A guide to last minute exam revision

Tip: This is not for true cramming (i.e. the night before) this is for those occasions when you have 3 days – 1 week for revision. If you can start earlier, do! But sometimes due to coursework or for whatever other reason, revision just gets left a bit late. This is for then!

Step 1: Figure out your deadlines & how much time you have

First of all, you need to start on a revision timetable. Boring? Maybe, but useful.  Dig out your course handbook or your exam timetable or your filofax or wherever else you stored your exam deadlines and other commitments.  I’d recommend creating your timetable in Excel, partially because (I admit it) I just love Excel, but also because your timetable is likely to change a lot before you’re finished, and Excel is user friendly for changes.  Making it in Excel is really easy – I like to have the column down the left for time of day (I use half hour slots) and the top row for dates.  Start with today and run up until your final exam date.  In terms of times – don’t bother scheduling 6am if you normally get up at midday, or till midnight if you normally go to bed early.  Yes, you probably will have to get up earlier, but be sensible about it – if you’re fundamentally a night owl, now is not the time to suddenly start getting up at dawn.

So now you have your empty timetable, slot in your exams and coursework deadlines first of all. Put them in in bright red or something – make them stand out!  Then, figure out all your other commitments for the week or so ahead.  Just brainstorm them down the side, of your timetable for now, and highlight each in a different colour. Schedule them in – nights out, sports, volunteering, working, – anything with a set time.  The different colours help you to see the balance, and now you should have a timetable ready and waiting for the revision to be slotted in.

Step 2: Find out what you need to do

For each exam, find out both the format of the exam, and the amount of material to cover. For example, one exam with multiple choice, short answer and essay questions will need you to cover everything, but an exam where you answer one question of a choice of five will need less breadth and more depth: you can pick a few areas you know well, and really focus on those.  Exam formats should have been given to you somewhere, but it’s also helpful to see if you can find any past papers – they’ll help you get your head around how specific those essay questions will be.

Try and estimate roughly how long you’ll need to revise for each module: say you need half an hour per lecture for chemistry, or 1 hour per case study for psychology etc. Make a note somewhere (Sheet 2 in your Excel document maybe 😉 ) and keep hold of it.

Step 3: Prioritise

If you’re short on time, it’s important to figure out what is most important.  A 10% multiple choice exam will be lower on your list of priorities than an exam worth 100% of the module.  Similarly, if you have 2 exams worth 60%, one in a module you’re great at, and one in a module you struggle with, you can afford to cut a few hours revision for the easy module in order to put more time into the harder module.

Step 4: Pencil things in

Again, using different colours for different modules (or different sections of modules if you’re being very detailed/have only a few exams), start slotting revision into your timetable, remembering to allow for some breaks!  You can start off filling slots as simply as “Chemistry”, or you can go straight in with “Chemistry – Lecture 1” etc.  Keep going until either you’ve managed to fit everything in, or run out of space on your timetable.  If you’ve run out of space, that means you’ve run out of time – either you need to compress your revision (not recommended) or cut something else out.  Could you go to the gym less this week, or reschedule your night out for next week? If possible, reduce lots of things rather than cutting one thing out completely – that way you don’t feel deprived!  Keep going until you’ve managed to fit everything in – if you have spare time all the better: you’ll feel less stressed, and have time to go over anything you’re not confident with.

An important thing to consider: revising one topic for an extended period of time can result in boredom and your brain switching off, so if you can switch modules throughout the day that might be a good idea. Personally I’m pretty hopeless at that, so I try to allow for lots of breaks or switch to a related subject (i.e. from desert biology to polar biology)

You should now have a finished timetable, which might look something like this:

example timetable
As you can tell, my timetable for this week is pretty bare – I’ve got no lectures or sports activites on, and our night out plans have been postponed until next week.  That means my only real commitment is blogging, which I’ll basically fit in where I can. I’ve left a lot of blank spaces on here both for time when I’ll be blogging, breaks from revision, and for when revision just doesn’t go to plan. Having a sparse timetable when you can manage it means that you can fit extra things in if you need to: that last minute trip to the vets, a recap of something you didn’t understand etc.

Step 5: Make yourself accountable

Whether you choose to physically print out your timetable and cross things off, make a to-do list of each revision session you can tick when complete or a tally chart of time spent revising towards each subject, make sure you find some way to make yourself accountable. This not only gives you a sense of achievement (because I personally never feel like I’m getting anywhere with revision), but it also helps you see if you’re on track.  If you’re on track great, if you’re ahead – even better. More importantly, by being accountable from the start, you can find out early if you’re behind, in which case you have time to rearrange your schedule to fix that!

Step 6: Get revising

Revision itself mostly comes down to personal preference but here are some things to think about:

  • Location: if you revise better in the library, go! If you work best at home but get distracted by your PC find a way to avoid that. Whether you make your whole computer unavailable (lend it to a trusted friend for supervision), certain websites only (download a website blocker or something similar) or set yourself limits (i.e. computer is off limits until I’ve achieved my revision for the day, or only after 8pm or something similar).
  • Alone or in a group: If you’re the sort of person who revises well in a group, then go ahead and see if anyone wants to buddy up. I personally am not, but sometimes I’ll meet up with a friend to discuss a topic we’ve already finished revising. Alternatively, you could meet up to brainstorm answers for past papers (purely in bullet points), then go off and revise individually.
  • Snacks: If you stock up on food now, you won’t have to take time out of your timetable to go shopping. Snacking a lot may not be how you would normally eat, but I personally find I just get distracted by being hungry if I don’t have things I can pick at, and after all, it’s only one week.  I wouldn’t recommend microwaving a ready meal every few hours though! Easy foods that you can leave on your desk might include nuts, popcorn, grapes, skittles, etc.  Don’t forget drinks too.
  • Breaks: Without breaks, you’re going to go crazy.  Find a reasonable break system for you: try different ones out if you aren’t sure.  If you’d rather have regular short breaks, set a timer for 45 minutes-1 hour, and give yourself 15-20 minutes for a break (set a timer for that too!).  If you’d rather have longer breaks to get out of the house or just relax more, work for an hour and a half or so and then take half an hour off.  Figure out what works for you.
  • Method: Everyone revises differently, but some popular methods include mind maps, making essay plans for longer questions (though stick to bullet points and short sentences if possible), making notes and revision cards.  Alternate between styles if possible, both to help remember material and to keep yourself from getting bored.

Finally, try not to stress too much! Exams aren’t the end of the world: there are often resit or make up opportunites, and even if there aren’t, one bad exam can be pulled up by a good result later in the term if needs-be.

Do you have any tips for last minute exam revision, or for exams in general? I’d love to hear your opinions, revision strategies and coping mechanisms!

Filofax for studying

Warning: Pretty poor photo quality ahead. Our internet is down at home, and so I’m stuck in the crowded uni library, which explains the terrible lighting etc. My general camera ineptitude and the fact I’m using my phone explains the rest….

On philofaxy a few days ago, Graham had emailed in to ask about tips for using a filofax for studying. As a full time undergraduate student, I love my filofax. I’ve got an A5 Finsbury which is pretty much the perfect size for me.  I’ve tried student specific planners, notebooks, wall calendars, online timetables and a whole bunch of other planning methods in the past, but I find my filofax to be by far the most useful.

In terms of studying, I have three sections that get used – the diary, my ‘uni’ tab, and my (so far mostly empty) project tab.

First things first, the diary

Left half only - excuse the white boxes (they block personal info)

As you can see, from my Monday-Wednesday photo I’ve got all my lectures on here (pale blue), as well as things to remember/deadlines (red), and things to do (purple). I also keep track of my other day-to-day goings on – sports & socials (pale green), non-uni commitments (dark blue) and my spending (dark green).

I like the week to view format, since I can see at a glance all my deadlines for the week. and the appointments view gives me enough writing space.

Honestly though, this isn’t my dream diary. I’d really love the TM week to view available on philofaxy.  I’d change the titles a little though – from ‘task’ to ‘to do’ (purely nitpicking!), from ‘Notes/Reminders’ to ‘don’t forget’ (feels more urgent), ‘Communications’ to ‘StudentSpyGlass’ (my very new blog’s name) and ‘coming up’ to ‘spending’.

However, since I don’t have a filofax hole punch, or the patience to argue with the source files and my printer long enough to organise this, the TM view is (for now at least) a pipe dream.

Uni tab

My uni tab is very very thin, but so helpful, especially for revision. First of all I have a year to a page calendar, with all my exams and deadlines ruled in red. This is mostly just used for planning when to go home since my deadlines are all in the main diary section anyway. Then I have a to-do sheet for each of my modules, with a 1 line prompt for each lecture covered. When it comes to revision, I simply tick off the lectures I’ve already covered.

This is honestly a lifesaver for me – as soon as a lecture is finished I can write in something like

‘Lecturer’s initials – Lecture title – point that stuck out for me’

which means I can actually remember what was covered, which notes I need etc. A lot of the time module outlines don’t quite match up with what’s been done – lecture 12 gets brought forward in the course, the focus for lecture 3 on the module outline isn’t the same as the focus in the lecture etc.

Finally I have a sheet with my current modules (just two this term), and the assessment breakdown. Once I’ve been given my marks for that particular assessment I can put in the percentage I have over all, and therefore the marks I need in the final exam for a particular grade.

There’s some long-winded maths involved by doing it by hand, but it is by far the most helpful sheet in my filofax!

The explanation behind the maths, in case anyone is interested.

For each assessment: Percentage achieved x percentage available
Add those together, subtract from desired overall percentage.
Divide final answer by total percentage still available.

Conservation report, worth 40%. I achieved 74%. 0.74 x 40 = 29.6. In other words, I’ve ‘banked’ 29.6% of the available 40%.

Conservation mid-term, worth 10%. I achieved an A+, no percentage given. Assume 80% (since my 74% was an A-, this seems like a reasonable estimate). 0.8 x 10 = 8%. I’ve banked a further 8% of 10.

Add the 29.6 to the 8 = 37.6% ‘banked’

For a first, I need 70%.

70-37.6 = 32.4% – this is how much I need to come away with.

32.4 divided by the percentage available on the mid-term (50) = 64.8% This means I need 65% of the marks available in order to come out with a first over all for the module.

The maths involved makes my brain hurt if I think about it too much, but I find this SO helpful. For one thing, it means I can see which modules I’m doing well in, and which I need to up my game in, which helps a lot for setting priorities in revision. As well, it means that if I get a bad mark, I can find out early on in the term how hard I need to work to balance it out. Not only does that mean I’m prepared, it can also put a mark into perspective. If for example, you only got 30% on a test, it can be really disheartening to think that all your hard work for the rest of the term is for nothing. By working out the maths, you can figure out just how much of an impact it’s had on your grade – if for example the test was only worth 10% it wouldn’t alter things much at all, which can leave you feeling determined instead of depressed!

The final tab in my filofax used for studying is mostly empty. This is for my third year project, which isn’t due to officially start until next term. I’m doing a literature review, instead of the typical experimental project, which means I have hundreds of references. This section of my filofax contains a sheet of notepaper per chapter title, and a list of references I want to use in that section, so I can keep track!