A week until the exam? Advice on revision (part 1)
This post is an adapted extract from my new book, How to Learn.
If your exam is close, it’s time to really focus. There’s no room for procrastination, but you do still have enough time (if you use it well) to seriously upgrade your level of detailed knowledge as well as your exam technique. This post explains how evidence from the science of learning can help you make the best use of the study time you have left.
The first thing you should do is to make sure you have all of the materials you need. This includes your textbook(s), classroom notes, sets of flashcards, your own summaries or concept maps based on your reading, and any available past papers or lists of practice questions.
Regarding where to work, you don’t need to have a single study space, but at least have an idea of where you are going to get your revision done - somewhere quiet where you have a good amount of space and can spread out your books and plug in your laptop. Where do you work best? (“At a friend’s house” is the wrong answer! Multi-tasking makes learning much harder, and it's unlikely that you will fully concentrate on the task at hand with other people around). Interestingly, psychologists agree that it’s worth dividing your study between several places, to avoid the memories becoming too context-specific.
Another valuable thing to do with at a week or more to go is to run through all of your revision flashcards. This will help to refresh detailed knowledge ahead of the remainder of your study sessions. Test yourself until you get each concept right at least once.
If you haven’t been making revision flashcards all year, it’s too time consuming to start now - either find some online via a site like Quizlet.com (there’s a good chance that previous students from your course have made their flashcards freely available - for example, here's a set I made on the psychology topic of sleep), or make do with testing yourself on items from the glossary of your textbook or a similar list of key terms.
Next, it’s time to take a realistic look at how much time you have left for revision. Sketch a rough timetable which includes each study session and break. This should focus around identifying short slots if time – around an hour is fine (the pomodoro technique, where you study in 25 minute bursts, is ideal for a single day but probably too intensive to do for a whole week, at least in my opinion). It would be a good idea at this stage to follow your school or university timetable, if you have one – this is an already-learned structure which will be much easier to stick to than a brand new timetable that you have only just invented.
Overall, you can probably fit in around 5 hour-long sessions per day. For most people there’s little point in trying to do more than this in a single day - you’ll just burn out. Really long study sessions also tend not to be very productive, especially if they are interspersed with chatting with friends, listening to music, or checking social media (in fact, it’s probably best to confine all your social, with family or friends, to a certain time of the day, e.g. at the end of the day once your work is done).
Next, allocate each topic or subtopic to one of the study sessions. For example if your course had four topics and each of these had three subtopics, then you have 12 subtopics to divide between the available sessions. According to the advice above, you should have 35 sessions available across seven days, so each subtopic can be allocated more than once. That’s fine - it means that you’ll go back to each area of the course after a few days and study it again consolidating what you have already done. However, keep the last couple of days of your plan clear, both as a contingency in case of illness, and to allow time for a final run through of your flashcards to consolidate terminology or other learning of finer details. In addition, you must take proper breaks, whether whole days or the occasional afternoon/morning – it’s your choice. This probably means that you will have more like 50 1-hour study sessions over a fortnight.
What should you actually do during each study sessions? One of the best things at this stage is to write concept maps from memory to check that you still remember how topics fit together, and don’t have any gaps in your overall understanding. It’s really important to do this from memory, not by copying - Blunt & Karpicke (2014) showed that retrieval of content was more important than the process of writing the maps. However, maps still provide an overview which shows how topics link together, which is something you don't get from linear notes. If you haven't used them before, concept maps show concepts linked together by logical statements such as "is a part of" - you can see an example here.
Another very valuable task is to work through your textbook or your own written summaries (or both), checking your level of recall and understanding. Passive re-reading is an ineffective study strategy (Callender & McDaniel, 2009) so instead you should aim to use a strategy called elaborative interrogation. This means asking questions as you go through each part of the text, and in particular asking yourself “why” questions – promoting analytical skills which are so important for exams. This is a useful technique at any stage of your studies but particularly now during revision, because the technique has been shown to work better after schema knowledge has been developed (Woloshyn et al., 1992). If you have used the Cornell notes system, you will already have key questions written down one side of your classroom notes, and can use these!
Writing a concept map plus working through the reading may well take a couple of study sessions, or even more. How does your rate of study compare with how many topics/sub-topics you have to cover? The time you have left is fixed, so if you are going too fast or too slow, you can make some adjustments now. If you have time to tackle a 3rd or 4th session on each sub-topic, then move on to writing out full exam-style questions - you are likely to be ready to do well in them having already worked through the content in detail. Again, a more active task is preferable, so even if you have already written out practice essays during the year, it’s more valuable to re-write one from memory (prompting retrieval practice) rather than reading through your previous attempts.
If you come across areas where you feel confused, there may still be enough time to get some help from your teacher or lecturer at this stage. However, as time ticks down and you find yourself with only a few days left, don’t spend the time travelling in to university or school (which would use up valuable time that could be spent studying). Instead, make contact by email; it’s not unreasonable to send a short list of queries with a few days still to go, and most teachers will be happy to address these.
Top priorities with a week to go
- Ensuring you have all of your key materials including past papers and flashcards.
- Running through key content using flash cards.
- Planning your remaining time, dividing days into around 5 short study sessions that follow your usual timetable.
- Allocating subtopics to each study session, covering every topic twice or more but allowing for days/afternoons off.
- Moving on to writing practice questions.
- Making contact with your teacher by email if there are areas of particular difficulty.
Advice on Revision, Part 2 focuses on the final 1-2 days before your exam.
Blunt, J. R., & Karpicke, J. D. (2014). Learning with retrieval-based concept mapping. Journal of Educational Psychology, 106(3), 849-858.
Callender, A. A., & McDaniel, M. A. (2009). The limited benefits of rereading educational texts. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 34(1), 30-41.
Woloshyn, V. E., Pressley, M., & Schneider, W. (1992). Elaborative- interrogation and prior-knowledge effects on learning of facts. Journal of Educational Psychology, 84(1), 115-124.