As we write this in December, many of you won’t have exams until the summer. Some of the less fortunate among you may well be already cramming for January exams.
Revision, cramming, studying for a test, whatever you want to call it, is one of the most thankless tasks you have to undertake at university. Revisiting content you have already learned, committing numbers and names to memory and trawling through lecture slides without someone explaining them is, I have found, deeply unsatisfying. It’s also bizarre, because even as universities boast their ‘research led teaching’ credentials, here in the UK, academics are never assessed by written examination that asks them to outline everything they’ve researched and learned over the previous year. It would make more sense to sit students in a big hall and ask them to write a research grant proposal.
But as more students go to university, the efficiency of the exam becomes all the more seductive for en-mass assessment. Exams are not going anywhere. Luckily, there are slow inspired techniques that can make the process more bearable and revision a pleasant way of learning.
Don’t cram. Get some sleep
Cramming is the practice of working long hours to fit everything in. Cramming is bizarre that’s its sometimes seen as a hallmark of a prepared and studious student. It’s not. If you find yourself blearily rubbing your eyes after a 6 or 7 hours at a stretch without moving at a desk littered with Pro-Plus packets and half-finished Red Bull cans, that should send alarm bells ringing.
It’s no secret that all-nighters and stimulants are not conducive to learning. In an article I read about doing an all-nighter, the first piece of advice was to actually consider whether or not it was worth it. Sleep is essential to learning and memory retention.
Let’s dissolve once and for all the myth that an all-nighter or 12 hours straight in the library is a healthy and awe-inspiring practice. If you're running out of time to try and fit everything into a revision schedule, sleep is not the thing to compromise on, just accept that you can always do more, and make sure you have the core concepts from each lecture under wraps.
Revise with lots of regular breaks.
In our office, us PhD students use the Pomodoro technique to great success. It involves doing 25 minute bursts followed by a 10-minute break.
The Slow Movement tells us that in some instances, less can be more. If you score badly in an exam, consoling yourself with the comfort that you put in 16 hours the day before the exam will be superficial at best and self-deluding at worst. Put in the time, but using your own realistic judgement, and don't put in all your time. Don't compromise on what you love doing. Play a sport, go to the pub, take a nap but don't punish yourself or your body by trying to force concentration when it is no longer possible.
Don’t do boring revision
Cramming is not only a poor way of learning, it's a boring one. Revision doesn't have to be monotonous, it can be a new and exciting approach to learning. The world values creativity, and innovation is such a buzzword that The Atlantic devoted a piece to its etymology. This means you can approach revision as an interesting puzzle, rather than a laborious slog.
The brain responds well to new challenges and approaches. You’ve spent the rest of the year looking at lecture slides, pointlessly noting down the text that's already on the screen. Don’t just copy them out again, do something original with the content.
You could have a Russian themed tea party or, if you have text/equations/formulas you need to remember, try replacing song lyrics with the key ideas. Use a visualisation technique that allows you to connect boring ideas with a pack of overweight nudists on bikes by making them vivid in your mind. If you play an instrument, writing your own melodies for learning by rote. You don’t even have to be that fancy. Flashcards, coloured pens and anything that is unusual to your usual process of learning is good.
Best of all, revise with someone else.
Cover the core materials, but don’t forget the literature
Exams can be an opportunity to score high marks, but they’re often seen as the parts of a degree in which you don’t do as well as coursework. As such, students regress to the mean by making sure they have the basics (lecture slides and core concepts) cemented into their memories, and tend to forgo the upper echelons of the mark-scheme. They see the hallowed halls of 70% + levels are guarded by the fearsome guardians ofcreativity and originality. You might be able to fool them in coursework, but not exam situations.
In this respect, revision is a misleading word for preparing for university exams. Learning and critical ability are just as important as being able to regurgitate core ideas. When it comes to reading literature for exams, you should be making sure you have an arsenal of academic papers to call upon, and this may well involve reading new things. Ideally, you should be familiar with the core readings and devote some revision time to the extended reading lists. You can even turn this into an (admittedly rather uninspiring) reward for the drudgery of revisiting core material, like Google does with its 20% time rule: for 20% of their employees time, they work on problems that interest them, with no deadlines or targets.
It might sound controversial, but it’s a core part of the UCL Geography exam mark-scheme, and I’d wager it’s a core part elsewhere. What’s more, having a strong grasp of the literature before an exam will reduce the amount of waffle you write in an exam, replacing it with substance. This can only send your marks in one direction: up.
In my discipline of Geography, I have found that university exams are often about your ability to critically connect and synthesise information from multiple sources. It’s easier to score higher marks in exams if you bring in extra readings, because that’s something people often forget to do under pressure. Readings can often be from different topics, provided they substantiate an argument.
Essential tip. In exams, the names of writers and a short outline of their ideas will often do. Don’t worry about the date. Chances are if you can’t remember what year a book or paper was published, neither can the marker.
So it might seem like a heresy to say it, but revision doesn’t have to be arduous or even boring. Turn it into an interesting puzzle, and don’t do too much of it. In the words of J. R Tolkien’s Boromir ‘Give yourself a moment, for pity’s sake!’