How to revise for exams

Dan Mason, Editorial manager
February, 2019

Your success in exams depends to a large extent on how well you prepare, so it's worth considering new revision techniques to help you retain information and reduce your stress levels

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

'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.'

However, organising your revision properly can ease such 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, 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.

Discover more about getting the most out of lectures and seminars, how to write an essay and tips for successful group work.

'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,' adds Dr Brich.

'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. You should be able to obtain these from your lecturers or university library.

'Having a look at past papers 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.'

You should pay particularly close attention if you're practising multiple choice exams. 'Answer options can often sound similar, and require you to be confident with specific terminology,' Dr Brich warns.

Revise a little but often

Gareth suggests taking control and sticking 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 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. It's also about looking after yourself during the days and weeks leading up to the event, in order to lower 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.'

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'.

You may want to read more about ways to manage student stress.

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 also helps to 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 thinking about how you'll make the most of the summer break.

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