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SLT’s Guide to Revision Techniques

The weeks and months before exams can be a stressful time. At SLT, we have helped thousands of students to manage their revision effectively and excel in their exams. We are pleased to share our top revision techniques for exam success.

1. Make a revision timetable

Before you open your textbooks or put pen to paper, spend some time planning your revision. Creating a revision timetable has various significant benefits. A well thought-out timetable will ensure you leave time to cover all the content you need to. It will also save you time deciding what to revise every day – an investment of an hour or two at the start of your revision which will be paid back several times over during the weeks ahead. Getting on top of the material and of your time will also reduce pressure and anxiety.

When creating your timetable, split your day up into several sessions. Consider how long each session should last. A good way to think about this is by reflecting on your lessons at school: are you usually losing focus by the end, or are you only hitting your stride when the bell rings? Then, by cross-checking against your syllabuses, estimate how many sessions you will need per topic. Allocate a number of sessions to each subject accordingly, not forgetting to leave breaks in between.

If all this sounds a little intimidating, don’t worry. There is no need to plan months in advance. Work with a timetable of a few weeks at a time. This will allow for the fact that your focus will need to change as you re-evaluate your progress across different subjects and topics.

If you are able to, assign each session a ‘SMART’ task. SMART stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Timed. For instance, “by the end of this 45 minute session, I will have written flashcards for topic x in Biology, and tested myself on them to ensure I understand.” This will keep your revision focused and purposive.

How many hours do I need to revise per day?

There is no golden rule on the number of hours you ‘need’ to work per day for a given set of exams. It will vary depending on your prior understanding of the material, how easily you remember information, and how efficiently you work. Creating a timetable and following the tips below will ensure that you spend a smaller number of hours more productively, however.

2. Create a quiet, comfortable workspace

Find a quiet space free from distractions, whether that’s noise from outside or your mobile phone – studies have shown that even the mere sight of a phone reduces focus.

Having a workspace away from your bedroom or where you spend your leisure time is ideal, as it enables you to mentally separate revision from relaxation. If you do not have access to a suitable space, however, set up a desk in your room. Do not revise from your bed or a sofa if at all possible – this will not be comfortable or practical in the long term and is unlikely to contribute to the state of alertness needed to make the most of your revision.

Before you begin a revision session, have everything you need ready in your workspace – books, pens, paper, and any tech or chargers. This way, you won’t interrupt your focus by getting up to find something midway through your work.

The key thing is to be honest with yourself about what kind of revision environment is going to be best for you. You may prefer to work while listening to music, but research indicates that students who study in silence retain more information. As for revising alone or in company, consider whether having your friends around is likely to motivate you to work or simply lead to more distractions.

3. Find the revision techniques that work best for you

Especially for younger students revising for their first set of public exams, revision can be a process of trial and error. Experiment with different revision techniques and see which work best for you – bearing in mind that what does the trick for one subject might not work for another.

Revision techniques to try include:

  • Writing notes
  • Flash cards
  • Mnemonics (e.g. using easy to remember sequences of letters to remember phrases)
  • Pictures and diagrams
  • Testing yourself
  • Teaching someone else

When preparing notes, writing by hand is almost always preferable to typing. The slightly longer time it takes and the manual process of moving your hand encourages you to take in more of what you are writing. Furthermore, unless you have dispensation to type your answers in your exam, you will have to get used to writing quickly and legibly by hand.

Nearer the exam, it is worth going through your notes and condensing them. For one topic, for instance, go from several sheets of paper to one side of A4 to a few flashcards. The process of re-writing will reinforce your knowledge, while deciding which are the key points will require you to understand the topic deeply. You will end up with a crib sheet of vital things to remember rather than unmanageable reams of paper.

4. Take care of yourself

It is very common for students to find the revision period stressful. Under the pressure of approaching exams, it can be easy to think you need to work around the clock. As a result, many students end up compromising their physical and mental wellbeing.

Not only are these behaviours bad for your health, they are counter-productive to your revision – an unhappy, stressed mind will not be able to focus on learning. Here are four key self-care habits to keep up when revising.

  1. Eat well

When time is tight and the pressure is on, many students will instinctively reach for fast or comfort foods. Unfortunately, though, boxes of pizza and gallons of coffee are not the answer. Eating healthy meals and drinking plenty of water will give you the energy and focus you need to tackle your revision.

  1. Sleep

It can be tempting in the last few days before an exam, but pulling an all-nighter is never worth it. The cognitive and psychological benefits of a good night’s sleep are well established. Repeated studies have shown that sleep improves memory retention and recall between 20% and 40%, while the ability to learn new information drops by as much as 40% if you have not slept the night before – so put down the books and get some rest!

  1. Take breaks

Research from the University of Sheffield has shown that students learn more effectively when they take breaks between practise sessions. This is another reason why it is vital to start your revision early. Cramming is ineffective and will only increase the vicious cycle of pressure, anxiety, and poor revision. Stepping away from your desk, and ideally getting some fresh air, will help you feel refreshed and better able to focus. Even gentle exercise – such as a brief walk – has been shown to reduce anxiety and increase self-esteem.

  1. Reward yourself

It is important to remember that feeling stressed or challenged by exams is perfectly natural – they are stressful and challenging! Never forget that even in the thick of your GCSEs or A Levels, there is more to life than revision. Plan rewards for yourself after a day’s work – whether it’s a tasty snack, socialising with friends, or playing football. Giving yourself something to look forward to will help motivate you throughout the day. More importantly, though, after a hard day’s work, you will deserve it.

If you struggle particularly with learning anxiety, you may find our blog from SLT tutor and wellbeing counsellor Meredith Husen on supporting anxious learners a useful resource.

5. Target your preparation

Your time will be spent so much more efficiently if it is targeted. Early in your revision, go through your exam syllabus, marking areas that need the most focus. Use the syllabus to structure your timetable. This will ensure you leave yourself enough time to cover everything and will help you in creating SMART goals for each revision session.

Nearer the exam, it will be time to put your revision to the test. Practising using past papers – widely available online on exam boards’ websites – will be vital in equipping you for what you will face on the day itself. Once you’ve finished a paper, consult the mark scheme to see how you would have got on, noting any key areas for further revision. As you step up your preparation, reduce the amount of time you give yourself for these papers, before practising under strict timed conditions in the weeks immediately before the exam.

You can also read examiners’ reports from previous years. These will include valuable insights about what examiners are looking for, as well as the common mistakes made by weaker candidates. Finding out from the people who will be marking your paper exactly what will be rewarded (and what won’t) will give you the inside track on what you need to do to succeed.

How SLT can help

The revision period can be challenging cognitively and emotionally, but you do not need to go through it alone. Even a small amount of expert help can make a significant difference.

We work with tutors who are experts in preparing students for all manner of exams, including GCSEs, A Levels and the IB. We personally match you with a tutor who suits your personality and learning style and is familiar with the precise requirements of  your exam board.

Tutors can work with you to build up your understanding of challenging topics, mark past papers and help with exam technique, and provide additional bespoke revision materials to give you the best chance possible on the day.

That’s why 84% of our students get the results they need, and 74% see an improvement of between 1 and 3 grades.

Contact us if you would like help with preparing for your exams.

“Natasha was always well prepared and efficient and spent time familiarising herself with the curriculum and examination. My son achieved an A in English Language and Geography and an A* star in Biology and Chemistry. I am sure Natasha was a great help in this.”
Ms. P, GCSE Preparation

“The tutor gives my children comprehensive feed back on exercises and tests they do, along with exam technique and what they are looking for in A star answers.”
Ms. H, A Level Preparation

“James engaged our 18-year-old son, and got the 7 out of 7 result he wanted, which his teachers at school had failed to do. A huge achievement and we were delighted.”
Mrs. J, IB Tuition