How to revise for exams

Daniel Higginbotham, Editor
July, 2021

Revising for exams can be tough and it's easy to get stuck into a bad routine - prepare well by considering these top tips, including revision techniques to help you retain information and reduce your stress levels

When exam season arrives, nerves can soon kick in, which is no surprise given your performance is likely to have a significant bearing on your final degree classification.

Rest assured that you're not alone, as many students experience anxiety and dread having to sit exams. The thought of not performing well on the day can be a huge concern.

However, organising your revision properly can help to ease such worries and ensure you're able to focus on making the most of the opportunity and achieving a great result.

All it requires is to take some simple, balanced steps that allow you to stay in control of the situation and reduce those feelings of overwhelming anxiety.

Start your preparation early

If you want to achieve the best score you can, lay the groundwork well in advance. Attend lectures and seminars throughout the year and be sure to keep up with weekly readings and coursework.

Explore getting the most out of lectures and seminars, how to write an essay and read our tips for successful group work.

For most university-level exams you'll require a deep understanding of your chosen subject and it's expected that you know the concepts well enough to be able to confidently apply them to real-life problems and scenarios.

Therefore, revision will be much more effective, and far less stressful, if you've worked consistently throughout the year, keeping your lecture and further reading notes up to date.

Simply trying to cram a load of information into your short-term memory the night before an exam only leads to feelings of anxiety and panic, making it even harder for you to retain everything you're trying to remember. This often leads to disrupted sleep and further confusion.

One tried and tested revision technique is to work through past exam papers. You should be able to obtain these from your lecturers or university library.

Reading through these past papers can give you an insight into the types of questions that are likely to come up, and enable you to develop a strategy on how best to prepare for them.

A way to test yourself is to have a go at answering them under timed conditions. This gives you a good idea of how confident you actually are at working with this material.

If you're practising multiple choice exams, you should pay particularly close attention, as the answer options are often very similar, and expect you to be confident with specific terminology.

Revise a little but often

It's important to strike a balance when it comes to your revision plan - don't avoid work, but don't overdo it either.

Evidence from numerous memory studies has revealed that distributed rather than concentrated learning sessions tend to work best.

This means that by revising a little, but often - for instance, by splitting up your revision sessions into one-hour slots across a number of days - the approach is more likely to reduce your stress levels and enhance your learning experience.

Eat and sleep well

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

If you continue to ensure there's balance in your life, by making time to rest, socialise and keep on top of all the other things going on, this will also help to keep your stress levels down.

Remember that your physical health is just as important as your mental state, so make a point of eating well, keep hydrated and be sure to do all you can to ensure a good night's sleep.

While cups of coffee and sugary food are known to keep you alert, they can also increase your anxiety and affect your sleep routine. It's crucial that you get plenty of sleep to process and absorb the information you've acquired, so take care to moderate your caffeine and sugar intake.

Stay calm and reward yourself

As the day of the exam draws closer, there are still ways of improving your performance. Imagine yourself sat in the exam room, being confident and providing good answers to the questions.

There are a range of methods you can use to keep calm on the day, including:

  • playing music in the hours before the exam
  • not turning the exam paper over straight away - breathe deeply, and then take a moment before looking at the questions
  • starting with the easiest question first and planning your answers to build up confidence
  • what to do 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, then wait until you're calm before continuing.

It's also worth planning to reward yourself once the exam is over - whether it appears to have gone well or otherwise. By doing that, whatever happens, you'll still have something to look forward to. This can give you added motivation to perform on the day.

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