As we enter exam season, Dr Maria Egan, Assistant Head responsible for Research & Innovation at South Hampstead High School, offers some advice on how best to study and revise.
Make sure you have a copy of the syllabus (or the teacher’s notes about what will be in the examination). Go through this, alongside your folder or exercise book, making sure you have information on all the relevant topics.
If you don’t, remedy this – by using the textbook or asking a reliable friend or a teacher. Then check you understand all the information in your book or folder. Again, if you don’t, remedy this by checking for alternative explanations in textbooks, library books or on recommended websites or asking a teacher to go through it with you.
Once you know you have all the information you need and are sure you understand it, follow the advice below.
2. How should I revise?
You need to actively engage with the material you want to learn. Reading and then re-reading a textbook or a set of notes is not an effective way to revise. When you re-read something, it seems familiar but this familiarity is an illusion, not an indication that you have learnt the material in question.
What you need to do is check to see if the knowledge and information you have read is really in your brain. There are numerous ways to do this. Here are just a few:
– repeat what you have learnt aloud, only using a prompt if you get stuck
– make a mind map or other diagram of the material
– work through practice questions or past papers
– make flashcards with a key word on the front and important information on the back, so that you can use them to test yourself
Using a variety of revision techniques will help prevent boredom and maintain motivation.
3. Last year, I just learnt from the textbook and I got really good marks, why can’t I do that again?
Apart from the fact that reading and re-reading is not an effective way to revise (see above), the textbook is designed to be a guide or accompaniment to the course you are studying; it isn’t a revision tool. It may not even cover the whole course. Or it might not cover it in sufficient detail.
A good textbook might help you understand the information, it might contain some useful exercises to do, but that is all. You need to make your own notes – unless you have successfully explained something in your own words, you can’t be sure that you have understood it.
4. Can’t I just use ready-made notes from the internet?
No, (a) because lots of notes on the internet contain inaccuracies or omissions and can’t be trusted. Even if they are correct, they won’t necessarily cover all the information you need for the course you are studying and (b) because, again, you won’t have processed or thought about the information yourself, and this is key to understanding it.
5. What is wrong with cramming? I learn best at the last minute.
Cramming really does not work. Research shows that people who cram forget most of what they have tried to learn within hours. In order to learn material thoroughly, it is necessary to start a revision programme well in advance and regularly revisit and review that material. Each time you return to the material, you not only refresh but also strengthen your memory of it.
6. Is it OK to listen to music when I work?
There is some evidence that using ‘deliberate distractions’ when you work can be helpful. Playing music while you work will apparently prevent you from becoming distracted by other possible stimuli – because you only have a limited amount of attention, one distraction can fill it sufficiently to exclude other distractions.
The implication of this is that if you are the sort of person who is easily distracted, a small distraction like music (which allows you to keep working, albeit less efficiently) is preferable to a big distraction, like phoning a friend, which would stop you working altogether.
But other recent research on music and revision produced the following findings:
– Students who revised in quiet environments performed more than 60% better in an exam than their peers who revised while listening to music that had lyrics
– Students who revised while listening to music without lyrics did better than those who had revised to music with lyrics
– It made no difference if students revised listening to songs they liked or disliked. Both led to a reduction in their test performance
– Students who revised in silence rated their environment as less distracting and accurately predicted that this would lead to better performances in subsequent tests.
7. I prefer to do all my revision at home. It that OK?
Revising in different locations has proven benefits. Educational research by Robert and Elizabeth Bjork has shown that your ability to recall information in an examination can be enhanced if you have studied that material in at least two different locations. Otherwise, your brain seems to link the material too closely to one place, making it harder to recall in a third place (the examination hall). As a result, we encourage even girls on study leave to come into school to work. We provide not only a different venue, but easy access to teachers, who are happy to answer queries, mark practice papers and give other support as required.
8. Is it better to do revision notes by hand or on a computer?
Research shows that it is far better to handwrite notes. When you type, you tend to write down everything, and don’t really process the information. Handwriting notes forces you to be selective and think about what is and is not important, and that is a really important process. If, however, your normal approach is to use a laptop in lessons and examinations, then it makes sense to use a laptop when revising. Just make sure your notes really are notes.
9. How can I make sure I stick to my revision timetable?
Revision timetables are useful things but only if they are realistic. Plan in time off, including whole days off. Find time for a sporting activity or a walk or another hobby. Never eat and work at the same time. Meals should be times when you relax.
Do not set aside entire days for a single subject. The reasons for this are similar to the reasons why you should not cram. If you work continually on the same thing, you will acquire a sense of familiarity with it which you might mistake for learning but which is not learning in the true sense of the word.
Switching between subjects during a working day forces the learner to make more use of their powers of recall. If you study one subject, then another, then a third, then return to the first thing, you have to recall that first thing back to mind again, which helps transfer the information to your long term memory.
Suggested further reading
Elizabeth Bjork and Robert Bjork, ‘Making things hard on yourself but in a good way: Creating desirable difficulties to enhance learning.’ M. A. Gernsbacher et al (ed) Psychology and the real world: Essays illustrating fundamental contributions to society, pp. 56-64