As the end of term approaches, millions of people across the UK will be taking exams or tests at school, college, sixth form, or university.
Revising the knowledge and skills from the past year (or two) is important, as it’ll help you show just how much you’ve learned. But how can we use what we know about the brain to revise more effectively?
How memory works
Having a basic understanding of how memory works can help you to choose effective revision methods.
Our brains are amazing. While we’re awake, information from our senses (sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste) is pretty much always travelling to our sensory memory. From there, the information that we pay attention to goes to our short term memory. Your short-term memory can hole about seven items for 30 seconds… so getting information this far won’t be enough to help you ace an exam.
Effective revision involves doing things that help you transfer information into your long-term memory. Your long-term memory can hold an unlimited amount of information for a long time.
To help transfer information from short-term to long-term memory, you can rehearse it, organise it, and elaborate on it to make it more meaningful.
During an exam, you’ll need to retrieve information from your long-term memory so you can answer questions.
Of course, this is a fairly simplistic understanding of memory. There’s also working memory, which processes the data in our short-term memory and helps us perform tasks, for example. But even a simplistic understanding of psychology (and a quick look at some research) can help you make good revision decisions.
Give your memory a helping hand
Firstly (and unsurprisingly), a good night’s sleep and regular meals and snacks are the foundation for both successful revision and good memory in the exam itself.
There’s also evidence that trying to relax can help. Stress isn’t good for memory – worrying about your memory (or the process of remembering things) while you’re revising can get in the way!
It’s not surprising that Best For You, a mental health project, emphasises wellbeing – but it’s true that taking care of yourself is essential for successful revision!
To begin with, revision can seem super overwhelming – especially if you’re taking different exams for different subjects, units, or modules.
Get started by organising yourself. Find the information you need, whether that’s a specification from an exam board or a course outline from a lecturer. And make sure you understand what the exam will involve, so you can tailor your knowledge to the type and number of questions.
You might want to go through this information with the traffic light system. Mark every topic or area as green (if you’re confident you understand it), amber (if you get it but feel a bit rusty), or red (if you need to get your head around it or need some help). This can help you to organise your time – some people start with red topics to get them out of the way, while others use green topics to build their confidence.
Lots of people find it useful to make a timetable, so they know they’ll have enough time to cover everything (and so they don’t spend all their time on their favourite topic). The crucial thing here is to keep on task – don’t let making a beautiful timetable eat into the time you could be using to revise actual content!
Make sure you understand the basics
When we remember things, we organise information into connected networks of ideas (called schema). It’s easier to store (and retrieve) information if it’s well-connected and linked to things we already know – this is one of the reasons why it’s important to go over the basics before you learn something complicated!
It also means that, if you get anxious in the exam, you’ll be able to start at the beginning and remember the basics to get you started on an answer. It’s likely that this will build your confidence and help you remember more.
Go over information in a different way
We know that rehearsing information over and over again can strengthen a neural pathway. A neural pathway is a series of nerve cells that use electrical impulses and chemical signals to pass information between different areas of the brain. Stronger neutral pathways will make it easier to recall the information you need during an exam.
We’re less likely to remember things that are familiar and uninteresting – so find ways of making your revision more engaging. This means that re-reading, highlighting, and even copying things out aren’t the best strategies.
Why not try going over information by creating flash cards or a mind map? You can condense everything you know into key words and, if it works for you, use colours or doodles to help make the information memorable. Flash cards are portable (they can even be virtual), and you could (with your parent or carer’s permission) stick mind maps around your home – why not decorate the bathroom and use the time you spend brushing your teeth to read over a mind map or two!
If you’re struggling to remember certain facts or topics, you could try associating them with something more memorable. For example, you could create some new lyrics to a song you like or associate the thing you’re trying to learn with a being in a certain place or holding a certain object. During the exam, the song, object, or place might be just what you need to prompt your memory.
Once you’ve built some confidence, involving others in your revision can be a great way of keeping things interesting (and giving you some much-needed social time).
You could tell someone you live about a subject and invite them to ask questions, or you could pair up with a friend studying similar things and take it in turns to explain concepts to each other.
Even if you’re using mind maps, flash cards, or other creative methods, reading or copying the same things over and over again isn’t the most effective way to learn.
A 2008 study showed that once people had learned new words in a foreign language, repeated testing had a positive effect on their ability to remember what they’d learned a week later (whereas repeated study alone didn’t). This might be because when we test ourselves we have to practise retrieving the information.
Past papers are really good way to test yourself. They also allow you to practise exam techniques, like timing and structuring your answer. If you just want to test your knowledge, you could answer with bullet points or take one question at a time
You might even want to start your revision by seeing what you already know – just don’t panic if it feels like there’s a long way to go and a lot to learn.
Shake up the order
You might not have heard of the serial position effect, but you’ve probably experienced it.
The serial position effect describes how, when we try to remember a series of items, we’re more likely to remember the things at the start and end and forget the content in the middle. You might have noticed it when watching lots of different people perform on a TV show, learning vocabulary, or even writing a shopping list.
The serial effect probably happens because we’ve rehearsed the things at the start of the list more and kept some of the things at the end of the list in our short-term memory.
To avoid the serial position effect affecting your knowledge, you could change the order of the information you’re revising. This will work better for some topics than others, but it’s worth a try if the information in the middle of your session often gets forgotten.
Space out your revision sessions
Psychologists also talk about massed practice and spaced practice. Massed practise is when you try to learn something quickly – like when your cram for a test. It’s not a very productive way of learning because it only has short-term benefits.
Spaced practice, on the other hand, involves spreading your learning over time. It’s supported by evidence: the ideal time to revise a topic (start by seeing what you can remember) is just before you’re about to forget it. To begin with, wait a short time between revising the same topic – then go back to it after a little while longer. Eventually, you’ll be able to remember what you need to do after days or even weeks!
Ask for help
Even if your lessons or lectures have changed in the run up to the exam period, it’s important to remember that you can still ask for help.
If you’re struggling with a specific topic, for example, you could ask a friend, teacher, or lecturer for help.
There are plenty of resources online, like BBC Bitesize’s The Mind Set, to help with top tips and hacks for revision and exam season.
And if you’re stressed, upset, or worried, there’s always someone around to listen. Check out the Get help now page for more information of how you can access free, anonymous help, any time of day or night.