Evidence-based revision tips that work

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Studying efficiently and effectively is something that everyone wishes they could do, but few people master. Our learning is focused on the information we need to get our qualifications.

Still, few of us learn how best to study, and it’s been shown that the ways we intuitively think will help us, like re-reading and re-writing notes, can often actually be counter-productive. So what is the best way we can revise for exams?

How do you learn?

Firstly, think about how you best learn. The three main types of learners are:

  1. Visual
  2. Auditory
  3. Kinesthetic

Visual learners will understand more by sight – by reading, taking notes, and looking at pictures or diagrams. Auditory learners will do better hearing things and using conversations and discussions to learn. Kinesthetic learners remember by doing and will do better to engage in an activity as well as seeing and hearing.

Consider your process

Don’t jump right into studying; carefully consider your process first.

“Give me six hours to chop down a tree, and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.”

 – Abraham Lincoln

Douglas Barton, Global Chairman of Elevate Education, says in his TedX Talk ‘What do top students do differently?’ that most learners will think that intelligence and hard work are the most important factors for how well they will do in exams. But Elevate’s extensive global research proves that top students don’t get good results because they’re smarter or have higher IQs. And although working hard is essential, it will only bring benefits if you work hard in the right way. You need to do the right things. If you keep using the same inadequate studying skills and doing more with them, you’ll get better at working badly.

“You can practice shooting eight hours a day, but if your technique is wrong, then all you become is very good at shooting the wrong way. Get the fundamentals down, and the level of everything you do will rise.”

– Michael Jordan

The three things that will make the most difference to your grades

The good news is that the things the evidence says will make the most difference to your results are entirely within your control and are skills that can be taught.

Douglas Barton’s three main tips for getting better exam grades are:

  1. Don’t worry about how smart you are.
  2. Do more practice exams.
  3. Create a study timetable, but the first thing you should add is the times you won’t be studying.

Let’s dive into these a bit further.

1. Don’t worry about how smart you are.

Not only is this out of your control but it’s also proven that this isn’t a factor in why the top students get the best results. The top students do the following two things:

2. Do more practice exams.

You can almost perfectly estimate a student’s results and rank a class by looking at the number of practice exams they’ve done, and practice exams are entirely within your control.

The week before the exam, most students will be making notes, re-writing notes or reading notes, but the minority (who almost always end up getting the highest grades) will be doing practice exams. The fear for most people is ‘what if I forget something’, but an exam is not a test of memory; it’s how you use what you remember, which is where practice exams will help you more than writing or re-reading notes.

3. Create a study timetable, but the first thing you should add is the times you won’t be studying.

Self-motivation and self-discipline are important for studying effectively – getting to work, and avoiding distractions, as is resilience – the ability to come back from setbacks (and everyone will have some setbacks). Elevate’s research proves that self-discipline trumps IQ.

But what if you don’t consider yourself someone with good self-discipline? (And most people don’t.) Author of Atomic Habits, James Clear says,

“When scientists analyse people who appear to have tremendous self-control, it turns out those individuals aren’t all that different from those who are struggling. Instead, “disciplined” people are better at structuring their lives in a way that does not require heroic willpower and self-control. In other words, they spend less time in tempting situations.”

Douglas Barton explains that for passing exams, this structure and self-discipline come from creating a study timetable. But he warns you not to make the mistake that most students make when they do this, which results in them throwing out their plan within a week.

Most people will put in their timetable when they’re going to study, some might also put in specific subjects, but these people have the highest likelihood of throwing out their schedule.

The top performing students first put in when they’re not going to study – their jobs, socialising time, and something fun every day – this creates happiness and balance, which leads to productivity.

In summary

Create a smart process for yourself. Don’t obsess over not being clever enough, memorising notes or working hard for the sake of working hard. If you get the process right, the results will take care of themselves.

Further reading

Hannah Dolan is AAT Comment’s Content Editor.

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