About 4 weeks before I was due to sit my second year university exams, which counted 33% towards my degree, I had to go into hospital for an operation. With little else to do, I spent that 4 weeks revising and learned a whole lot of lessons about effective studying, which for someone like me with a low attention span (sound familiar?) was a real godsend.
Because I had little else to do I revised for about 8-9 hours a day. But very quickly it became boring, , so I had to find ways to keep up my motivation. These are some of the tricks that I used then and again in my finals year and they worked.
Tell yourself you can – This is probably the most important first step of all. Most of us get anxious about exams and that’s a good thing. With the media and parents all making a big deal of exams, fear of failure and letting others down is an increasing issue for students. But with the correct preparation, exams aren’t to be feared and most students can and do succeed. So tell yourself that exams are just part of life and that like all things in life, if you prepare properly you can succeed at them.
Fail to Prepare, Prepare to Fail – an old cliché, but still very true. Just sitting down one morning to start revising, without any plan or any idea of what you do and don’t know, is a recipe for failure and wasted time. You need a timetable and a plan. Ask yourself questions like:
- What exams come up in what order? – this can help work out what to do first
- Which subjects am I more confident about and which am I less sure about?
- How much time do I therefore need to allocate to different subjects? – schedule more time for the less sure ones
- Where do I need to focus my efforts for serious learning and where can I run a quick check just to be sure I haven’t forgotten anything since those classes?
Have a daily plan too – revision and study requires routine to be successful, just like everything else. Divide your study day up into 30 minute periods. Allocate subjects and topics to each period and draw up a plan for each day showing what you will study in what time slots.
Break it up – in every 30 minute slot, I focus intently on what I am studying for the first 25 minutes. Then for last 5 minutes I always sit back and without looking at the books or notes, summarise what I have learned in a set of 10 to 12 bullet points. This helps me consolidate what I have learned in that 25 minutes. Don’t do more than 2 sessions on any subject back-to-back or fatigue will set in.
Summarise where you have got to every session – At the end of each session, when you summarise what you have learned, do it in a way that you can find it and quickly retrieve it when you next have that subject timetabled. That way you can quickly check where you got to last time, be reminded about what you learned then and be ready to move forward.
Look at what you’ve already achieved as well as what’s still left to do – it’s so easy to see revision as a mountain to climb. But by using 30 minute sessions and writing down what you have learned in each session, after an 8 hour day you will have between 10 and 16 sessions, summarised as short notes. So take 10 minutes at the end of each day to just go through those 10 to 16 short sets of notes and congratulate yourself on what you have achieved today.
Take frequent breaks, but only when you have earned them – there’s always the temptation to stop and have a drink or a biscuit after a session. “I’ll just take 5 minutes”. But that 5 minutes turns into 15 with Facebook Snapchat etc. and so before you know it your revision is only half the day. So here is what I do:
- I sit down at 8.30am, work through 3 or 4 sessions until 10.30, then have a 30 minute break – older students revising for GCSE A Levels or college exams should be able to do 4 sessions, for younger children, 3 sessions with 5 to 10 minutes between each is more sensible, at least to start
- From 11.00am to 12.30pm I do a further 2 or 3 sessions and then go back over all my summary notes for the morning for the last half an hour before lunch
- I always take an hour for lunch at 1pm. Eat something that’s not too heavy and won’t make you sleepy. Then go for a quick 15 minute walk or kick around to keep your energy levels up
- From 2pm to 4pm I do another 3 or 4 sessions and then have just a 15 minute afternoon break. That takes me to 4.15pm.
- Finally at 4.15pm I do 1 or 2 final sessions and around 5pm I go back though the session’s notes from the day, so I finish at 5.30.
This all probably sounds incredibly intense and heavy going for students, but by breaking things down into 30 minute session and recapping and changing subjects frequently, it prevents the boredom setting in.
But if you need a slower start, don’t increase the gaps between sessions. Do half a day not a whole day, or leave out an hour and reduce the number of sessions.
But keep the pattern of 25 minutes intensive study followed by 5 minute summarising, twice in each hour to establish good study habits. In my experience they will bring the rewards.