Dr Joanne Stuart
Top Tips for Revision and Exams
Updated: Sep 1, 2022
It is that time of year when exams are looming. Here are my top tips to help you survive this time.
1. Comparisons: Remember that everyone is different and it is important to not compare to others but focus on what you feel able to do. Just because Joe Blogs is studying for hours every day, it might be that your brain does not work like that. Feeling bad because we are not doing what we feel we should be doesn’t help the situation. It is better to work out how your brain works and do as much as you can.
2. Attention spans: Our brains can only focus for a particular period of time. Different research suggests different things but for some this means 25 minutes of focus for five minutes of rest and for others it might be 45 minutes of focus for 10 minutes of rest. For others, it might be that they can focus for longer periods of time and need a longer rest. Keep an eye on your attention span and when you begin to feel tired, or find that the information you are trying to retain is no longer going in, give yourself a short break. Remember, don’t compare to others with this. Just because your friends can work for hours without taking a break (although I would argue that it is likely their minds drift off at times and they are actually giving their minds a rest), every brain is different and it is best to discover what works best for you.
3. Socialising: For some, studying is more fruitful if they have things to look forward to, such as a night out with friends. They feel they can work hard because there will be a reward at the end of the day or week. Others feel more comfortable if they leave the socialising until after the exam period. There is no right or wrong here, we just need to do what ever works for us.
4. Retaining information: There are three main ways that we take in information:
For some, reading the topic and making lists will be the most beneficial. For this group flash cards might be your best friend.
For some, visualising information is the most reliable way for recalling it. This group should look at using simple mind maps or spider diagrams. Or, drawing small pictures – maybe linking two ideas together in the picture, will help to recall some information that does not appear to be sticking.
For a final group of people, talking about the topic and discussing the ideas around it helps to retain that information. If you are one of those then speak to your family members, start a study group, or even talk to yourself about a topic and imagine someone questioning you about it. What ever works!
And lastly, repetition, repetition, repetition. Going over and over something will always help. There is some suggestion that if we read something, then read it again 24 hours later, then again 24 hours later, then in three days, then in seven days, this will help the information move from our working or short-term memory into a longer-term store.
5. Anxiety: most young people I work with feel anxious about exams or how much work they have to do for their exams. Although small amounts of anxiety are supposed to be good for us, more moderate or severe anxiety will hinder revision. Worrying about exams is pointless but we all do it! Each time you notice a sense of impending doom, try to refocus your attention on something else. Ideally, we should push away the thoughts and refocus on studying but that is easier said than done at times. If you find that difficult, try a short relaxation, such as a body scan, or do five minutes of intense exercise, of have a cold shower. If none of those work and you are finding the anxiety too intense to study, do some exercise – go for a run or a cycle ride. Keep going until you find the anxiety reducing and then you will be able to refocus on revision.
The Night Before and Day of the Exam
1. Sleep: Try to get an early night. If you can not get to sleep, don’t worry about it. Do lots of relaxation exercises and mindfulness (there are lots of apps or you tube videos to help you with this). If we relax our bodies enough, this can also be restorative. You will eventually fall asleep but being anxious about how long that will take or if it will ever happen, will lessen the likelihood for sleep. So, try to take your mind off sleep or exams by reading something you enjoy or listening to something relaxing. When you feel tired then immediately stop reading or turn off what ever you are listening to and drop off to sleep. If you can’t sleep then repeat the above.
2. Don’t learn anything new on the day of the exam: Trying to take in new information should stop the day before the exam, as this may muddle what we have already learned. Our brains need time to process information and this is done whilst we sleep. Going over flashcards or mind maps or revision notes on the morning of the exam is fine but ideally, we would give ourselves a break.
3. Exercise: If you have time, do some exercise. This helps to reduce tension and increase the endorphins we need to feel okay.
4. Fuel for the body: Some people go off food on the morning of the exam, or leading up to it. However, it is important that our blood sugars to remain stable, so that our brains work as well as they can. If you can not face food then drink a smoothie and a protein shake. Taking protein will help to stabilise your blood sugars and will help you to concentrate.
5. Hydration: The last thing you want in an exam is a headache, which dehydration can cause. Remember to have plenty to drink before the exam.
6. Anxiety: Remember the tip above about anxiety – this is even more important on the day of the exam. However, some people find distracting away from the feelings of dread even more difficult. Try to think that, ‘it is what it is’ and there is nothing you can do about it now. So, give it your best shot.
During the Exam
1. Anxiety: Take a moment to breath and focus your attention. If at any point in the exam, you feel overwhelmed by anxiety, again, take a moment to breath and try to relax all the muscles in your body.
2. Comparison: Do not compare yourself to what others are doing…they might be writing a lot but it might be complete nonsense!
3. Keep an eye on the clock.
4. If you can not answer something then mark it, move on and return to it if you have time at the end.
5. Let it go: What ever happens in an exam, just move on. Put that ‘essay’ ‘question’ ‘exam’ behind you and focus on the next. What is done is done and dwelling on things does not help us.
I have worked with so many people who have thought that if they do not do well in their exams then their lives will fall apart. For many, they do just fine. For some, they do not do as well as they expected. It can take a bit of time to get our heads around this but generally, life has a way of working itself out in the end. For those I have worked with who did not get their first choice of university it actually worked out well for them in the end and they realised it did not matter as much as they thought it had.