Revision for exams

Revision for exams


By the time you finish this unit you will have been invited to review the structure of the exam you will be taking;

and make a revision timetable which takes into account the differing tasks of revision and your need for rest .

As part of your work on this unit you will be encouraged to look at the syllabus for your course, or past exam papers (or a specimen paper if the course is new )which you have already collected


There are as many different styles of approaching revision as there are students, and you will need to experiment to discover what works for you.

What is common, however, is the necessity to plan your revision in some way, as you would prepare for any taxing test of your knowledge, capacity to think on your feet, and endurance under pressure. It is not sufficient to re-read old notes or course materials. You need to work always with a pen in your hand, actively condensing notes, jotting new thoughts, and making plans for answers or completing complete questions or computations.


Pause for thought: If you can, recall the last exam you did.

When did you begin your revision?

What did you do that really helped you to go into the exam feeling confident and ready to work at your peak?

What did you do that hindered you in this?


Now read on and compare the advice here with your previous approach.

Exams are opportunities for a large number of people to be tested simultaneously about material they are expected to understand. It is important to see them like this, as rule based processes. Like any game, understanding the rationale and the rules allows you to compete effectively.

Ideally you will have discovered during the course when your most effective time to study is ( this may not be the same as the most convenient one!) You are effective when you feel most alert, and it is important to keep ‘thinking work’ for this time of day, and do routine tasks at other times.

If you haven’t already discovered this, use the following activity to do so:


Activity: When and where to study:

Look at your diary for the revision period or next six weeks and identify how many hours you have free to study. See if there can be a regular time of day in this period. Possibilities include:

° Early morning

° During the day

° Evenings

° Mainly at weekends


Plan your revision time for a week to experiment with working at different times of the day which are available to you, and review at the end of the week which was the more productive. Then plan the next weeks to capitalise on this.

Make sure your revision plan is geared to the structure and focus of the exam. Try this activity as a systematic checklist.


ACTIVITY: Find your copy of the syllabus, a recent exam paper or specimen, and check the following:

How long is the exam?

How many questions do you have to answer?

Will there be any compulsory questions? If so, how would these relate to the way the course has been taught?

Will there be any multiple choice questions?

Will there be some short answers?

Are there requirements to complete any part at the start? or can you choose the order and timing yourself?

Can you take in books? or a calculator? or a dictionary?

Is there any practical assessment? If so what form does it take?

Is there an oral? If so, what are you expected to be able to do in it?

Will you be given the exam questions in advance?

Are there topics which you might leave out?

Are questions written in such a way that you have to have a knowledge of more than one section of the course to answer them?


On the basis of

– The information you have collected

– Your supervisor’s advice on how much of the course you need to revise,

– Your check of the ‘assessment objectives’, which should be printed in a syllabus document or guide to a course you now are in a position to make your revision plan

.NB For most university exams , more marks are given for applying the ideas in the course, than for remembering them, so it is essential to spend revision time developing your ideas, linking ideas from different parts of the course, and identifying good examples under particular headings. It may be hard to believe that the examiner wants you to do well, but it is usually true. The examiner has a marking scheme to work to and your job is to offer what will collect the marks.


You have three interrelated objectives in revision:

1 To learn the course content so that you feel comfortable and confident about using the main course ideas, and essential information.

2 To rehearse and feel competent at answering the types of question which you will see in an exam

3 To manage your allocation of time for revision and practice to prepare yourself for peak performance on the day.

To keep yourself from getting stale you also want to be building your understanding of the course ideas by connecting key themes; and continuing to extend your understanding of the ideas of interest to you.

These objectives result in two different types of task to run concurrently in your revision planning:

1 To become thoroughly familiar with your notes by condensing, memorising, and restructuring them.

2 To practice using this increasingly solid base of information to answer questions, or plan skeleton answers.

Probably it is worth making a detailed revision timetable for the last 6-7 weeks of a year long course, with the major effort in the first 4-5 weeks going to sorting notes and learning activities, and then practising answers more in the final period.


Making your revision plan:

Draw up a timetable for revision.

For each period of study set yourself a realistic objective ( eg review topic X by answering question Y on the specimen exam) Don’t stop till you have achieved your objective ( unless the pressures of life intervene intrusively!); but take a break after every hour or so of work so you stay awake.

You may find it useful to have a variety of treats to give yourself at the breaks: food, social contact, refreshment of any of your senses ( listen to a CD, eat, have a quick chat) If you always use cups of tea and coffee or chocolate as rewards you will lose concentration ( too much caffeine tends to depress the effectiveness of short term memory) or run the risk of putting on a lot of weight!


Plan your general revision programme in advance, and check it to add detail and review progress a week at a time; It will feel more manageable if you have broken it down into specific objectives, and you will have the satisfaction of ticking off the goals as you complete them. You will also know how far you are behind: Then you have a

choice either to feel frozen with self criticism, or to make yourself a more realistic plan for next week!


MAKE A NOTE NOW OF: Dates , times , and order of exam papers:

Make specific plans for the equivalent of a day off from revision per week, and ensure you get a rest and some complete breaks from brainwork. Go out; do something physical; listen to music; spend time with someone whom you like.


Plan a realistic schedule which takes into account not only the regular other commitments in your life, but possible demands on your time in the revision period, plus some time for sociability and rest, or you will only stick to it at a cost of becoming extremely inefficient during the hours you spend. It is far better to do less hours with clear aims than to spend all your available time languishing in front of your books without a sense of achievement for EVERY hour of work.

Use a diary format to clarify exactly how you will fit in your revision: It might look like this:

Revision Plan

Week Topics Objectives What Practise Treats!





















Special advice for re-sit students:

‘ Check what you believe about why people fail exams. Does it mean the person is a failure? For many people,it does feel that way. But research shows that for those students who have passed on course work, relatively few people fail because they are stupid or inadequate. A high proportion can pass at a second attempt if they take appropriate action: a) To improve their exam technique; b) To improve their capacity to cope with exam anxiety, or c) If their personal circumstances change so they can find a way to reduce pressures on their time, capacity to concentrate, and feelings of self esteem. So if you have failed an exam and are re-taking it, take heart. Think that you didn’t get it right THEN but it is possible with some work and support to get a different result NOW.

Do not spend time going over the exam paper you failed, as the questions will not usually be asked in the same way a second time. Instead, make sure you get revision time to rebuild your memory of course ideas and facts; and if possible, do a mock exam and get feedback on your approach, so you have a better chance of passing this time.

Your confidence is likely to have been knocked by the failure so it is particularly important to read the sections on coping with panic, and building your self confidence about being assessed.

Check your learning:

What are the essential elements of a revision plan?

When should you begin your final revision?

Why is active revision important?

Comments are closed.