Experienced tutor Claire Senior, shares her insights into the best way to revise for GCSE and A Level exams, covering everything from past papers to effective revision techniques.
If you’ve just Googled ‘best way to revise’, then chances are, you’re in need of some study motivation and a few pointers to help you prepare for your upcoming exams. As aviation pioneer Amelia Earhart said, “The most effective way to do it, is to do it.” Having said that...some methods of revision have a much greater impact than others. It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that you’re doing lots of revision because you’re spending an hour starting at a book. Fifteen minutes of adopting another method can often be a much more efficient use of time.
So, why do students still fall into the “sitting in the library is work” thinking trap? Well, because it’s easier than the methods that require brain power and analysis. Yet, it’s much less effective.
Here are my top tips on the best way to revise, so you’ll pass exams with flying colours.
Find Out What You’ll be Tested On
While it might be interesting to read around the subject (and helpful in many cases), exams are based on a specific set of topics and skills. Firstly, find out which exam board will be setting your exam. They provide specifications for each of the exams they set. These are easily accessible from a quick internet search if you haven’t been given one by your teacher.
Use this as the basis for what you’ll revise in terms of themes and topics. You should also make sure you know what skills will be tested too. For example, will you need to be able to draw graphs? Will you need to extract information from a passage of text? How about arguing a particular viewpoint?
Organise Your Coursework
When it comes to revising for exams, preparation is key. One of the best ways to get organised is to go through all your coursework notes and pull out those that are relevant to your exam. Not everything that you’ve studied throughout the year will be directly relevant to your tests, so only select the topics are.
You can then arrange your ‘exam’ notes in a new folder, so that they’re easily accessible should you need to check anything. This condensed version of your coursework can also be useful reading material in the hours leading up to your exam, to familiarise yourself with the content and get you in the right mindset for the test.
For more advice on how to organise your course notes, take a look at this video from student Olivia Greenhalgh:
Create a Revision Timetable
Once you know what you’ll be tested on, how can you guarantee that you’ll actually put the time and effort in? One of the best ways to revise is to use a revision timetable. Not only do they hold you accountable for studying when you’re supposed to, but they can be a great motivator as you mark off each day that you complete.
A revision timetable doesn’t need to be elaborate. It can be as simple as a spreadsheet or a written schedule. If you prefer a more technological approach however, why not try a free revision timetable app like Adapt, which calculates the perfect amount of revision for each day. Or, why not try Get Revising’s free revision timetable builder? Here’s an overview of how it works:
For those of you who prefer visual learning techniques, using a wall planner as a revision timetable is a great way to see your entire plan in the one place. Boxclever Press have a great revision wall planner you can buy on Amazon for £8.99 (this isn’t an affiliate link, just a recommended resource). If you choose this DIY approach to creating a timetable, then you’ll want to:
- Work out how many weeks you have left until each exam.
- Decide how many hours per week you need to study each subject.
- Choose one subject, break up the hours throughout the week and mark on your calendar when you’ll study it.
- Try to be as specific as possible with what you’ll study. Don’t just write the subject name, specify what topics you’ll cover and remember to schedule time at the end of each week for practicing with specimen papers.
- Do this for each subject and before you know it, you’ll have created a personal revision plan to help guide your studying.
Can You Explain the Content to an Eight-Year-Old?
Make sure you understand all the content. Memorising facts without knowing the context will only get you so far. For application-based questions, you’ll need to thoroughly understand the information as well as how it all links together.
If you’re not sure whether or not you understand something, try explaining it to an eight-year old (seriously). This might feel like an odd thing to do for GCSE or A Level subjects, but the more you understand something, the simpler you can make it sound when writing it in the exam.
Use a Variety of Revision Techniques
One of the biggest mistakes students make when revising is only using one approach. Sure, you may enjoy reading through textbooks and highlighting notes, but sometimes a more pro-active approach is required to ensure you actually retain the information you’re revising. Here are some revision techniques you should use to mix up your approach:
Keyword Recall – Using your exam notes, write out individual keywords and phrases that relate to each topic. You can write them out all on the one page, on flashcards or, better still, on post-it notes. Stick the keywords around the house and every time you see one, try to recall as much information about the topic as you can. It’s best to verbalise your thoughts out loud to strengthen your memory.
Student as Teacher – Again, using your exam notes, have a friend or family member choose a topic from your folder. Your role is to act as the teacher, teaching the other person about the subject as if they were the student. This is a good revision technique to improve your confidence as you realise how much you know.
Mind Mapping – Creating mind maps can be a good way of organising key themes or important equations into a visual reminder. Start by writing the subject in the centre of the page and creating stems that connect to each theme or formula. You can then add other relevant information around each theme. This technique works particularly well for visual learners or for creative students that are studying a more logical subject.
Study Groups – Your fellow classmates can be a great source of information, inspiration and support. Joining or organising a study group can provide you with the motivation to revise even when you don’t feel like it. In a study group, students can help you with any areas of a subject that you feel stuck with. It also makes revising more fun and you can organise quizzes or competitions to keep things interesting.
For some more revision techniques, check out this video from student Emma Louise:
Analyse and Practice with Past Papers
One of the best ways to revise is to analyse past papers. Practising exam questions is great, but if you don’t know where you have gained or lost marks, then you’ll likely make the same mistakes in the next test too.
Take the time to read the mark scheme. Find out which words and phrases the exam board give marks for and which ones lose you marks. Okay, so this can be a bit time consuming, but it’s definitely a much more efficient use of your time than just reading through notes, and hoping for the best.
Once you know how points are awarded, it’s time to get down to business. Gather all the past exam papers that you can from your exam board’s website (useful links at the end of this section) and work your way through them one-by-one.
As your exam approaches, start to tackle full papers in one go, under exam conditions and within the allowed time frame. This will improve your exam technique, get you used to answering questions under pressure and improve your time management skills.
If you’ve exhausted all the past papers in your subject, you can also try practising with specimen papers that are created by education companies and designed in the same style as those from the exam boards.
Here are some useful links to past papers from each of the six exam boards currently used in the UK:
- AQA past papers and mark schemes
- CCEA past papers and mark schemes
- City & Guilds past papers and mark schemes
- Pearson Edexcel past papers and mark schemes
- OCR past papers and mark schemes
- WJEC past papers and mark schemes
Don’t Overdo it - Schedule Regular Breaks
As the saying goes, ‘all work and no play, makes Jack a dull boy’. It’s important to take regular breaks when you’re revising for exams. It can be tempting to continue revising for long hours when you feel in the mood, but it’s actually best to stop at the point that you feel you’re ‘in the flow’. If you take a break when you’re feeling engaged, you’ll find it much easier to get back into the swing of things when you go back to it.
One way to make sure you don’t overdo it with long periods of study is to use the Pomodoro technique. Essentially, this involves setting a timer for half-hour periods and working without distraction until the buzzer sounds. You can then take a ten or fifteen-minute break until you set the timer again.
Now go forth, conquer that revision and smash those exams!
What do you think? What is the best way to revise? Share your advice in the comments below.
Claire is an experienced GCSE and A Level Biology tutor in York. She is also an A Level Biology examiner and has been a secondary school teacher for over 19 years. She enjoys coaching students in exam technique as well as clearly explaining the subject content.