The psychology of revision

Established revision habits may be of comfort, but they can do more harm than good, argues Murray Morrison

So many students waste hours staring at textbooks and websites, failing to absorb the information. Too many plough through past exam papers without getting the feedback they need to correct their mistakes. Yet more have a private tutor to demonstrate how things should be done, but do not give themselves the chance to try, fail, correct, try again and improve. Students need to revise their approach to revision. They need to approach exam season with a solid strategy.

This involves a rigorous routine of continuous self-assessment and a determination to get to grips with the subject, to build knowledge, understanding and confidence.

A mind full of doubts and stress, like a boat in choppy waters, spends much of its time battling through turbulence, rather than making a smooth journey to its destination. A revising student can allay anxieties by (a) knowing what they know, how well they know it and what is left to cover; (b) actively engaging with the material; and (c) marking off work done so that they can see their progress.

The problem is, so much received wisdom about revision does little to help prepare for exams. Most inefficient of all is the copying of notes verbatim from textbooks and schoolwork. Almost as bad is the method of reading through material with a highlighter pen and colouring in paragraphs. The mind is not engaged by copying, the material absorbed is minimal and the time spent, costly. Finally, writing and learning full practice essays kills spontaneity and offers no advantage over practising essay-plans and structure.

Instead, try the solid approach:

Start early, start now: the more you spread out your revision over time, the better it will be retained by your memory.

Plan: print out the pages of the syllabus that outline all you need to know and highlight each item with a mark that reflects your level (i.e. green/orange/red for good/medium/bad) so that you know what to tackle first.

Make flashcards: turn each item of the syllabus (starting with the areas that need most attention) into cards with a question or prompt on one side and an answer or explanation on the reverse. Use your textbook for help, but use your own words. The mental processing in this task helps the information to stick.

Daily practice: like a stalactite built over millennia from regular drops, not occasional deluges, the firmest knowledge will be built by spending 30 minutes on each subject every day, rather than cramming for hours.

Make a testing game: sort your cards into five piles from worst to best (“no idea” to “no worries”) – be very honest! The test starts with a card from the top of the worst pile. Read the front aloud and say what you think is on the back. Each answer determines whether the card is promoted or demoted and it is put to the bottom of the next pile. With each correct answer, as the card moves up, you also take a card from a higher pile; each time you get a question wrong, the card is demoted and you start right back at the bottom.

Monitor progress: keep a daily record of the size of each pile so you can see yourself progress. You will see the cards gradually moving up; to get a card all the way to the top pile, you have proved to yourself that you know the fact, and those tougher areas will have had more repetition. This feedback is great motivation and helps you to see which subjects need addressing more urgently.

Get the psychology of revision right and it should be plain sailing all the way.

Murray Morrison has been a private tutor for 15 years and is the founder of online revision program Tassomai:


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