Revising for Exams
Mary Gould gives her tips for success.
The way to do well at History is to know which study techniques work best for you as an individual. Nevertheless here are some sensible guidelines that are worth following.
1. Start early
Apply good study skills from the beginning of your course, rather than seek magical solutions a few weeks before the exam. Ideally you should read every evening through the notes you made that day, improving them and making sure they are useful. Then, every few months, go through all your notes – this will make your final revision much easier. In this way, essential information will be committed to your long-term memory and will be readily recalled, even under stressful exam conditions. You will also avoid last-minute cramming, which is seldom useful.
Make sure that you have a copy of the syllabus or course handbook. Check the format of your exam. How many papers? How many questions must be answered? Are there any compulsory sections? Sort out any external or personal problems that might hamper your progress. If necessary talk with your tutor, student counselling service or doctor. From Easter cut out, or cut down, your part-time employment until after the exams.
3. Work out what to revise
Listen to your teacher’s advice on important areas or likely questions. Do not rely on question spotting – this is a gamble and there is too much to lose if your hunches are horribly wrong. It is, however, appropriate to select topics for revision. Decide what number you need to know about: for example if you are required to answer 4 questions go through the papers of the last few years and make sure that you can answer 5 or 6 of them. If you can answer them all, take care – you are probably spreading yourself too thinly or working too hard.
4. Read notes
If you have followed point 1, your work should be complete and accurate; but do not work from poor material. Improve your notes by comparison with a friend’s or read them alongside a textbook, making any additions and modifications needed. Make sure that you understand them before you try to commit them to memory – if you don’t the ideas simply will not stick. Underline, colour or highlight headings and key points.
5. Rework notes
The more your notes are re-written the better you will remember them. Summarise key information on each topic on one A4 page. Abbreviate again on small index cards (swot cards): carry them round with you and learn them whenever you have a few spare minutes. If you are having difficulty remembering key quotes or dates, write them out and put them in places around the house where you will see them frequently. Perhaps record them on tape. But remember to think actively about key issues as well as memorising information. Your aim should be to look at old, familiar material in a new way.
6. Read textbooks
When should you finish with your textbooks? Arguably, re-reading textbooks is too time consuming, and anyway they may not be focused on the issues you are most concerned with. On the other hand, if you are getting bored with re-reading the same notes it can relieve the tedium to look at the work or topic from a different angle. Try a different textbook from the one you used during the course.
7. Work with a group
Working with a group (the right group for you) will enable you to share ideas, notes and books and can help alleviate boredom and stress. Revising in pairs is good, but working in groups of three or four is better. The ideal is to meet for 2-3 hour sessions two or three times a week at home, school or college – look for a working environment with minimum distractions. Discuss questions or problems, do timed questions, read out answers for group criticism, test each other, prepare outline answers.
8. Use past papers
Old exam papers, usually available from your tutor or library, are vital for revision. But don’t just read them, use them. There’s no point believing that you could answer the questions – you can only be sure by doing them.
9. Take mock exams seriously
Enter into these wholeheartedly. They will help you assess your progress and familiarise you with working under strict exam conditions. Afterwards, take note of the feedback you receive. Pinpoint the errors you made. Did you include too little information, misread the questions, run out of time? What does your mark tell you about your revision techniques?
10. Know when to stop
Far more exams are failed because of too little work than too much. But often the brightest students work too hard at revision and worry unnecessarily. So take regular exercise, get plenty of sleep, maintain a sensible social life. If you are an arch-worrier, then by all means carry on gentle revision until the last moment: you can’t worry if your mind is occupied with something else. But remember that the aim is to reach your peak at the right time, so be sure not to go into the exam room exhausted from over-work. Frenetic late-night cramming can be easily avoided by the sort of revision techniques outlined above.