revision and exam skills revise smart, ace that exam

This self-access resource, put together by Stuart Wrigley, Teaching Fellow at Royal Holloway's Centre for Development of Academic Skills, equips you with a range of strategies for maximising your chances of success in exams. It applies to many academic subjects.

1. Revise smart

You might like to reflect on how you revise before you go any further. What strategies do you use when revising? Do you think you're an efficient reviser or is this something you struggle with?

We all have our own techniques for revising. Maybe we learned these at school. Maybe they're based on advice given by teachers and friends. Maybe they're based on what we feel we ought to be doing! Some of these techniques might work pretty well. But some might not.

It might not surprise you to learn that many students waste a lot of time revising badly. Activities we often associate with revision - cramming, re-reading and highlighting - can actually be quite ineffective. Research suggests they don't always lead us to remembering what needs to be remembered!

Let's start with how NOT to revise

Cramming doesn't work. Information you get quickly, you lose quickly. Cramming results from under-estimating how long it takes to learn stuff. Also, if you're cramming under stress (which is often the case a few days or even hours before an exam), you're even less likely to remember what you've crammed!

Re-reading and highlighting are often less effective than you'd think. Often, when we're furiously re-reading notes or highlighting stuff, we think we're revising, so we get a psychological boost and feel good about ourselves. But in reality, little learning may actually be happening!

Listening to music while you revise might be a bad idea. Research suggests that we have 'trained' ourselves to think that music helps us concentrate. In reality, though, the psychology suggests that most people study best in silence.

Checking your phone. Apparently, we check our phones once every 12 minutes. This isn't conducive to good revision. So banish the phone! Leave it at home! Or, if you must have your phone with you (e.g. for personal or medical reasons), at least keep it in a bag, or in a drawer. Research suggests that even the sight of a phone on the table is a distraction.

If you do need to have your phone with you, the 'Forest' app discourages you from checking it too often. The idea is you plant a tree, then as long as you don't check your phone, the tree grows. If you do check the phone, the tree dies. Apparently, you can plant entire forests...

So, now we know what doesn't work, what does?

Psychologists agree that the best technique for learning stuff is to use something called 'Retrieval Practice'. Watch the video below to find out more.

In order to retrieve information well, you need good time management. Retrieval practice doesn't work if you're cramming! We might think of the opposite of cramming as spacing, i.e. revising in terms of months rather than weeks or even days.

Revision might start as early as part-way through the spring term, although much of it will likely happen in the Easter vacation. The s l o w e r the revision, the more likely it will stay in your long-term memory! Research strongly suggests that spacing does result in better performance. So: learn a little information regularly!

Examples of retrieval practice

Past exam papers

Working through past papers is an excellent retrieval strategy, as you're having to display and present the extent of your knowledge. Gaps in your knowledge will quickly emerge, which will make it easier to target your revision.

Check the link below to link to Royal Holloway's exam papers repository.


"If you can't explain something in simple terms, you haven't understood it well enough"

So said Einstein, so it must be true! Seriously, though, the very act of explaining/talking through your revision topics with someone else acts as a powerful test of your own knowledge. This is often done with peers in your subject-area, but it can work really well if you try to explain something to someone outside your academic subject: you have to go the extra mile to explain it clearly!


Make yourself an artisan in speech, and you will gain the upper hand

Inscription on 3,000-year-old Egyptian tomb.

Like 'teaching' or explaining, presenting something (preferably in front of a small audience), forces you to provide clear and succinct explanations. So why not work up a key textbook section, or even an old essay, into a slick presentation?

Make a storyboard

It doesn't matter if you're no good at drawing. The value of this comes from the process of doing it, which forces you to digest and really think about whatever topic you're trying to capture in your cartoon/storyboard. Great for making abstract concepts more concrete and tangible.


A well known technique, flashcards work so well because, like the other examples here, they force you to retrieve information. These days, there are websites galore that will generate snazzy flashcards for you, but really, you're likely to learn (and remember) much more if you create them yourself; the process of writing out the information will help you retain it. So by all means download a flashcard app, though bear in that a set of index cards and a biro will do the job equally well!


Yes, this is probably old news, but this time-honoured technique still works! If you haven't mind-mapped in a while, give it a go. You might be surprised at how productive it is!

2. Get revision ready

You can't do all the cool retrieval practice suggested above if your brain is 'flabby'. Do Wendy MacNaughton's test below to check how flabby your brain is..

Obviously, Macnaughton's graphic is a bit of fun, but hopefully you'll agree it has a serious message. Effective revision can only really happen in a healthy mind and body; and it can only really happen if you've taken some steps to organising your time.

Eat properly.

Yes, I know. I sound like your mother. But seriously, you're going to need all the nutrients you can if you're going to thrive in your revision and exams. And day after day of processed food just won't cut it. So, cook proper meals (i.e. from scratch, not warming up a Pot Noodle). Plus, cooking (properly) is a great way to unwind.

Get (or keep) active.

Of course, with the coronavirus situation this may be a bit of a challenge, with gyms closed and group exercise a big no-no. However, you can still do a lot in your own domestic space. For inspiration, check out You Tube 'body coach' Joe Wicks for tons of home exercise videos, including a daily live-streamed 30-minute PE session at 9am. Do this of a morning and you'll be in the zone for some serious revision!

Get organised.

It's crucial that you give your days some structure, particularly as you will likely have no classes between now and your exams. If you just wake up and say, 'I'm going to revise today', you are not likely to be particularly productive! What are you going to revise? Why? How long for? What if you already know what you're revising? This latter question is crucial, for many students fall into the trap of 'comfort revision', which means they end up just 'revising' what they enjoy/know about/feel comfortable with.

So, make a revision timetable/planner. At the start of the week, plan out the week's revision. Identify specific revision slots in the week (e.g. 1-3 hours) that you will dedicate to specific topics. Write these into your timetable.

Also, be sure to timetable non-revision activities such as exercise or relaxation activities. Timetabling these will encourage you to actually complete the revision sessions properly (as you'll be looking forward to the break), AND will make it more likely that you will do the rest activity.

Beating procrastination: "To begin, begin"

At its core, procrastination stems from feelings of being overwhelmed by the scale of a task. If your mindset is saying, 'Oh I need to revise for my exams', this is clearly overwhelming. It's too much. The scale of the task will paralyse you. So, the simplest advice is to break things down to manageable chunks and, as Wordsworth wisely put it, 'begin'! Watch this video to find out more.

Timetabling relatively short revision sessions will help beat procrastination, particularly if you reward yourself afterwards. Being very specific about what to revise will also help. So, for example, instead of saying to yourself one Monday morning, 'OK, today I'm going to revise Victorian novels' (overwhelming, too much, not possible in one day etc), say, ' OK, for the next two hours, I'm going to look at how madness is represented in xxx novel'. If you've read the novel (or whatever it is), this should be doable and achievable in a reasonable time-frame.

Make your revision goal-oriented. Make sure these goals are SMART goals:

Specific: e.g. madness in Jane Eyre

Measurable: e.g. use a retrieval practice method (see above) to test yourself afterwards.

Achievable: i.e. is it possible to learn this in the time available?

Relevant: i.e. make sure you're revising what will be tested!

Time-bound: i.e. how much time will I need to learn this topic?

And finally...

Use the 'pomodoro' technique if you're struggling to get going. This is a very simple technique that tricks your brain into thinking you don't have to do very much. You set a stopwatch for 25 minutes and you study for that period of time. Then you get a five-minute break. Repeat. If you string a series of these together, you may be surprised how much you achieve! Inevitably, there are many apps you can download to your phone, but really, any stopwatch will do the job.

Good luck, stay safe, and (try to) have fun revising!


Created with images by Alissa De Leva - "I took this photo in a private school in Italy (Bologna) and I found beautiful these two girls studying together." • Andrew Neel - "There is no substitute for hard work. ― Thomas A. Edison" • Tran Mau Tri Tam - "Taking notes at a coffee table" • Priscilla Du Preez - "untitled image" • Tamarcus Brown - "Reading in Atlanta" • felix_w - "book paper document" • JESHOOTS-com - "laptop woman education" • geralt - "stress burnout man" • BookBabe - "book textbook college" • Wes Hicks - "untitled image" • CoinView App - "Here is a photo of one of our team members showing the Japanese splash screen of our cryptocurrency app, CoinView, on an iPhone X and its landing page on a MacBook Pro. Nearby is also a camera lens. Our team is multi-lingual, so our app is now also available in English, Simplified Chinese, and Korean. The app is an all-in-one solution for cryptocurrency investors available for both iOS and Android. It provides market data, news, a searchable ICO directory, and lets users track their portfolios by connecting wallets and trading accounts." • tjevans - "homework school problem" • Monica Melton - "I followed Don Kao, a Chinese American LGBT activist, around for weeks on an assignment from New York Times photo editor James Estrin. I captured this moment of Don helping a woman fill out paperwork. It exemplifies how hands on and willing to help Don is, especially among LGBTQ youth." • Kaleidico - "untitled image" • NuPenDekDee - "Storyboard drawing with pencil creative sketch cartoon. Storyboarding is process image displayed in sequence for purpose of pre-visualizing motion picture, interactive media. Concept sketching ideas." • AnnasPhotography - "flashcards cards paper" • Charles Deluvio - "untitled image" • Anelka - "eat food vitamins" • Jonathan Borba - "untitled image" • Bru-nO - "time clock pointer" • Pedro da Silva - "Stop sign with photoshoped street names: "Homework Ave" and "Procrastination Pk"." • Immo Wegmann - "tomato close-up"