Revision: Frequently Asked Questions Revision: Frequently Asked Questions

Questions

Click on the relevant query listed here to navigate through the page to the corresponding answer.

I've started revising, but it isn't going in. I'm worried I won't remember everything in the exam, what should I do?

I've started my revision late. I know I should have begun earlier, but is it too late? What can I do in the time left?

How do I know if I've worked hard enough? I'm so tired...!

I've managed to learn quite a bit of the course by heart, but there's so much of it! How can I memorise it all?

What is exam technique?

How should I manage my time during revision and during the exam itself?

What should I do the day before the exam?

I always do worse in exams than in coursework. What's going wrong?

 

Answers

I've started revising, but it isn't going in. I'm worried I won't remember everything in the exam, what should I do?

Your revision strategies may be too passive, and you could try working in a more active way.  There are many common misconceptions about revision and how best to do it.  Some people think that it means re-reading their notes many times so that it will 'sink in' or that it means 'rote-learning' (memorising by heart).  Actually, revision works best when you are actively doing something with the information, for example:

  • Making mnemonics (memory 'triggers' such as acronyms, word association or rhymes)

  • Making condensed summaries and overviews of your notes

  • Re-working your notes into different forms (such as prose to mindmaps, mindmaps to bullet lists, bullet lists to diagrams, recording your notes to listen to, etc.)

  • Practising writing essay plans or answering past papers

  • Testing yourself or another student.

Revision also means revisiting material several times, not just on one occasion.  Each time you return to a topic, you improve your memory of it as it goes from your short-term into your long-term memory.  You can improve your memory with practice; the more you revise, the more you will be able to remember, and the quicker you will be able to memorise things! Alternatively, you could be trying to work for too long at a time: try shortening your work sessions.

 

I've started my revision late. I know I should have begun earlier, but is it too late? What can I do in the time left?

You are going to have to be very selective in what you choose to spend your available time on.  It is better to aim for a general overview and a few topics in depth, than try to cover everything, if you are really short of time.  Fortunately this process of selection is in itself a good way to master the subject.  To do this, you will have to gain an overview of the subject; evaluate topics and decide which are the really essential aspects and which are less vital; spot connections between topics so you can revise the parts which are 'transferable' and could be useful for a number of different topics; and understand the general principles of the subject so you can use what you do know in a creative way.  You can use the structure of the lecture course to break down the subject into different topics.  You can also use past papers to practise and familiarise yourself with the sorts of questions and level of detail that you will encounter in the exam.

Do not be tempted to cram unrealistic amounts of work into your remaining time.  Working 12 hours a day will not compensate for starting late and may leave you overtired and unable to take anything in or think clearly.  Of course, the best marks will be gained by those who have developed a good, detailed understanding of the whole syllabus.  However, university exams are interested in what you understand and what you can do with your knowledge, as well as what you know.  So if you can develop a good enough understanding of your subject to decide what to focus on in the time you have left, then all is not lost.

 

How do I know if I've worked hard enough? I'm so tired...!

Many students have unrealistic expectations about how much preparation to do for exams.  Some think it is possible to do well on very little revision, which is untrue, but you may also be overestimating the amount you need to cover and how much time you need to spend working each day.  The myth is that you need an in-depth knowledge of everything you have covered on your course, plus additional reading, and that you need to work 12 hours every day.  This belief is equally untrue.

An exam is different to a piece of coursework; you are not expected to produce the same level of detail, so distinguish between what you need to know to demonstrate a good working knowledge of the subject, and what is unnecessary detail for an exam.  Exams test not just knowledge but your ability to understand and apply it.  If you have a choice of question, it is often good to select a few areas in which you will specialise, and cover others in less depth.  Of course, you take some risk on what topics will come up in the exam, but if you try to revise everything equally, you may only gain a superficial understanding of it all.

You also need to be realistic about how long you can work.  You will not be productive if you try to work for too long each day, and you may find overwork is counterproductive if you try to cram too much in.  To learn actively and apply your knowledge in the exam, you need to be well rested and healthy.  A maximum of 5-7 hours a day, in short sessions with breaks and some days off too, is realistic.  It is much better to get a good night's sleep before the exam, so that you can think clearly in the exam, than to spend all night cramming and be too tired to use any of your learning.

 

I've managed to learn quite a bit of the course by heart, but there's so much of it! How can I memorise it all?

You can't, and you're not really expected to.  An exam tests different skills to a piece of coursework, but it is not primarily a test of memory.  It tests if you have a good working knowledge of the subject, which you can demonstrate with an understanding of its general principles, ability to apply these principles, and knowledge of some examples to illustrate (quotes, studies, theories etc. depending on subject).  This is more than just facts or 'everything you know'.  It is not assumed that you can produce the same kind of long, highly detailed, fully referenced work as you do in coursework.  This is not to say that exams are easier!  You do have to memorize key facts, and some subjects demand this more than others.  But bear in mind the difference between passive recognition and active recall - which are you really being asked to do?  For example, might you be asked to give a definition of a term, or just know what it means if you see it in an exam question?

But even if you could memorise the whole subject by heart, this would still not get you the best marks.  It may be counterproductive!  Some students simply regurgitate everything they know about a topic, but this is not the same thing as answering the exam question.  Some run out of time and could not finish their answers as they try to cram everything in.  Others spend too long stating their knowledge and not enough on other sections of the answer, which ask them to do something with that knowledge (discuss, analyse, evaluate, etc.).  Some find that their memories are so full of facts that they cannot select key or relevant points, a skill that is also being tested.  To get a sense of how much you need to really memorise, it is worth practising with past papers to get an idea of what level of detailed knowledge is required, and what you are asked to do with that knowledge in the exam.

 

What is exam technique?

'Exam technique' refers to all the skills you need to use in exams other than subject knowledge and understanding.  Even if your ability in your subject is very good, your mark may not reflect this if you neglect:

Time management: Plan your time to take into account the number of sections and questions to be answered and the number of marks they are worth (they may not be equal).  Also make some time at the beginning of each question to plan your answer and time at the end of the exam to check them all.  If you exceed the time you've allocated to a question, remember that one over-long answer will not make up for another question that is cut short if you run out of time.

Close reading of instructions: Both the instructions and the questions should be read very carefully.  It may sound obvious, but every year some students misread them due to nerves or haste and fail to do what the exam asks.  Check number of sections and questions to be answered, whether you have a choice of question, marks allotted and time available.  Check both the topic of the question and also the instruction (discuss, describe, evaluate etc.).

Planning: You should spend a few minutes planning the content and structure of your answer, particularly in essay questions.  Exams test your ability to apply your knowledge, so a clear argument is essential to show that your answer is more than an unconnected assortment of information.

Good presentation: Although it is recognised that you cannot produce the same polished work in an exam as in coursework, the examiners cannot give you marks if they cannot read or follow what you have written.  If you usually use computers to write, then practise handwriting to build up your strength and legibility.  Planning your answer will also help to avoid afterthoughts scribbled in margins or other odd places.

Personal organisation: To do well in exams, you will need to be able to organise yourself to arrive at the right venue, at the right date and time, with the right equipment!  If you arrive late through not knowing how to find the venue, or not allowing enough journey time, it will certainly cost you added stress, lost time, and lost marks.  Exams do not primarily seek to test these skills, but by their nature, they will still require competence in these things to ensure a good performance.

 

How should I manage my time during revision and during the exam itself?

During revision, you should change topic frequently – don't plan all your revision on a topic for one day. This way, you will avoid boredom. It will also allow you to revisit topics frequently, not just once. This allows revised material to be stored in your long-term memory. Don't overwork; this can be counterproductive. 6-8 hours a day is a good maximum to set yourself, and you should intersperse this with short, frequent breaks and half or even whole days off. Similarly, don't make each work session too long – you may find that a break every 30 minutes will refresh you and mean you are more productive than working for a whole hour. You should certainly avoid working late the night before an exam!

During the exam, you should look carefully at the number of questions you have to answer, the exam's total length of time, and the number of marks available for each question. Divide the time up so that you have a few minutes to plan your answer (less in short-answer or multi-choice) and some time free at the end to check your answers, add points you've missed and correct errors. Planning a well structured answer will gain marks for thoroughness, clarity and presentation and will ensure that you stay on topic; checking your answers may gain you a few extra marks that might make all the difference. When dividing up your time per question, take into account that not all questions will be worth equal marks. Even if you spend a long time ensuring that one answer is brilliant, you cannot be given more than the allotted marks. This will not make up for the fact that you have spent less time on other questions.

 

What should I do the day before the exam?

The day before the exam should be spend consolidating what you already know from your revision, rather than learning new knowledge. The aim is to reassure yourself with familiar material so that you are in a confident and well-rested frame of mind for the exam. You could:

  • Test yourself on some central facts or knowledge

  • Practice with past papers

  • Return to the overview you made at the beginning of your revision and familiarise yourself again with the ‘big picture'.

  • Re-read primary texts.

  • The best advice is to get an early night, and don't work before bed, so that you can relax and sleep well. If you are refreshed and energised by a good night's sleep, you will be able to think strategically and creatively in the exam. If you are tired and overwhelmed by too much last-minute learning, you may not be able to use this knowledge constructively to answer the exam questions.

  • It is probably best not to:

  • Learn new knowledge

  • Read new material

  • Revise with friends

Looking at new material and trying to learn it at the last minute is not likely to make a significant difference to your exam performance. Focussing on what you don't know may make you panic, or you may find that you can't ‘switch off' and get a good night's rest. Avoid comparing your revision with other people, as you may find that it makes you more anxious. If you find yourself becoming stressed as you revise, remember that the exam experience will be very different, as adrenaline will help to sharpen your thinking. Remember too that it is very hard to be objective at this time, so do not take pre-exam nerves as a sign that you have not prepared well enough.

 

I always do worse in exams than in coursework. What's going wrong?

This is a common experience and the mismatch in grades suggests the problem is not your subject understanding. This issue is often attributed to the stress associated with exams. Mild stress levels can motivate and energise, but for some, stress can cloud your thinking and impair exam performance. The study guides on ‘Exam Stress' and ‘Looking After Yourself' offer guidance on handling stress. 

However, it could be that your revision and exam skills need to be updated, so that they are more active and applied. If your revision mostly consists of re-reading your lecture notes and core texts, or taking extensive notes, you should consider more active strategies such as condensing your notes onto cue cards or mindmaps, creating memory aids such as acronyms, or testing yourself. If your revision focuses mostly on memorising knowledge, this may mean that you are not practised at applying it in exams. You could make your revision more applied by re-working material in different formats: mindmaps, diagrams, bullet-points, text, etc. You could also practise with past papers, analysing what the questions are asking for and practising how you might answer them. You could also make up variations on past questions, or invent your own questions to test yourself and anticipate what you might be asked to do with your knowledge. In the exam, pay close attention to how the exam questions are phrased. You will not gain high marks for simply regurgitating all you know about a topic, but for applying your knowledge in the way the question asks.