Study Smart: Revision Techniques
It’s that time of year again: exam season. And if you want to pass with flying colours, you need to put in the legwork. Oh yes, revision beckons. Studying in this way isn’t as simple as regurgitating facts, pulling all-nighters, and cramming at the last minute; you need to approach it methodically, creatively, and – most important of all – holistically. You may not think it, but your exercise routine, sleep regimen, diet, and overall wellbeing are just as important as discerning the best way to study. With that in mind, here’s some food for thought: our tried-and-tested tips for exam success.
Before you do any revision
The old adage ‘breakfast like a king’ exists for a reason: research has found skipping this important meal considerably reduces students’ attention span and ability to recall informationi. So before you crack the whip with revision, embrace the cliché and serve yourself something hearty, energising, and nutritious for breakfast. Think a mix of satiating protein, whole grains, and fresh fruit or veggies. Porridge with nut butter and berries (side note: blueberries are packed with powerful antioxidants called anthocyanidins, which also work wonders for your cognition), or poached eggs and smashed avocado on wholegrain toast (you could even throw in some omega-3 rich smoked salmon for the ultimate noggin nourishment!) are brilliant breakfast choices. And always…always eat breakfast on the day of your exam, too. If nerves are affecting your appetite, a simple bowl of sugar-free cereal or plain toast is better than nothing.
Why not have a look at our article 'The Modern Breakfast: Trending Foods That Fuel Your Day', to find more nutrient dense breakfast ideas!
Put your phone away
Okay, this one sounds obvious, but you’d be surprised at how many people struggle with this one. Attention is the key to memorising. And phones can totally hijack this. In fact, evidence suggests undergraduates who spend more time scrolling on social media and texting get lower gradesii. Even the mere sight of your phone can be distracting, as another fascinating study discoverediii. The phrase ‘out of sight, out of mind’ couldn’t ring truer. Turn off your phone – and any other form of tech, for that matter. Don’t worry; Instagram will still be there at the end of the day.
Find a quiet space to work
Your revision space is everything. It’s paramount that you find a quiet place to hunker down and concentrate. Your room, dining table, and local/school library are usually the most conducive to focused study. But everyone is different. Find what jives with you. Be careful revising in loud and distracting environments, like cafes – they don’t work for everyone. Feel free to move around, too. Changing up your revision space can aid productivity, and may prevent the inevitable study boredom and restlessness ensuing. Just be sure your new locations aren’t too stimulating. As a rule of thumb, avoid noise and distractions.
Establish your learning style
Before knuckling down with revision, it can be enormously helpful to establish what learning style is most conducive to you. Ask yourself: am I a visual, auditory, or kinaesthetic learner? If you’re wondering, “what on earth is a kinaesthetic learner?” here’s a simple guide to demystify this jargon.
You need to see information to understand it
You have a strong sense of colour
You may struggle following lessons or lectures
Use images to reinforce learning
Use diagrams and flow charts for note taking
Use lots of colour to organise notes and revision
You need to hear information to understand it
You may find reading challenging
You may find it difficult following written directions
Use recordings to record notes
Participate in discussions to aid learning
Read revision notes aloud
You prefer hands-on learning
You may find it difficult sitting still
You learn better when physical activity is involved
Memorise information while walking or exercising
Employ experimental learning, such as role playing or making models
Use dance, drama or song to support revision
During revision sessions
Space it out
Marathon runners don’t train the day before the race. The same goes for revising. It takes a significant amount of time to forge long-term memories. Spreading out your revision sessions on one topic is far more effective than spending the same amount of time on it in one go. Instead of 9 hours in one day, go for one-hour sessions over 9 days. This strategy is called spaced repetition; it allows for time in between revision sessions to re-learn and consolidate informationiv. You may also want to compile a list of topics/subjects in a table and use a traffic light system (red = little understanding; amber = some knowledge; green = confident) to delineate how much time you dedicate to each.
Use the Pomodoro technique
For some students, the Pomodoro technique is the best vehicle for productivity. If you aren’t familiar with this buzzword, it essentially looks like this: set a timer to 25 minutes and work until the timer pings. Then, take a short 5-minute break. Repeat this 4 times, after which you can have a longer 15-30 minute break. We’d suggest allocate 2-3 slots per topic. Top tip: revise easier topics in the afternoon, when your concentration and energy levels may be lagging.
10-10.25am – revise History
[10.25-10.30am – 5 min break]
10.30-10.55am – revise History
[10.55-11am – 5 min break]
11-11.25am – revise History
[11.25-11.30am – 5 min break]
11.30-11.55am – revise English
[11.55am – 12.25pm – 30 minute break.] Use this opportunity to break for lunch, and then work from 2-5pm, using the same technique.
Pencilling in regular breaks isn’t just an excuse to take five; it’s also crucially important for your memory and recall. When you learn something new, a cluster of neurons is activated in the part of your brain called the hippocampus. Think of it as a pattern of light bulbs switching on. Trouble is, when your hippocampus is forced to store new ideas in a short space of time, it can jumble up information. Breaks minimise this interference. To ensure those nuggets of information are firmly lodged in your long-term memory, always make time to put your hardworking brain on ice: get outside, enjoy the sunshine, and stretch your legs; make a cup of tea; have a healthy snack; or unwind with a short meditation.
By far, the most effective way to improve your recall is by going back to basics and testing yourself. This will illuminate any gaps in your knowledge that need filling. Using practice papers and quizzes are wise places to start.
And why not teach the material to someone else? ‘The Protégé Effect’ is thought to aid recall and memory thanks to it encouraging individuals to organise learned material in a concise, clear, and structured mannerv. If you can teach it to someone and they follow, it’s a pretty good marker of your understanding, don’t you think?
Don’t listen to music
Though you may be tempted to blast Harry Styles’ new album to make the revision experience slightly more bearable, it won’t do your study efforts any favours. Hearing words when your brain is trying to remember other words isn’t the best idea. And science proves it. An investigation revealed students who study in a quiet environment are likely to recall more information than their music-listening counterpartsvi. If you really can’t bear the silence, why not opt for classical music?
While it’s important to keep your eagle eye on revision, you can’t lose sight of your nutrition. Fuelling your brain and body are key ingredients to your study success. Above all, make sure you eat regularly and avoid hunger pangs. For some, this could mean eating six small meals a day, as opposed to three. In addition to chowing down on an energising breakfast, as outlined above, choose dishes with a low glycaemic index (the rate at which your body digests, metabolises, and converts food into glucose) for lunch. Foods like brown rice, sweet potatoes, wholemeal bread, and lentils will provide a natural, slow release of energy to keep you satisfied until dinner. For your last meal of the day, make oily fish the centrepiece. These guys are chock-full of brain-bolstering omega-3 fatty acids. Not a fish fan? Flaxseeds and chia seed are the best plant-based alternatives.
Oh, and you’ll need snacks, too. But when the afternoon slump strikes, refrain from indulging in refined, sugary treats. The short-lived spike in your energy will be followed rapidly by crashing blood sugar levels, making you feel sluggish and fatigued. Instead, go for healthy, wholefood snacks. Berries (blueberries, raspberries), boiled eggs, nuts, and dark chocolate are especially brilliant mental floss.
Finally, don’t forget to drink up! Dehydration can compromise your concentration levels and lead to fatigue. Try to drink 8-10 glasses of water every day, and always have a bottle of water in your revision space – a visible reminder to sip regularly.
Exercise (preferably outside)
It’s not humanly possible to work all day, every day. And it’s certainly not advised. Getting outside, filling your lungs with fresh air, and stretching your legs will work wonders for your study efforts. Plus, the cognitive benefits of connecting with nature are well-documented; science tells us you’ll feel rejuvenated and better able to focusvii. In addition to strolls outside, make time for other forms of physical activity. Swimming, yoga, and other exercise classes are brilliant ways to alleviate exam stress, increase energy levels, support sleep quality, and enhance mood – leading to a healthier, happier you.
Contrary to what you might think, exam season isn’t entirely about deprivation. Your happiness and overall wellbeing affect your exam performance, too. To keep your spirits high, pepper study season with mood-boosting rewards. For instance, you could work for five days and take one day off to meet a friend, treat yourself to half an hour of social media use at the end of your working day, or go out for your favourite meal midweek. Let’s not forget, we’re all human. And sometimes we need the incentive of a reward to tackle the task at hand.
Rest is vital for memory, mood, and energy; failure to prioritise it will undoubtedly hamper your exam success. Create a healthy bedtime routine and stick to it. Aim for 8-10 hours of sleep every night (the National Sleep Foundation actually advocates GCSE and Sixth Form Students clocking up to 10 hours of sleep a night)viii. Make your bedroom an inviting sleep sanctuary, too; avoid screen-use an hour before bed, and ensure your room is dark, quiet and temperate. Top tip: hide your alarm clock! Incessantly checking the time will only make it harder to fall asleep. Learn more about steps to helps you drift off naturally here
All that’s left to say is best of luck!
Wesnes. K., Pincock. C., Richardson. D., Helm. G. & Hails. S. (2003). Breakfast reduces declines in attention and memory over the morning in schoolchildren. Appetite, 41(3), 329-331.
Lepp. A., Barkley,. J. & Karpinski. A. (2015). The Relationship Between Cell Phone Use and Academic Performance in a Sample of U.S. College Students. SAGE Open, 215824401557316.
Thornton. B., Faires. A., Robbins. M. & Robbins. E. (2015). The Mere Presence of a Cell Phone May be Distracting. Social Psychology, 45(6), 479-488.
Nickson. C. (2019). Learning by Spaced Repetition. LITFL - Medical Blog. Available online: https://lifeinthefastlane.com/learning-by-spaced-repetition [Accessed 28 Mar. 2019].
Paul. A. & Paul. A. (2019). The Protégé Effect. TIME.com. Available online: http://ideas.time.com/2011/11/30/the-protege-effect [Accessed 28 Mar. 2019].
Perham. N. & Currie. H. (2014). Does listening to preferred music improve reading comprehension performance?. Applied Cognitive Psychology. 2004 Dec. ;28(2), pp.279-284.
Berman. M., Jonides. J. & Kaplan. S. (2018). The Cognitive Benefits of Interacting With Nature. Psychological Science. ;19(12), 1207-1212.
National Sleep Foundation. (2019). How Much Sleep Do We Really Need?. Available online: https://www.sleepfoundation.org/excessive-sleepiness/support/how-much-sleep-do-we-really-need [Accessed 28 Mar. 2019].
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Olivia Salter has always been an avid health nut. After graduating from the University of Bristol, she began working for a nutritional consultancy where she discovered her passion for all things wellness-related. There, she executed much of the company’s content marketing strategy and found her niche in health writing, publishing articles in Women’s Health, Mind Body Green, Thrive and Psychologies.