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Complete guide to exam revision

Everything you need to know about preparing for your exams, with top tips and examples of how to revise effectively.

In this article
When should you start revising? How many hours should you revise per day? What are the best revision techniques to study effectively?
14 revision tips to try now How to make a revision timetable How do I stay productive when studying?

When should you start revising?

This will depend on how many exams you have, when they are and how prepared you are already. Most students will begin just before or during the Easter holidays, but focus on what your needs are, and plan accordingly.

Mocks are a great way to kick off your revision, whether these take place before or after Christmas.

Here you can start getting your notes together, figure out a study plan and discover what techniques work best for you. This can save time when preparing for the real thing later.

When you get your mock results back, this will tell you how you’re doing, what material has stuck and what you need to work on.

From there, you can decide when to begin. This might begin with simply making notes or highlighting key information, and ramp up slowly to actually memorising this and doing past papers. 

Again, things will vary from student to student; don’t try to get too bogged down by what others are doing.

Your teachers can also give you some guidance on when to begin and what you should be doing, as they will know you best.

How many hours should you revise per day?

Again, this will depend on how much you need to revise, how you’re doing so far and how you best revise.

You don’t want to be in a situation where you haven’t got enough time to cover everything you need to, so start early if you have to, to get the job done.

Cramming, overly long revision sessions and not covering material in enough detail won’t do you any good.  Stick to short revision sessions, take breaks, and switch up what and how you study to keep things interesting.

A four-hour study session without breaks may look impressive; but if you’re not remembering what you need to, how effective is it really?

The human brain can only go so long without being distracted, so don’t push yourself beyond your limits. If you need to meet a certain number of study hours in a single day, experiment with revising at different times to avoid long, unproductive sessions.

This might mean doing a little work before school, at lunchtime or after school (before and after dinner).

This might not sound fun, but exam season is where you’ll need to learn to prioritise commitments in your life (temporarily) for a greater goal – a worthy life lesson.

So things like extracurricular clubs, sports, part-time jobs, browsing Instagram, playing video games and seeing friends might need to be put on the shelf (if possible) for now.

That doesn’t mean you should be working 24/7 and not blow off steam here and there; but be smart with your time and earn your rewards. 

Heading to an open day soon? Before you go, check out our full guide to make the most of the trip.

What are the best revision techniques to study effectively?

Studying in shorter sessions with breaks, and revising different subjects in different ways, often works best for most.

This will keep your brain stimulated, whereas doing the same thing for too long will likely make you switch off.

Revision doesn’t mean sitting in your room alone staring at a book, either. 

Everyone is different and there are lots of ways to approach studying, so find the method that works best for you – use your mocks to help you decide what works for you:

Alone vs with others?

Do you need a disciplined friend to keep you motivated and stop you reaching for your phone? Or will you simply be distracted by their presence?

At home or elsewhere?

Not everyone has an area at home to revise comfortably for long periods. Whether it be Netflix, games or dad popping in to grab your laundry, many distractions at home can stop you getting into the groove.

Study rooms at school, the library or a local café can be alternative study spots. Make sure you have sufficient light so you’re not straining your eyes, a sturdy chair that won’t leave you hunched over, and enough space for all your books, notes and equipment (plus a study snack). 

With music or in silence

Dead silence can drive some people doolally, but if you’re revising a particularly tricky subject, you might need to focus.

Others need some sort of background noise; this could be music (from hard rock to block out noise to indie folk to chill out to), the radio or television, or even just the happenings of their local café.

Reading vs taking notes vs explaining it out loud

For most, reading is not enough and you’ll need to shake things up, especially when hopping from one subject to another.

Making notes might take a while, but taking the time to write down (not typing) key information can help it stick.

Another question to ask yourself is how much you should write down. This could start of as extensive notes, slowly narrowing down to flashcards or brief ‘crib notes’ with acronyms, key names and formulas as exams draw near.

But how do you know it’s all sticking? Try making notes without looking at your books, completing past papers, and even explaining key concepts to others – in fact, this last one is a great tip to check that what you’re learning makes sense to you.

14 revision tips to try now

There's no time like the present to pick up - and maintain - some positive study habits.

Even just one of these can make a big difference.

 

1. Read the examiners' reports

 

Rather than try to guess what those marking your paper are looking for, it can pay off to do a little digging.

Believe it or not, the answer is out there.

 

2. Check past papers

 

This is a great way to get accustomed to the type of questions you'll face in an exam, as well as the language the questions will be told in – something like this might throw you off if you're encountering it for the first time on exam day. 

 

3. Be prepared

 

It might seem tedious, but it's best to have all your bases covered than spend the exam kicking yourself that you didn't revise that one area you glossed over.

 

4. Make it more manageable

 

Starting to revise can feel overwhelming, especially if an exam covers two years of work.

Breaking things down can be a great psychological win and make things slightly more achievable.  

 

5. Don't be tempted to cram

 

Don't leave things to the last minute, thinking that it will stick in your head if you do. Get into the habit of doing a little nightly or weekly throughout the year.

By the time you get to revision season, everything will feel more manageable. This will also leave you more time to practise and test what you really know.

 

6. Create a plan

 

Having everything written down in front of you will ensure nothing gets forgotten and give you a basis to work from.

This can make a real difference when you have multiple subjects to study for.

 

7. Transform your notes into song lyrics

 

Adding a tune to your revision notes or rewriting them into lyrics can do wonders.

Creation and transformation are amazing tools for getting those key points in your long term memory to reappear in an exam.

 

8. Say difficult words in a different accent

 

This method helps those pesky definitions and names stick in your mind, and make you laugh at the same time. 

Just make sure your bedroom door is closed and no one is in earshot while you say 'corpus callosum' in an Australian accent.

 

9. Stick post-it notes everywhere

 

Stick revision notes all over the house: they'll pop up throughout the day and remind you of key facts.

Now, when you make a peanut butter sandwich, you’ll read the Grice's Maxims that you previously stuck to the lid of the jar.

 

10. Light a candle or spray some perfume

 

Some research suggests that stimulating one of your senses during revision and then during application, can increase memory retrieval as you may associate smell or taste with the notes you were reviewing the last time you experienced these sensations. 

 

11. Neat notes

 

Each year begins the same when you open that fresh notepad: your handwriting is perfect, notes are profound and bullet points line up perfectly.

But before you know it, your scrawl has adopted a shorthand language even you can't decipher.

Neat and tidy notes make revising much easier, especially for those earlier topics which can feel like a distant memory come exams.

Be smart with what you choose to write down, too, going back to highlight what you think will be most useful later on.

 

12. Don't avoid problem areas

 

Instead of waiting until revision season to speak up about something you've had problems with, address this as soon as it crops up. 

It might be something you need in order to understand subsequent material, so not seeking help now could lead to you falling further behind and putting you off a subject altogether!

Don't let it snowball. Tackle a problem area straight away to remove the stigma that it's tougher than it actually is.

In reality, it might not be so bad and you just need to have it explained to you in a different way.

 

13. Teach someone else

 

Teaching a subject to someone else who has little to no knowledge of it is an excellent way to ensure you understand the material yourself.

It can be all too easy to read something passively and trick yourself into believing you've nailed it down.

Actively explaining a topic out loud can put your knowledge to the test and encourage you to arrange your thoughts into words, which can help when structuring an essay question or mathematical calculation.

You'll quickly learn if there are gaps in what you know.

There may be a tutoring programme in your school or local community you can take part in (which can also look great on your uni personal statement). 

Alternatively, make a nightly ritual of sharing what you learned that day at the family dinner table.

 

14. Read around a subject

 

If you have the time, look for further reading on a subject.

It can really illuminate something you're learning, develop a budding interest you have in a specific area or offer a fresh angle on something that you hadn't previously fully understood.

Ask your teachers for recommendations to steer you on the right track (if they're writing your Ucas reference, this is something they can highlight when talking you up).

Think wider than books, too. What about YouTube clips, podcasts, film and TV adaptations, news articles, journals or blogs?

In fact, being able to independently expand your knowledge around a topic area will really set you up for degree-level study, where taking this initiative will be essential.

How to make a revision timetable

A solid revision schedule not only guarantees you cover everything you need to in time for the exam, but it also breaks everything down into more manageable chunks.

Once you start getting everything out on paper or screen, you'll have a proper idea of the task ahead.

The ideal revision timetable will be prepared enough in advance that you have a bit of balance and don’t burn yourself out. Planning what you’re going to focus on and when can be really beneficial. It can help organise your mind and spur you on to achieve what you set out to.

There are lots of ways you can do this.

For example, you could draw up a timetable with pencil and paper, opt for a spreadsheet or a task management app like Trello.

The important thing is that you feel like you can stick to your targets, with some leeway. Try not to only put work in there. Schedule breaks, set aside time to catch up with family and friends, eat, and anything else that’s important to you.

Here’s how to create a winning revision timetable.

1. Compile your study timetable

A basic revision timetable is essentially a calendar.

But instead of holidays and birthdays, it contains topics and subjects you need to revise on specific days.

Yours doesn't really have to stray far from this very simple model:

  • Divide however long you have until your exams by how many subjects you study. 
  • Divide all the topics and areas you need to cover accordingly

If you can access your timetable on the go (using something such as Google Docs or an app – see some app ideas below) you'll have more flexibility over where you can study. 

2. Prioritise what you need to revise

Ask yourself: what subjects or particular topics within those subjects do you need to spend more time on?

Perhaps some disappointing mock results have flagged areas you need to pay attention to, or there are certain subjects where you need to achieve a certain grade, to progress into what you plan to do next.

Make sure you prioritise these in your revision schedule. Remember not to neglect those subjects that you’re already strong at.

3. Include regular refreshers

Come revision season, the prospect of going back over a whole year's worth of notes can be overwhelming.

Regularly going over what you've studied as you progress through the year will condense all of this into more manageable chunks, helping it to stick.

You can do this on a weekly, fortnightly or termly basis depending on what you feel will help you most and what you can manage - make sure your revision timetable has space for these 'refresher moments'.

Use this time to pick out key notes and highlight/rewrite these to study from later.

4. Use past papers

Past papers are always a great idea. Lots of exam boards have copies of past papers and you can test yourself to check that it's sticking.

It also gives you practice with the format of the questions you might be asked.

5. Approach subjects differently

Have a varied approach, as certain study methods will suit some subjects better than others.

This might depend on how intense the material is, how it will be assessed or simply how you best retain everything.

For example, the following methods might work for you:

  • flashcards for key dates in history
  • jingles or rhymes for phrases you'll have to speak in a French oral exam
  • pictures to identify parts of the human body in biology.

The length of your study periods can also be flexible according to what works for you.

For example, you might find that two 45-minute sessions of maths, with a break in between, are most productive.

But you can focus on your chemistry revision for longer periods of time.

6. Download revision timetable apps

These three popular apps can help you structure and plan your revision schedule.

They offer study timetable templates to start from, plus a whole host of other nifty features:

 

My study Life

 

An app to use throughout the year, not just during your revision period.

Track homework and assignments, and organise your daily and weekly schedule.

Everything is stored in the Cloud for easy access on multiple devices. 

Available on: Play Store, iTunes

 

SQA My Study Plan

 

Created by the Scottish Qualification Authority for Scottish students, the app creates a personalised study plan based on when your exams are – you can import your exam timetable directly from SQA MyExams.

Available on: Play Store, iTunes

 

Timetable

 

If you're an Android-head, Timetable is one way to manage school life across your devices.

The app even mutes your phone during lessons, in case you forget.

Available on: Play Store

How do I stay productive when studying?

If you sometimes feel like your brain has hit a wall when you’re studying, you’re not alone. It’s bound to happen when you’re learning and getting to grips with tricky concepts.

When this happens, there’s no reason at all to feel like a failure - it’s just your brain asking for a break.

In fact, there are plenty of things you can do to stay productive - which includes taking some time out.

Relentless study and revision can make you burn out - here are our tips and tricks to keep on track when learning and revising.

Use productivity apps

Here are some apps that are designed to help you stay on track with your learning:

  • Evernote - a note-taking app that’s compatible with most smartphones and laptops. You can scribble notes on its paper-esque interface, or just type.
  • Pocket - lets you save articles, web pages and videos for viewing later.
  • myHomework Student Planner - has a calendar where you can jot down important deadlines. There’s also a Homework section for your assignments.
  • Trello - lets you organise your projects and deadlines via boards.

Find yourself constantly refreshing your Instagram feed? Fortunately (or unfortunately), there are apps to stop you overusing social media and similarly distracting sites. AntiSocial is one you could use for your phone, and StayFocusd is a Google Chrome extension.

Sort out your workspace

A cluttered desk can lead to a cluttered mind. Clean and tidy your workspace to make it somewhere you’re happy to work from.

In fact, tidying up could be the break your brain needs to reset and figure a study-related problem out.

If your desk is currently a complete mess and you don’t know where to start, you could adopt Marie Kondo’s method of deciding what to keep based on whether you feel joy when you hold it.

But maybe don’t do this with the notes from a topic you’re not particularly enjoying.

Mix up where you’re working from

It might be a nice idea to vary your work environment, to help avoid feeling bored of the same old space.

If you usually work from your bedroom try working from other rooms in the house if these are available, or take your laptop to study spaces at your school or university, local library, or a café.

If you go to a public place, you could also consider having study sessions with friends, so you can motivate each other.

To help you move around with ease, you might want to keep study materials and notes in a cloud storage service so you can access them anywhere.

You can also turn on offline editing - handy for those of us with temperamental internet connection.

Take breaks

You should regularly take some time out to relax your brain, as otherwise you may find it tricky to concentrate and really absorb things.

Schedule breaks in your timetable, and maybe try to avoid spending all of them Whatsapping.

Go for a short walk, have a healthy snack, or talk to someone - letting your mind wander and not think about work can actually help you figure things out.

Exercise

Exercising can be a great way to combat stress. It can also boost your self-esteem, mood, sleep quality and energy.

For exercise to benefit health, you just need to be moving quickly enough to raise your heart rate, breathe faster and feel warmer.

So even if you’re not the next marathon superstar, a brisk walk will do the trick.

Find out more: For health geeks, a fitness tracker will monitor your vitals and workouts - here's how to buy the best fitness tracker.

Eat healthily

A well-balanced diet gives you the energy you need to stay on top of things during the day, as well as the nutrients you need for growth and repair.

The NHS Eatwell guide recommends:

  • At least five portions of fruit and vegetables a day.
  • Meals that are based on higher fibre, starchy food - such as potatoes, bread, rice or pasta.
  • Some dairy or dairy alternatives.
  • Some beans, pulses, fish, eggs, meat and other protein.
  • Unsaturated oils and spreads, consumed in small amounts.
  • Plenty of fluids.

Drink water

If you’re not properly hydrated, it may prove tricky to concentrate.  Symptoms of dehydration include fatigue and headache.

The NHS Eatwell guide recommends having 6-8 glasses of water and other liquids per day.

For the record, low-fat milk and sugar-free drinks like tea and coffee all count. 

Learn from the best

Some celebs are renowned for their exceptional success, ability to prioritise their hectic schedules and dedication to always improve.

Vanity Fair has interviewed a few of them - Terry Crews, for example, always manages to find some ‘me time’ in his hectic work and exercise schedule.

John Cena doesn't check his phone until he's out of the shower, and while Creed actor Michael B. Jordan has a busy schedule, he still manages to make time for his friends and read graphic novels.

Worried about results day? Our guide covers everything you can do to prepare in case the worse happens.

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