe list the key names and labels and dates you need to remember.  Arrange the cards on a table or a noticeboard in some kind of logical way so you can see how the stuff fits together – it depends on how your brain works how best you can do this stage.

The key thing about the organising stage is that it has to be active: it’s something you do differently, not simply taking your notes and reading again.  A really useful tip is to do the organising in a different medium from the notes you’ve been taking as you went through the course.  If you took all your notes on an iPad and saved them into dropbox, you now need to boil them down onto separate sheets of paper or index cards, one per topic.  Conversely, if you took all your notes on paper it can be really useful to get onto a computer and summarise them into a powerpoint, one slide per topic.

After organising comes remembering.  But again there’s good news.  It’s actually more efficient to do bits of organising and bits of memorising all mixed up together in bite-size pieces, rather than sitting for three hours and telling yourself you can’t have coffee till you’ve “done” this or that subject.

Don’t be seduced into spending a long time working out a revision schedule, by the way.  You get no marks for a beautiful timetable, sorry.  And, even worse, don’t touch “how to study” or “how to organise” books – or blogs, for that matter!  Read to the end of this entry and then go do some real work.

Here’s a way that works.  Set the timer on your phone for twenty minutes.  Spend twenty minutes looking at one topic and reducing it to one index card or powerpoint slide.  Put the card, or save the slide, in a safe place.  If the twenty minutes aren’t up yet, start trying to memorise what’s on the slide.  If the twenty minutes are up, stop and take a five minute break (yes, you can have coffee, if you can make it in five minutes).  You don’t have to stop if you’re really into it, or you’ve nearly finished this topic and there’s only two pages left to go, but set the timer again and stop if it goes again.

Mix up the topics so your brain doesn’t get bored, and go on for as long as you can manage – twenty minutes of summarising, five minute break, twenty more minutes on a different topic, another five minute break.  (It’s also useful to do something physical in the breaks.  I’ve variously learned to juggle, learned to knit, and practiced the violin in five minute breaks.  No, I can’t do any of them very well, but somehow I find it helps me to get a completely different bit of my brain working in between studying.  If all else fails, do something physical like run up and down the stairs a couple of times or stand on one leg and do that tai chi exercise where you pretend to close three drawers at different heights with your other foot)

Right.  Now here’s the bit where you DO need a calendar or a blank piece of paper and a pen.

You look at your card after you’ve written it, and try to commit it memory.

Then look at it twenty minutes later.

Then at the end of the day.

Then twenty four hours after you first looked at it.

Then at the end of the day.

See?  Say you’re doing topics called blue, green, yellow, red and pink.  You spend twenty minutes summarising the blue topic onto a card, take a five minute break, and then work on the green topic – but before you take your next five minute break, you go back and look again at the blue card.  Next you might do some work on the yellow topic, and after twenty minutes you’ll have another look at your green card…

At the end of the day (last thing at night) you have another read of the cards you’e made about the blue, green and yellow topics.

The next day you’ll start work on the red topic and then re-read the blue topic, then work on pink and read red (from twenty minutes ago) and green (from 24 hours ago) until eventually you’ve got all the stuff you want to remember written onto a set of cards or slides that you’ve look at and tried to remember at least four times.

Then you carry them round with you till the exam and try to remember what’s on them.  This is not about just passive reading.  It’s actively trying first to understand and then to remember.  So if you were looking at a particular topic in law, say, you might have the most important bits of legislation and the most relevant cases, perhaps some bullet points, written onto a card that organises the information in a way that makes sense to you.  Then you try and remember it.

Methods to remember?  Try covering up parts of the card and trying to recall what’s underneath.  Try asking a friend to test you.  There’s supposed to be a strong association between scent and memory, so if you think your fellow-students can bear it, try sniffing different scents for different topics, and then putting a drop of the relevant scent on your wrist when you go into that particular exam.  But don’t get your scents mixed up!

So there’s stuff in your head that moved in on its own (did you ever actively try to remember the atomic number of unobtainium???) and there’s stuff you actively work to put into your head.  There’s one last tiny bit of space in your head, for something small like a telephone number.

You know how someone tells you a phone number or a date and time, and you repeat them to yourself till you can get to a piece of paper or the calendar on your phone and make a note?  Well you can use that in an exam, too.

How is that useful?  Let me explain.  When I trained as a tax inspector, I had to pass an exam which involved remembering a ridiculous number of tax cases.  I had terrible problems with the names (you can get most of the marks by remembering the gist of the argument even if you can’t remember the name of the case) but I got completely hung up about a case about a second hand suit.  Even though I knew I could get most of the marks by explaining the gist, I became obsessed with the idea I would fail if I couldn’t remember Wilkins v Rogerson (yes, I had to look it up to put the names in here)

If you get a problem like that, use the telephone number method.  Don’t even try to memorise it: write it down on a piece of paper.  Look at the piece of paper before you go into the exam, then screw it up and throw it away.  Keep repeating “Wilkins v Rogerson” – well, no, keep repeating whatever you’re trying to remember, but you get the idea – as you go into the exam room and find your seat.  Keep thinking about it while you listen to the instructions, and then, as soon as you’re allowed to turn the papers over and start making notes, write it down.  And then forget about it.  If it comes up in one of the questions, refer back to the front of the paper where you’ve written it down.  And if it doesn’t come up, scribble it out.

Disclaimer: I’m not a psychologist or any other kind of memory expert.  I’ve just taken a lot of exams.  Really.  A lot.



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