This is obviously a topic that is very subjective, and different methods work for different people. But as exam season is just around the corner for university studies (and maybe high school students around the world, but not in UK anymore), I thought I’d share some of my go-to tips for revising (and do the complete opposite by procrastinating).
Most of these are from when I was in high school, and I’ve never been let down. My revision style changed when I got to university, and with this, so did my grades. So, this exam season, I’ll be going back to my old ways as well. I hope you find something useful out of this, whether it’s through discovering new revision techniques, or self-care techniques, or through figuring out that none of these would work for you.
Never revise the night before your exam
I know what you’re thinking, but honestly, cramming content into your head the night before or even hours before the exam doesn’t help you achieve a higher grade in the paper. In fact, in a lot a cases, it shifts your attention from other content you may need to know for the paper (stored in your long-term memory) to the content you just looked over, which is in your short-term memory.
Draw up a revision plan
It might seem like I’m stating the obvious here but you’d be surprised as to how many people actually just go about their revision with no study plan. This can actually lead to you making use of your time inefficiently and, as a result, fall short of what’s expected for the paper.
If you don’t want to draw up a plan from scratch, there are plenty of useful tools on the internet that can help you with this. One I used unchangingly when I was in high school was Get Revising. It calculates how much revision you needed to do per subject based on the level of difficulty and time until exam, but tailors it around your personal activities. It spreads out the revision for each subject so they are in manageable chunks but you can also edit as necessary. There are many other great features about it, and it’s free to use, so definitely worth trying out if you struggle with planning.
Take regular breaks
It might be tempting to have a continuous, never-ending revision session, especially when the exam is just around the corner, but this is actually very counter productive. By not giving your brain, eyes and hands regular breaks, you can find that your cognitive abilities decrease. Just like how you can strain a muscle through excessive exercise, you can tire your brain and strain your eyes and hands. On top of this, eye strain is contributing factor to other issues such as headaches, increasing your stress levels and reducing your ability to concentrate.
The method I use is to do a couple of hours of revision (or finish going through one lecture) and then to take a half an hour to one hour break before resuming. Of course, during this time, you’d be tempted to watch something or play a video game. However, as often as you can, I would recommend using this time to put away any devices with screens, listen to some music and just rest. You can even try doing some meditation or similar exercises to help settle your mind and prepare for the next session.
Yes, this might be another obvious tip, but it’s good to reiterate for people like me who drink far less water than the recommended daily amount. Drinking plenty of water has several benefits, but in this context it helps to reduce fatigue, which is often felt during long revision sessions. It increases your energy and ability to concentrate, helping your brain to work faster. As a natural remedy for headaches, it can keep them at bay when things get frustrating.
For anyone who finds it difficult to drink enough water, I recommend downloading an app which can remind you to drink a preset amount at regular intervals. I use an app called Hydro, which is available on both iOS and Android. On top of this, you can invest in an infusion water bottle and add in fruits or vegetables of your choice to not only enhance the flavour but also provide added health benefits.
Watch what you eat
It’s a well-known fact that over exam periods, students tend to turn towards take aways, or microwave/oven cooked foods so as not to waste any time cooking. However, overconsumption of junk food, or food high in calories, can affect your brain’s ability to produce healthy, functioning synapses, affecting your ability to learn and to memorise new information.
So instead of snacking on those fries or that packet of crips during your revision session, why not swap them out for brain foods? I like to snack on almonds, berries, cherry tomatoes and carrots when I’m revising. Almonds are one of the best brain foods around and are known to boost certain brain functions and improve your cognitive functions. Berries are high in antioxidants, which help protect brain cells from damage, and have shown to enhance brain function and control. Tomatoes in general also help protect the brain from damage as they are good source of carotenoids. These nutrients safeguard fat in your body and your brain is, well, mostly made of fat. Carrots are high in a compound called luteolin, which helps against age-related memory affecting illnesses.
Another revision snack that my mum introduced me to is a processed cereal mix called Samaposha, which can be found in most South Asian shops. It is a nutritional supplement that is high in whole grain (another brain food). I like mine mixed with sugar, fresh shredded coconut and a little bit of honey and water.
Cut down on caffeine
Caffeine is a must have for late night or all night study sessions, and it’s always tempting to reach for another cup of coffee or another can of red bull when feeling fatigued. Caffeine has actually been proven to improve cognitive functions and memory performances. But don’t consider having endless coffee whilst studying just yet. A higher intake of caffeine can actually decrease performance – possibly due to over-stimulation – and have negative effects on your body. Instead, consume plenty of water. As mentioned above, it helps reduce fatigue and increase energy.
If you’re tired, sleep
It’s always tempting to stay up just that little bit longer (or even for hours) to finish a topic or a module. All nighters are a common occurrence in the student community, but studies have shown that lack of sleep, despite giving you more hours to study, actually reduces your cognitive abilities immensely. Your energy level decreases as a result of poor sleep, reducing your ability to recall information and concentrate on the task at hand and negatively affecting your academic performance. Prolonged sleep deprivation, combined with caffeine, can induce other issues such as insomnia. So although you will get a few more hours of revision, in the long-term it’s counterproductive and you are more likely to perform better with a well rested mind.
Personally, I study better during the night when it’s quiet and I find I can focus better. Nevertheless I make sure to get plenty of sleep during the day. This works for some people and not for others, but over the years I deduced that day time revision did not work as well for me.
Here are some other tips I found by Dr. Philip Alapat that may be useful to some of you:
- Avoid afternoon revision, as this is when the brain is least alert
- Try to get around 8 hours sleep, especially near final exams
- Utilise times of optimal brain function (usually 6 to 8pm)
Get fresh air regularly
Being holed up in one room for the whole day can wear you down physically, emotionally and cognitively. I understand that during exam season, time is precious, but so is your mental and physical health. As the brain associates nature with your parasympathetic nervous system – which serves to slow your heart rate and control your body at rest – going outside and getting fresh air relaxes your body and provides a boost of energy. Along with various other health benefits, this helps improve your cognitive performance, enabling you to study better. I like to use some of my revision breaks just to take a stroll outside, calm myself down and clear my head. In the summer, there are also times where I would study outside for a little while to escape the feeling of being surrounded by 4 walls.
Choose a revision method that suits the way you learn
There are 4 main learning styles – Visual, Auditory, Reading/Writing and Kinesthetic, or VARK for short. These can be further split into more learning styles as shown in the image above. Find the learning style that suits you best, and not what your peers are using. Within my group of friends, I have noticed that I am one of the few, if not the only, visual learner whereas others are verbal or solitary. I have always been a visual learner; mind maps, pictures, diagrams, excessive use of different coloured pens – these are the techniques that helped me revise. I would embellish my flashcards with stickers and motivational quotes in pretty colours to make it more appealing for me to read. On the other hand, others may disagree and find this to be wasteful or distracting.
Not only that, some people like to work with music in the background as it helps them concentrate, but others prefer pure silence. Some prefer to study during the day and others at night. You even have people who like a combination of learning styles. The important thing to remember is that there is no right or wrong way of learning. It all comes down to the individual.
Don’t revise in your bedroom
As much as you might hate going to the library, and prefer being cooped up in your dorm room or bedroom, it is not an ideal environment for you to work towards academic success. Distractions aside, your brain perceives your bedroom as a place of rest and relaxation, increasing the temptation to procrastinate. On top of this, introducing your work life into this environment can have a negative effect on your natural sleeping habits, for your brain will start to associate your room with work and stress.
Instead, find a space you can only associate with work and not social matters. So avoid that cafe where you had that amazing first date, or your living room where you spend time with friends, playing video games and watching movies. In fact, find a few spaces, so that you are able to switch up your learning environment and keep your brain stimulated, and make sure these spaces are comfortable but not too comfortable. For me, the library only works when I have a friend or two to keep me company. I also like to study in random empty classrooms around the university, or certain cafés. I switch up my study location every few days, or depending on the task I need to finish, but I still never do any studying at home. I come home when I need to relax and take my mind of anything to do with work. That’s why I call my room my zen space.
Past papers are your Holy Grail
This is something I have exercised religiously ever since I started studying for my GCSEs. I think irrespective of your learning style, doing past papers is one of the best ways to prepare for an exam. When in high school, the content you are tested on is restricted by the exam board, and going through past papers routinely helps you cover all of the possible questions and answers in a productive way. (You may have noticed how questions are often repeated every few years.) For maths and sciences in particular, I would have completed every past paper available before the exam, and even repeated a few until I was happy with the mark I achieved.
I found this to be even more relevant at university, for the content is now not restricted by an exam board, but is decided upon, taught and the exam paper written by one person: your lecturer. No matter how long they’ve been teaching for, they are very limited to the questions they can offer within the scope of the module. As it is one person working on the questions for the paper, you will find the same questions cropping up even more often.
Utilise your muscle memory
Need to write a prearranged essay in your paper? Or do you have an upcoming written/oral exam in another language? Rewriting content helps leave a motor memory in your brain and develop automatic muscle memory, helping you remember the content. This was my goto when sitting language exams and English literature exams. I would rewrite the content until it was embedded in my brain and hand. Of course, you don’t need to write out everything. Even just writing our prompt points repeatedly will help you.
Meditation has so many life and health benefits that you may start to wonder why you haven’t already incorporated it into your lifestyle. With regards to revising and studying, meditation is a great way to reduce levels of the stress hormone, cortisol. With reduced stress comes reduced anxiety, which lifts any emotional barriers that are restricting your cognitive ability. Regular meditation can improve your attention span, working memory, self-control, creativity and even help reduce cognitive and intellectual decline.
It has been proven to be a very effective way of helping gain control over some mental health issues, such as anxiety. Many people experience anxiety attacks or panic attacks when revising for exams, and removing yourself from the situation and completing meditation exercises not only helps in the short-term, but has long-term benefits as well. Over time, you can learn understand your thought processes and isolate any lingering hypothetical ideologies or problems that may be hindering your performance. There are various books, websites, videos and classes available via different platforms but a couple of resources I like to use are a book called Mediation Made Easy, which really breaks down the whole aspect of mediation, and a pagan technique called Grounding.
No matter how hard you’ve been studying, if you’re pessimistic about the future, about the exam and the outcome, it will have a negative impact on your performance. Regardless. Optimism is key to our survival; it’s hardwired into our brains and can allow the brain to adapt and restructure itself. This is called neuroplasticity, and is often observed in those with severe neurological afflictions, such as CP or mental illnesses. By thinking positively, you are more likely to engage in activities that aid your situation and make your life better. This is because pessimism is often linked to the feeling of hopelessness, triggering the individual to give up before even attempting certain activities. By exercising optimism, you become better equipped to learn new skills, improve your cognitive performance and even raise your IQ.
As I mentioned at the start of this post, these are methods that I swear by and have found to help me when I’m revising. I hope you have found something helpful in this post and really work towards a revision structure boosts your performance.
Finally, good luck to anyone who is sitting exams this month!