How to Revise (and how NOT to revise)

 Tired Revision with Books

Unfortunately many students have never been given a good methodology for revision, or haven't taken on board what they've been told about how to revise.  Here are some common problems:

  • Making a revision timetable without enough motivation to keep to it falling behind by day 3.
  • Sitting down in their revision slot but don't really know what to do so end up doing a little reading of notes, a little highlighting, write a handful of notes and perhaps a past paper.
  • Spending a lot of time reading and highlighting and writing notes – but then can't remember much of the stuff they didn't already know.


There are also often fundamental problems with the methodology that is used:

  • Let’s face it, most of us don't have particularly good memories. We find that when we read notes we don't really take them in.  We might learn a few new facts but the retention is often low.
  • Similarly, using a highlighter to pick out keywords is a fun and easy way to revise – but unfortunately a lot of time is spent on material already learnt and again the keywords that we didn’t already know still find it difficult to stick.  In addition this method doesn't integrate the information we're reading into the whole and, beyond basic factual questions, is limited help for answering questions where we have to apply knowledge.
  • Writing out revision notes can help a bit but is time consuming; you are after-all trying to write out a condensed version of a whole textbook.  Whilst often better than reading and highlighting it has limited sticking power.

So what should we do?  Help!

Learning is about making connections in your brain.  For most of us, particularly for all the subjects that aren't our most favourite subject, it is about repeatedly making the connections, and making the connections in different situations and with different examples.  With some maths based subjects it might also involve repeatedly doing questions until the method really sticks.  With essay subjects it's combining an understanding of how the essay needs to be written with the knowledge of the topic that the essay is about.


Learn before you revise

Revision should be about practicing what you have learnt, and identifying and filling in gaps in your knowledge.  It's not meant to be for learning the whole course because you didn't listen in lessons!

We recommend these strategies only during your course i.e. before your revision:

  • Mnemonics such as "Richard of York Gave Battle in Vain" (colours of the rainbow), "God Brings Delight For All" (treble clef) and "Dr Mrs Vandertramp" (French être verbs) are useful when you have a collection of things to remember and you know most of them but want to check the order, or check that you have them all. You can make up a few more yourself for this purpose.  But they are too late to create when you revise – by this point you need to be applying your knowledge, not spending time creating mnemonics that you need to learn.
  • Imagery is the idea of forming an image to help you remember something.  For example if you wanted to remember that oxygen is O2 then you might think of calling someone called Oxygen on your mobile which uses the O2 network.  Or to remember the French for door you might think of a magic doorway with an 'e' on it which you step through straight to a Port(e).  But it's not an effective way to learn everything – just use it for the occasionally key point you're stuck on.
  • Similarly a story or a song can be used to remember something. For example this website gives a good example of creating a story to remember the characteristics of living organisms; movement, reproduction, sensitivity, growth, respiration, excretion and nutrition.
  • Learning facts or vocabulary.  It is a good idea to take home even just 20 French words each weekend to try to learn them – perhaps using Quizlet if you aren't willing to leave your phone on the side all weekend.  That way you'll learn around 1000 words on top of everything else over a year.  They won't all stick, but some will, and you'll have made a connection with the others such that when you see them again you're more likely to learn it the next time.
  • For subjects with essays or extended responses, practise structuring and planning techniques (e.g. PEE – point, evidence, explain) writing essay under time pressure. There’s nothing worse than writing a fantastic introduction and body of an essay, but having no time to conclude it.


Fast-track Learning

You needed to have done the learning throughout the year.  But if you haven't learnt most of your content when you get to revision time I recommend you try to fast-track your learning by:

1.      Allocating lots of hours of learning (e.g. 12 hours a day) then switching to revision closer to your exam.

2.      Getting a tutor.

3.      Doing lots and lots of past paper questions so that you can diagnose your weaker areas to focus on and gamble that similar questions come up in the exams. 


How to revise

Step 1:   do a diagnosis test to identify your weak areas (or a system like eRevision – see below).  If you don't have on available then do a set of topic tests that cover every area of the syllabus

Step 2:   now you have identified the gaps in your knowledge learn what you don't already know.  For example read the textbook and make notes of anything you don't already know, including examples, quotations and case studies.  At the end make a bullet point list with the top 5 new things you've just learnt.

Step 3:   create mindmaps to summarise the content and examples of the topics that you are weak on – this might be as many as half the topics. 

Step 4:   work through topic questions – for example topic tests, or questions from a revision pack/book

Step 5:   do practice exam questions – check your answers against the model solutions or answers which both identifies what you don't know (or need to revise more to remember) and also checks that you've understood what the question is asking.  Do more practice exam questions – if time is short just pick out the questions that you are not very good at already.


As mentioned earlier the variety helps makes the connections; a mixture of reading, writing, diagrams, shorter questions, exam style questions and comparing your answers to model answers means that you'll see the information in different forms and expressed in different ways.


The eRevision solution

ZigZag Education have created an online revision system designed to give you structure in your revision by bring the diagnostic, learning, revision and exam practice elements together as well as a motivating progress grid which encourages you to cover everything.

It does this by:

  1. All topics have a 'gap-fill'.  If you know the topic then you will be able to speed through it confirming that you know it.  If you don't know the topic then where you can guess or work out the right answer you will be learning, otherwise the system identifies that you don't know that area well.  You shouldn't look up answers at this point because then the system will highlight the areas that you 'failed' so if gives you a focus for your revision.
  2. Next there are exercises to do that are relatively 'easy' such as matchup, categorise, diagram pin-drop and re-order.  This reinforces anything you have just learnt as well as further checking that you know the content well.
  3. Thirdly there are multiple-choice, wipe-out or type-it questions which may include harder questions to test your knowledge.
  4. Finally there are exam style questions which subsequently show you a model answers and mark scheme, which you self-mark.


The grid of all the exercises gradually turns green so you can easily see your progress and what areas you have left to cover which is very motivating.  Where you find the gapfills easy you may not want to do all the other exercises and jump to the exam style questions, or at least leave them to the end for only if you have enough time.  All for not much more than the price of a revision book from the bookshop!  Bulk pricing is available for schools.


Revision Tips

Make a revision timetable that you are going to stick to – plan which subjects you are going to do each day, and plan the structure of how you are going to review

  • Ensure you have a copy of the syllabus (often called a specification) from the exam board website.  Also get a copy of the mark scheme from a past paper so you understand how to apply the knowledge you have learnt.
  • Revise in a quiet area away from all distractions, especially social media. 
  • If you revise well to music then having an mp3 player, iPad or CD player is OK only if it is the other side of the room.  Avoid the radio as the DJ talking will interrupt your thoughts, and avoid YouTube at all costs or other services where you are tempted to pick your individual songs.
  • See if you can plan a day in the middle of your revision when you can go into school and ask your teachers about things you don't understand or questions you couldn't do when revising.
  • Take breaks – if you've sat down and worked solidly for more than 30 minutes, particularly if on one topic, then go for a quick walk around the garden or go and get a glass of water or cup of tea.
  • Give yourself little rewards, for example a chocolate if when you've finished a subject (don't eat the bag before you start otherwise you'll struggle to revise when your insulin levels drop as well as reducing your motivation)!
  • Ignore friends who say they're not doing much revision or who are going out.  Whether they are lying or just not doing their revision doesn't matter – your revision is for your life, and it ends before the summer holidays when you can have a long break from it. Don’t fail for FOMO!
  • Go to bed early – if your brain doesn't have enough deep cycles it won't finish moving it to long term storage.  If you are worried about exams at all your brain needs time to process those too and reduced sleep will make it worse.


Revise with a friend

At can be good revision variety and also enjoyable to spend 10% to 20% of your time revising with a friend.  Pick a place conducive to revision (with no distractions like Xbox) such as your local library.  Remember that your best friend who is great fun at parties is not necessarily the best revision buddy!

  • Pick one or two difficult concepts and explain them to your friend – this can force you to clarify your thinking as well as making more connections.
  • Create a few questions for each topic that you think will challenge your friend.  Keep those questions and test yourself with them a week later.


Action: Now you've finished reading this article, don’t spend any more time worrying about how you’re revising or researching new ways to revise. Start revising! Now!

Powered by ZigZag Education, eRevision is an interactive online platform designed to motivate GCSE and A Level students and boost exam success.

Find out more about how eRevision can help you revise or see the list of subjects available.