Andy Darvill's Science Site: Revision Tips

|   What sort of learner am I?   |   Making it stick   |   Know any good revision web sites?   |   In the exams   |

This advice is based on my experience of helping students through all kinds of exams.
The ideas work for most people, most of the time - but if I've learned anything from life, it's that everybody is different, and that you need to figure out what works for you.
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Exams looming? No need to panic, just get organised!

  • Find somewhere quiet to work, somewhere that you feel comfortable.
  • Take frequent breaks, work in short bursts. Every 30 minutes or so, change topic or subject.
  • When you're revising, the trick is to be active.
                     That means not simply reading your books and hoping that it'll sink in, but actually doing something with the information.
                     But what should I actually do? That's what this page is about.

There's so much of it!  Where do I start?

A lot of people will put a job off if the job seems big and scary, and revision can seem like that.

So where do you start? It doesn't really matter, just pick something that you like, that seems "do-able" and make a start on that.
Promise yourself that you'll start today (important!), at 6 o'clock (or whatever), and stick to your promise!
Once you're into the routine of revision you'll feel good that you're getting on with it, and it won't seem scary.

What sort of learner am I?

This section is based on the now-discredited idea of "learning styles" that was pushed at teachers for years and years. The idea was that everyone has a "preferred learning style" and ought to be taught in that way. In reality you're most likely to be a mixture of all of these "styles", so pick out a few of the ideas that you like the sound of. Whatever it takes to make your leanring memorable to you.
There are many ways to revise and learn, and you need to find out what works best for you.
Take a look at this section, and also ask your teachers for advice.

  • Many people remember things visually - in other words, they remember a picture of what they saw when they read the page.

    If you're one of these people, try writing notes or equations onto one piece of paper and then colouring them in, adding curly bits, trees, animals and anything else that makes it stick in your mind. Then look it over once a day, and notice the shapes on the paper, maybe colour in a bit more; in the exam you'll find that you can "see" the paper and remember what was there. If this is you, you're likely to find "spider diagrams" a really helpful trick.

  • Or maybe your mind works more on auditory recall - you remember sounds.

    If this is you, and you like to have music playing when you work, try noticing what music is playing on the radio when you revise each bit, and this ought to help you remember the stuff you're revising. Say things out loud, perhaps record your voice and listen to it later.
    Or you could get adventurous and make up songs or rhymes to help you remember ("one upon 2 pi root L C, equals the resonant frequency". An equation to do with how radio tuners work, way beyond GCSE level but it's still stuck in my head 17 years later. Sad, huh?)

  • Other people remember "kinaesthetically" - they remember the muscle movements they made when they did something.

    So write things out on a sheet of paper, cut it out to make a jigsaw, then sort it out - there's an example below. Practice your jigsaw each evening - with practice it'll only take a minute or so. In the exam, cast your mind back to that jigsaw, and the stuff should come flooding back. If this is you, then moving around as you work may help you to remember, as will any kind of cutting-and-sticking. If you play a musical instrument, you could combine the muscle movements and the sound recall ideas, just as you did when you learned to play the instrument.

  • Other people are better at recalling feelings.

    If you're somebody who is particularly aware of how people around you are feeling, or particularly aware of how you're feeling yourself, then use this to help you recall the stuff you need for exams: "...oh yes, I remember that - it was in the lesson when xxxx was upset because of what yyyy said..." - make a point of noticing at the time, but not at the expense of paying attention to the work in the lesson! When revising, think about how Anne Boleyn might have felt about the way Henry VIII treated her.



Making it stick

Now you have an idea about what works for you, here are some tricks to try:-

Remind yourself over and over

If you revise something tonight, by this time tomorrow you'll have forgotten at least some of it.
So take another quick look at it tomorrow, to "top up" your memory.
Take another quick look next week, and keep "topping up" until the night before the exam.
This doesn't take long to do, and is usually quite comforting - you feel good because you find that the stuff looks familiar each time you look at it; because it's quick you can easily fit it in with all your other revision.

"Look, Cover, Write, Check"

This is probably the way that you learned spellings in Primary School.
1) read it,
2) hide it away,
3) write it out,
4) check to see if you got it right.
This technique is good for spellings, diagrams, equations, lists of facts and a whole lot more.

Remembering labelled diagrams

Draw a copy of the diagram - but without the labels. Then try to fill in the labels from memory.


Go through your books highlighting key words / key ideas. Not only does this make it easier to revise later, but the act of scanning through your books looking for the key stuff helps you to remember it. (Might be an idea to ask your teachers first, before you do this to your books, but if you explain why they'll almost certainly be delighted that you're getting on with your revision)

Make summaries of the information

For example, try to get the whole topic onto one side of A4 paper. It's the act of making the sheet which fixes the information in your mind. You might like to use"web diagrams" (you might call them "spider diagrams") - they really help to show what's in a topic.

Make your own "Flash Cards"

These can help you to remember facts and equations. The idea is to carry them with you, and look at them when you have a spare moment (lunch queues, break times, on the bus...) You could put headings on one side and details on the other.

Make "jigsaws"

List things on a sheet of paper, cut the paper up, jumble it, then sort it out.
Here's an example:
Mouth grinds up the food
Oesophagus connects the mouth to the stomach
Stomach adds acid to the food to break it down
Duodenum connects the stomach to the small intestine
Liver makes bile to break down fats
Small Intestine absorbs nutrients into the bloodstream for transport around the body
Large Intestine recovers water from the digested food
Rectum waste is stored here, ready to leave the body
Anus waste leaves the body

This works for Kings Queens and dates, who did what in a play, and much more.
Note: the important thing about this is not that you have it - it's the act of making and using it that does the job!

Work out "what could they ask me about this?"

For example, in a question about acids and alkalis, it's a safe bet that you'll be expected to know about the numbers on the pH scale, the colours that Universal Indicator goes, and what "neutralisation" means. In questions about the planets, expect to be asked about their names, the order that they're in (counting outwards from the Sun), which ones are hottest/coldest, which ones go round the Sun fastest.... you've got the idea.

Practice on real exam questions

The more you can try, the better. You wouldn't expect to do any other performance without a realistic rehearsal, and this is no different.

Be clear about what you're expected to know

Otherwise how do you know if you've revised it all? Check with your teachers if you're not sure. Go along to any revision sessions that you can. These can really boost your confidence, which is what many people need the most. You'll probably also be able to ask a different teacher about any bits that confuse you, and have it explained in a different way.

Identify your strong and weak areas

Then you'll know where to concentrate your efforts. Go through your books and put green blobs beside stuff that you're happy about, and red blobs beside the bits you find more difficult. Then you know what to ask your teachers about at those revision sessions.

Thinking of buying a CD-ROM to help you revise?

Don't get the first one that you come across - it may not suit your style of working.
Find out about the different ones on the market: some are more "dry" and academic, others are better at boosting your confidence. Ask your teachers about what's best for you.

Work with somebody else

There's an old saying: "the best way to learn is to teach".
Try it!
If you can explain stuff to somebody else, then you know that you've got it straight yourself.

There's also good advice including "Do's" and "Don'ts" at

Know any good revision web sites?

Oh Yes!

What about tutors to help me?

Look online to find tutors in your area. Usually this would be via an agency, but the best way to find a tutor is to ask around your classmates and parents for word-of-mouth recommendations.

Or you may prefer to have your tutoring sessions online, in which case is a good place to start.

In the exams
  • Make sure that you have everything that you need (pens, pencil, calculator & spare batteries, ruler, etc.).
  • Keep an eye on the time.
  • If you get stuck on a question, don't waste time on it - move on and come back to it later if you can.
  • Check to see how many marks each bit is worth.
             - Don't write huge chunks for one-mark questions - you won't get any extra marks for it.
             - If a question is worth two marks, you probably need to say two different things. (Not say the same thing twice!)
  • Read the questions! Each year thousands of people lose marks because they rushed into an answer before they'd understood what the question was actually asking.

Good Luck!

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