Future You podcast transcript

Top tips for revision

April, 2023

In this episode we speak to Angela Newton, a library learning adviser at the University of Leeds who gives us some valuable tricks and tips for mastering exam revision


In order of appearance:

  • Dan Mason - editorial manager, Prospects
  • Angela Newton - library learning adviser, University of Leeds


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Dan Mason: Preparing for exams can be challenging, getting all that information to stick while still looking after your mental and physical health a stressful time. We'll explore lots of effective revision techniques to help you get through it in this episode of Future You.

Dan Mason: Hello, and welcome to Future You the podcast from graduate careers experts Prospects, we're here to help you achieve your career goals. My name is Dan Mason and in this episode, we're going to hear lots of valuable tips and tricks for getting exam revision just right from our guest Angela Newton, library learning adviser at the University of Leeds. From note taking and revision timetable through to maintaining your wellbeing and choosing your ideal work environment. Angela has plenty of advice that will hopefully make the process as smooth as possible for you. Don't forget to subscribe to Future You in your podcast app, and head to prospects.ac.uk for more on this topic. In the meantime, here's Angela.

Angela Newton: Hi, I'm Angela Newton I'm a learning adviser with the University of Leeds

Dan Mason: Fantastic and thanks for joining us today for this episode. Before we get started on the topic of revision and exam preparation, could you just tell us a bit about what you do?

Angela Newton: Yeah, sure. So basically, my job is to help students to develop their academic skills. So it could be that they're wanting to improve their writing. It could be something about giving a presentation, it might be just understanding the feedback that they've received for an assignment. So it's quite wide ranging really.

Dan Mason: Okay, that's great. So let's get into today's topic, which is all about exam preparation, as I say, and revision. What's the first thing that you would advise students do when it comes to revising? What's the first step in this process?

Angela Newton: So I think the first thing to do is take a deep breath, make sure that you're not feeling too overwhelmed by the whole thing. Because you can make it easier for yourself, I think the first sort of time you think, oh, gosh, I've got all this stuff to do, how am I going to fit it in, it can feel like quite a big deal. But there are things that you can do to make it easier. So I think the first thing that you really should be doing is finding out all the practical information. Where do you need to be? What's going to happen? When is it going to be? What's the format. And that can be quite reassuring, because at least then you know what you're driving at. And you know, what's going to be happening? So getting that practical information, I think is pretty important, quite soon on. And then I think probably one of the most useful things to do is to kind of audit how you feel about the course that you've been working on. So you know, are there areas that you feel more confident in? Are the things that you think actually, you know, I sat in that course, and I didn't feel massively confident about the content. So I think I think doing a bit of a self audit can be very helpful, because then that can help you to make some decisions about, you know, what do you want to really focus on because you're not going to be assessed usually on every single thing that's been covered by the course. So one thing you can do is find a list of the topics that have been covered, go through that. Maybe do like a traffic light system, you know, which ones do you feel really confident with? Which ones do you think you need to build your knowledge of? Yeah, so I think I think those sort of first steps can be really helpful. And then also thinking, well, actually, what have I already been assessed on? So if you are having you know, if your courses kind of part exam assessed part coursework, for example, you know, what's the coursework that you've already done? So maybe you don't need to worry too much about that topic, because you've already kind of covered it in an assessment.

Dan Mason: And we talk primarily about revision in that run up to the exam period. Would you say that there's stuff that you should be doing throughout the year so when it comes to that crunch moment it’s easier,

Angela Newton: Oh you can definitely do so much actually, it's a really good point. You know, the most important thing, kind of throughout the year, you know, there's a sort of cycle of an academic year isn't there. And, you know, the autumn, we're sort of all adjusting to, you know, the new course, and new requirements and so on. But I think it's incredibly useful to make sure that I know, it sounds really obvious, the notes that you make need to be useful. So, you know you can scribble a lot of notes, you know, some people prefer to use a laptop for their note making, other people will handwrite them, whatever you do, don't try and write down everything that's being said to you. Because then you're just like a scribe, basically and you're not really passing that information through your brain. So you've got to make sort of summary notes. And that's quite a skill and you don't get good at it, you know, the first few times. So it is kind of a process, really, I think, learning to make really good notes. So the notes that you make, they need to be something that you can return to. And I don't think that you should just keep those notes as a kind of archive, if that makes sense. I think it's better if you can go back to them, you know, maybe once a month, even.  What did I do this month? What have I learned? Where have I been to? How's that adding to my knowledge? So maybe, you know, you could do it week by week or month by month, go back to the notes that you've made during that time period. And rather than just reading them and then putting them away, you can add to them. So actually, what connects with this with, you know, ideas that I've come across previously, have I done any extra reading that I can also kind of add to these notes, how can you make them dynamic, so you've got to keep it fresh, I don't believe in just keeping notes as a sort of archive, you know, they're not a historic thing, you should be keeping them fresh and keeping them alive. And I think by adding to them, when you go back through them, that can really help you to keep connected with the topic. And it can highlight where actually you might be struggling a little bit. And again, that's useful, because it means you can do something about that. So it's a system that you can use which is called spaced repetition. Okay, so this is a this is a way of not exactly revising, but a way of kind of going back to what you've done recently, so that it keeps it in your brain. And as you develop and build your knowledge, that means that you are more likely to connect those different things together. So for me, although people often think well, revision is just going back through the notes that I've written, or maybe reading a summary text, I actually think that you can create your own continual revision system. And, you know if you look which I have at spaced repetition literature, there is evidence that says, you know, this is this is a useful technique, this is a good thing to do. So, for me, I think, think about the kinds of notes that you make, maybe chat to friends about how they make notes. You know, sharing ideas about how to make them can be brilliant, because you can pick up some fantastic ideas from other people. And then once you've got a system that you enjoy using anything works for you. Don't just file them away, get them out regularly keep working on them, because they can they can be enormously helpful. There is a technique of note making that is quite popular called Cornell note making. So Cornell like the university, I think that's where it originally originated. So Cornell notes are quite a distinctive looking things. If you Google Cornell notes, you'll find these at first sight, slightly odd looking templates. So you've got a piece of paper, either, you know, digital, or an actual piece of paper, divided into sections with lines. But what it allows you to do is to kind of how can I say it sort of like zone your ideas? And Cornell note making, although some people don't connect with it particularly well, I think for people who do they find that format really, really useful? So If you've not heard of that before or looked at it, I'd suggest giving that a quick Google look for some images of Cornell notes and just give it a try. So to kind of go back to your question. There's a lot you can do throughout the year, I think that that can make the whole thing less daunting.

Dan Mason: That's really interesting. It's finding the right way of making those notes that works for you, isn't it?

Angela Newton: Yeah, it's funny as well because if you go into any lecture theatre, and you know, sit at the back, and, you know, there's right to lecture theatres, where you know, that you're looking downwards, almost towards the lecture. If you look across the spectrum of people in the room, they're all doing something different. You know, there's people with little colored pens, and they're quite enjoying themselves. Other people bashing away at their keyboards, so everybody has a different way of doing things, but it's all good.

Dan Mason: And another thing that people use a lot in revision is looking at past exam papers. What do you think about that as a technique? How useful is that, how important is that, and what's the best way of making use of that resource?

Angela Newton: Yeah past exam papers they can be brilliant. But they can also be quite disheartening, I think. So you've got to make sure that you're using them, you know, in the right way. So I think the wrong way to use past exam papers, is to immediately start trying them out, as soon as you've begun your revision period. And for me, that could be quite a dispiriting experience, because you need to do the prep before you try out, you know, a dress rehearsal. It's a bit like, you know, going into theatre, putting on your costume, and then not actually being sure what the stage directions, you know, that's not a good not a good place to start. On the other hand, they can be incredibly useful towards the end of your revision period. So personally, that's when I would recommend people start to look at them a bit more seriously. Because you need all that time to understand and sort out the knowledge that you are dealing with that you've been revising. And I think the other thing is that people kind of can get quite hung up on whether they get them or not. So using them towards the end of the revision period I think is a much, much better idea. And you don't have to do it under timed conditions, be a bit more relaxed about it, you know, first few times, if you're going to do it a few times, then just give yourself some time to get used to the format, look at how the questions might be worded, the language, the phrasing, so that you are accustomed to what this is going to feel like and how it's gonna read before you have a go at answering. And the other thing that sometimes catches people out is that they might be using past papers for exams which were a different format. So it's really important to make sure that you check the format for this time around and exactly how that exam is going to work. Because if you use a past paper that's a completely different format, you're going to be really thrown when you get in the exam room, and you thought you're answering three essay questions and hey it's a multiple choice paper. So you don't want to be in that position. Yeah, so that that's what I would say about past exam papers.

Dan Mason: Okay, let's just for a moment, step away from the sort of practicalities and the techniques we'll come back to those. But let's talk for a second about mental health and wellbeing and looking after yourself during revision season. Because that's really important, isn't it? And yeah, not only for yourself and staying well, but actually for performing well in the exams?

Angela Newton: Yeah it really is. It's such a good point. It's a really important thing to think about. You know I primarily work in libraries here at University of Leeds. And during exam time boy do those seats fill up quick. And there are people stopping in overnight because we've got 24 hour opening, like a lot of universities do now. You know, I come in and I think ah, gosh, I worry about you guys. Feel like a bit of a mum coming in thinking I hope you're eating properly. But it's true, you know, there can be a lot of stress. And also I think there's a kind of f collective stress. You know you can walk into the building I think, oh gosh you know, I can see, see everybody's having a bit of a moment here. But I think you've got to be aware of yourself and how you take care of yourself normally. And do a bit more of the self care when you're feeling stressed. And I think this is just true of, of life generally, isn't it? Of course, everybody says the same things about, you know, keep hydrated and eat properly and take breaks. But I think actually, I would say things like, lean into your guilty pleasures, you know, if you love an old episode of Star Trek, make that your treat for the end of the day, you know. Or I mean, don't go crazy but you know having a favourite thing for dinner, just a simple thing, or going for a bit of a walk. Here at Leeds, we're quite lucky, we have this amazing pond. Sounds a bit random but we have this really amazing pond, and it's full of fish and at this time of year we've got ducks, and they're getting ready to do their little duck egg hatching thing. And there's another big, it's like a heron that sits around and actually just walking down there for 10 minutes can be really calming. And you know, you're just watching the fish and looking at the ducklings. And it's just nice. So just doing something, you know, even a free thing like that can be wonderful, and can be really, really helpful just to give yourself a different perspective. So I think, do the things that normally make you feel better if you're having a bit of a rubbish time, obviously, make sure that you get enough sleep and all those normal things. But the other thing I'd say is, check in with your friends to see how they're doing. Because presumably, people that you share a house with or whatever, they're going to be going through the same thing, they're going to be doing exams too. And I think it's quite hard to say to someone, I'm having a rubbish time, if nobody asks you. And I think if you ask other people, how are you doing? You know, are you feeling okay, at the minute, then, you know, they're more likely to reciprocate, if they notice that you're not doing so well. So I think all like a bit of self awareness, being aware of your friends, having a chat when you're not feeling great, all of those things can be helpful. Plus, don't forget that at universities, I mean, universities are basically full of people who want to help. You know that's like, my job basically, is just to help you. So you know, and there are hundreds of people like me at universities, you might not know who they are, but they might be able to just unlock something that really does kind of work for you. So don't be afraid to ask, you know, asking for help is a great thing to do. Because, you know, I'm waiting to help.

Dan Mason: Yeah, I don't think we can overstate the importance of that side of things can we really.

Angela Newton: Yeah absolutely.

Dan Mason: Getting back more into the details. What about revision plans, revision timetables, and making them realistic. Do you have any tips for going about that process? Because I know a lot of people do like to put in place a timetable or a plan? What are your thoughts on that?

Angela Newton: Yeah, again, I think people can be quite they can get quite into creating the timetable, and spend a lot of time colour coding it.

Dan Mason: Yes. Spend more time on making the timetable than on the revision? Yes. Sounds familiar.

Angela Newton: Yeah. I mean, you know, I love a stationery shop, like anybody else, highlighter pens, and, you know, all that stuff. But I think one of the key things is to be flexible with it, you know, you're gonna have days where everything goes to plan and you feel great and you think oh this is you know, I've got real confidence about this thing I've been revising. And other days were just, you know, you just have one of those days where it's just not working. But again, I think you've got to kind of, yes, you've got to be flexible and think, okay, today wasn't great. Let's think about picking that one up a bit later, change your revision timetable. But also, you've got to play to your strengths. So in terms of sort of being realistic, think about when you work best, for example, and I know not everybody has like a huge amount of choice. So I know lots of there are lots of students who have caring responsibilities, you know, kids, relatives, or whatever. And you may not have a choice about when you work. But if you know that you are an evening person or a morning person, if you can try and play to those strengths a bit. You know, I'm not suggesting you stay up till one in the morning because I really don't think that's a good idea. But if you find that your brain sort of starts to get more engaged after six o'clock, then if you can do some evening sessions, then that's probably a good thing for you to do. Same with the environment that you're in. Again, not everybody has a choice but for some people, they have really strong feelings about that environment. So yeah, I think there's a lot that you can do. There's a technique that quite a lot of people use called the Pomodoro method. I don't know if you've heard of that.

Dan Mason: I haven't. No.

Angela Newton: Yeah, it's interesting. So it’s like a revision method that relies on you taking breaks, which sounds like a good idea. But in force is break taking. So it's called Pomodoro because it's based on those old fashioned tomato kitchen timers, you know, the ones that go brrr when the minutes are up, so they normally on a 25 minute timer. So the Pomodoro method says if you revise for 25 minutes, you then take a break. So you have to focus for 25 minutes but then you take five minutes off, another 25 minutes, take 10 minutes off, and you repeat that cycle four times. So you've done four 25 minute blocks in one Pomodoro. And that means that you've had dedicated focus time, but you've also had time to just get up and have a stretch, pop to the loo, get a drink, whatever. So that is quite a useful thing to do if you're somebody who's finding it hard to stick to a rigid timetable. So it gives you that bit of variety. And the other way of making sure that you're not getting too bored, because that's a risk, isn't it really, with revision, you have been doing the same thing for days, I don't think I'm getting anywhere, is to make sure that you mix it up. So don't just spend a week on I don't know French grammar. Maybe do half a day on French grammar. But then in the afternoon, do something that maybe you're a bit more excited about. I'm not saying French grammar is not exciting I’m sure for some people that’s their thing. You know, but anyway, so whatever it is, just make sure that you mix it up. So if you've got something that's not very sexy for you do something that's a bit more exciting to, you know, reward yourself almost. So yeah, I think timetables can be really helpful. Make sure you tick off what you've done, but don't like beat yourself up if it's not going brilliantly. Just be flexible with it.

Dan Mason: And something you touched on there was thinking about the environment you're revising in. Have you got any more thoughts on that, I guess this is another of those whatever works for you sort of things but are there any specifics that you can talk about?

Angela Newton: Environments an interesting one, I've read quite a bit about this, actually. Obviously, lots of people like to come to libraries. These days, libraries are very different from what they used to be. So most university libraries and actually public libraries to be honest, have different zones for different purposes. So it used to be you know, in the old days, you'd go in and be very quiet. You couldn't make any noise at all, you know, if you were lucky, you're allowed to take a pen, you might have to leave your bag at the entrance. But now we've got chatty spaces, we've got silence spaces, we've got comfy chairs we've got, you know, the list is kind of endless. And it's kind of the same for public libraries, actually, that they're also a good option if you fancy being somewhere different. Here in Leeds, we have an amazing Central Library, which is architecturally just knocks it out of the park and people find that going somewhere slightly different can just give them a different feeling about working. And other people prefer to just be at home, in their own environment you know, you don't have to even get out of your pajamas, you know, you can just, you know, sit in your duvet and do it. So for some people, you know, they will make a very definite choice. I would suggest that you do your revision away from your relaxation spaces, because if the two get too muddled up, then I don't think that that's sufficiently different for you to really focus. I think you need to be, you need to protect your relaxation space personally. So yeah, I would suggest that, I think also, the fact is that some people really like to work with other people. Even if you're not sort of chatting to one another. Some people choose to come to coffee shops and libraries and public spaces, because there's a little bit of background buzz. So for some people, that's a definite choice that they want to make. And they might be with a specific friend, or they might just want to have the environment of other people around them. And I know during the pandemic, there was a big trend for students, not every student but particularly during lockdowns when we were all so isolated, for people to just be online with each other, not chatting, but working, you know, virtually alongside one another, so they could see one another but they weren't in the same room. And that sort of companionship was quite motivating, I think, for a lot of people. So that I saw a lot of, heard a lot of people talking about it. And going back to sound actually, sound is absolutely fascinating in terms of concentration. I don't know how you feel Dan about music, can you can you concentrate if there's music or not?

Dan Mason: No not at all.

Angela Newton: It completely just doesn't work for you. Yeah, I'm the same. And actually in surveys, because I've read a few papers about this. The population is actually almost divided completely in half. So about half of people love listening to music while they work. And about half of people absolutely hate it.

Dan Mason: Yeah, there's no, there's no middle point is there.

Angela Newton: Music with lyrics is a particular nightmare because I ended up just, you know, yes, Kate Bush, you're running up that hill again, you know, I'm with you. So that  music or not music is so divisive. So that's why some people love a coffee shop with a soundtrack you know, bit of soft jazz in the background, and other people just like no, not at all. I've met students who swear by things like noise cancelling headphones, absolutely love them, and find that that really works for them. But they are pretty expensive. There are however, some alternatives. So if you if you really want absolute silence, that is actually quite a difficult thing to get in 2023. Absolute silence is almost unheard of. There's always something. I'm somebody who prefers silence. But I have learned that there are some other things that are quite helpful. So there are various different types of sound that you can just get online. So there are loads of apps with sounds. So you've probably seen those ones that say, og let me play these forest sounds for you. As you go to sleep. There are loads of those, but you can get them in, wait for it pink, brown and white noise and they're all slightly different. And if you try them out, you might find that one of them just clicks for you. The author's Zade Smith talks about this, has talked about this recently, I think she lives in New York. And she was very much kind of I can only write in cafes. That's the only place I can write in. And then somebody told her about pink noise. Now she's not bothering with the cafes, she just sticks her headphones on and listens to that and then she's away, you know. And then the author Ian Rankin he's a music guy he plays the same albums on loop for the whole time that he's writing a novel, and he has like a definite annual cycle that he produces a novel a year. And this is how he does it. Say has a particular set of vinyl that he plays in his office. And that's it. That's how he gets his work done.

Dan Mason: That sounds dreadful but each to their own I guess.

Angela Newton: So yeah the sounds around you are really important. I remember and this this is crazy actually, there's a couple of things. I'm bit obsessed with this sound thing as you can tell. I've got quite a busy office and sometimes if I need to concentrate, I'll stick a pair of headphones on and play wave noises and that I find really helpful. You know, just nice soft, not big crashing waves just nice soft waves. It's not musics, it's not lyrics. It's just there.

Dan Mason: I think for me that will start sending me to sleep.

Angela Newton: Just kind of nice and splashy. I quite like that. So that I think is, it's a big part of, you know, our psychology, our environment and how we, you know, how we actually sort of managed to focus. It is really interesting, you know, athletes talk about being in the zone, don't they? You know, if they're, you know, if you're going to have a good race, you've got to be in the zone. And I do think that that there's a lot you can do to get yourself in the zone to, to concentrate. And noise and environment is all part of that. Definitely.

Dan Mason: Well, so much fantastic advice there. Are there any final revision tips that you want to throw in there before we finish?

Angela Newton: Oh, my goodness. Yeah, you know, I think I think one of my main things is, you know, I've a lot of the things that we've talked about today are things that I've just learned from students just by having conversations about this. So talk to your friends, you know, everybody's got experience of revising for something, whether it's your driving theory test, or, you know, whatever it might happen to be, everybody's got some experience of that. So share, and be willing to listen and try different things. Because you can't improve unless you do that, I think

Dan Mason: Brilliant. Well Angela, thanks so much for your time today. That's all been fantastic advice. Thanks very much.

Angela Newton: No worries. It's been a joy. See you later.

Dan Mason: Thanks very much to Angela. As I said at the end there are so many useful tips and techniques and hopefully some of those help you through any revision that you have coming up. That's it for this episode. To hear more Future You find us on Spotify, Apple podcasts, or wherever you listen to podcasts, and get all the study and careers advice you need at prospects.ac.uk. You can get in touch with comments, feedback or suggestions, email podcast@prospects to ac.uk. Thanks so much for listening. Good luck with your revision. And we'll see you soon.

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This transcript was produced using a combination of automated software and human transcribers, and may contain errors. The audio version is definitive and should be checked before quoting.

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