How to revise for exams

Daniel Mason, Senior editor
February, 2016

The importance of preparing well for exams can't be overstated, and it's never too late to learn new revision techniques - so here are some suggestions to get you started

How well you do in exams is likely to have a significant bearing on your final degree classification. Given this fact, it's no surprise that the nerves kick in when exam season arrives.

'It is not unusual to experience exam anxiety,' says Gareth Hughes, psychotherapist and researcher at the University of Derby. 'In fact, it affects 25-30% of students, making them dread exams and potentially underperform. Some become so anxious they are too scared to turn up at all.'

But ensuring that you organise your revision properly can ease those worries and help you to achieve a great result.

'Taking some simple, balanced steps can help you to take control and eliminate exam anxiety,' adds Gareth. 'Some students even find that they grow to like exams.'

Start your preparation early

If you want to achieve the best score you can, you should lay the groundwork well in advance. 'Attend lectures and seminars throughout the semester, and keep up with weekly readings and coursework,' advises Dr Cecile Brich, study development tutor at York St John University.

'For most types of exam at university level, you'll need to have thought quite deeply about your subject, and be able to manipulate concepts confidently enough to apply them to new problems.

'This is not something you can do well by cramming the night before. Working regularly and keeping lecture and further reading notes up to date makes revision much more effective and much less stressful.'

Gareth agrees that trying to take in lots of information the night before your exam is a bad idea. 'It will only disrupt your sleep and potentially confuse you,' he cautions.

Another tried and tested revision technique is working through past exam papers. 'Having a look at them will give you a good idea of the types of questions likely to come up, and how best to prepare for them,' suggests Dr Brich. 'You can then try answering them by hand under timed conditions, in order to gauge how confident you feel with the material.'

Pay particularly close attention to detail if you're practising multiple choice papers, she warns. 'Answer options can often sound similar, and require you to be confident with specific terminology.'

You should be able to obtain past exam papers from your lecturers or university library.

Revise a little but often

Gareth suggests that, to make your revision effective, you should take control and stick to your timetable or plan. Don't avoid work - but don't overwork either.

Meanwhile, evidence from numerous memory studies has revealed that distributed rather than concentrated learning sessions work best, says Dr Dave Haylock, senior lecturer in psychology at Newman University.

'Revise a little but often, if you want to do better,' he advises. 'Essentially, eight one-hour revision sessions spread out over days will be better than one single eight-hour revision session. Furthermore, the distributed approach is more likely to reduce stress, which will enhance learning and cognitive performance.'

Eat and sleep well

Succeeding in exams isn't just about learning content. It's also about looking after yourself during the days and weeks leading up to the event, in order to reduce your anxiety.

'Keep your life in balance,' recommends Gareth. 'Resting, socialising and keeping on top of everything else during the exam period will help keep your stress levels down. Prepare physically as well as academically. Your brain is part of your body so eat well, stay hydrated and get good sleep.'

On the subject of diet, Dr Brich points out that while caffeine and sugary foods can help keep you alert, they can also make you feel anxious and stop you sleeping. 'Getting plenty of sleep will help you to process and absorb the information you need for your exams,' she adds.

Indeed, according to Dr Haylock, there is a significant body of evidence showing 'the important role of sleep in memory consolidation and problem solving'.

Stay calm and reward yourself

As the day of the exam draws closer, there are still ways of improving your performance. 'Use your imagination,' says Gareth. 'Visualise being in the exam, feeling confident and answering questions well.'

He adds that playing music in the hours before the exam can help you to keep calm, and has some further suggestions for during the test itself:

  • Don't turn the paper over straight away. Breathe deeply, take a moment and then look at the questions.
  • Start with the easiest question and plan your answers to build confidence.
  • If you freeze or go blank, look away from the paper. Breathe in to the count of seven and out to the count of 11 and wait until you are calm before continuing.

Gareth advises that it will also help if you plan a reward for yourself for after the exam, however well or badly it goes. That way, whatever happens, you'll have something to look forward to. For example, you could start planning how you'll make the most of the summer break.