Picture yourself revising. You take out your notes, reach for the highlighters and read.
As long as you work hard you’ll be ready, right?
Somehow it's not that easy. No matter how many times you read over the material, some things never quite stick.
So what do you try next?
You resign yourself to working even longer. No more Netflix until exams are over. You enter complete study lockdown.
Does this sound worryingly familiar? It’s something I’ve experienced, and seen as a tutor in my own A-level students. In fact, more than half of students say reading and notetaking is their preferred revision method. But, unfortunately, being the most popular technique doesn’t mean it’s the best.
The reality is that this technique is actually ineffective. Although it feels helpful at the time, it’s actually giving you an illusion of competence. You’ll end up being less prepared for exams than you thought, in spite of your hard work.
The good news is that there are other ways of studying that are a better use of time. Bringing together methods tried and tested by my own students with professional academic research, we’ve compiled a list of the best revision techniques to help you reach your potential.
Note: This is the most important tip we have for you.
Get this right and the other revision techniques will be more effective, plus you’ll find it easier to study. Revision relies on your memory, and researchers say the advantages of spacing out studying over time are “among the most powerful effects in memory research”.
Did you know that one of the questions we are most commonly asked is; ‘is it good to revise the night before an exam?’ And the answer is no… to some extent.
Research has found that cramming new information in the night before a big exam or test is not beneficial. Typically, you’re more stressed the night before an exam, which makes it harder to retain information. You’re much more likely to forget anything new you’ve learned and enter your exam feeling uptight and unprepared - which no one wants to experience.
Instead, you’re much better off creating a revision timetable very early on in your studies, so you can spend the night before exams trying to relax, eat well, and get a good night’s rest ahead of your upcoming exam.
To make this as effective a method as possible, when it comes to planning out your revision time, here’s what you should think about:
Start early - instead of spending 2 hours per day revising for 1 week, it’s better to spend 1 hour per day over 2 weeks
Leave a gap - after studying a topic before you review that information again
Plan to review - what you learned most recently, a week ago, a month ago, and longer.
When people tell you to start revising months before exams, it doesn’t mean putting in more hours. It’s about making this revision time more valuable.
A good revision technique is to make sure you know what to aim for.
Check which specific A-level qualifications you’re taking and look up the syllabuses on the exam board websites. Everything you’ll be expected to do or know will be in there—it’s a ready-made revision checklist.
There are a few ways to use a syllabus to benefit your revision:
Once you’ve started exam practice - identify your specific weak areas and start revising these first
Mark off what you’ve covered - to ensure you don’t miss anything out
Look up key terms - so you can familiarise yourself with the vocabulary and learn the definitions you’ll be expected to know
Rate your confidence - on each point, and review this as you go - this is a great way to track your progress.
There are often other resources available from exam boards that are worth checking out, including reports explaining where past students could have improved. Reserve yourself some revision time to take a look through these, as they can offer incredibly enriching insights on how to improve your exam techniques.
You will want to procrastinate. There’s no avoiding it. And it doesn’t mean you’re a bad student, it’s just that A-levels are hard to fully focus on all the time and nobody has endless willpower.
Instead of pretending this won’t happen, it’s best to accept you’ll have bad times and have strategies for dealing with them. It might be that you save an easier topic for when this happens, or promise yourself a break after a short session as long as you get started. When you’re restless, go for a short walk first.
Also look for patterns in the times you’re lacking study motivation. Maybe your energy levels are low after lunch, so it’s better to wait an hour before continuing. Or you’re worried that you won’t understand, and need to give yourself a pep talk. Let your friends know when you’re working so they don’t message you with a better offer. Ask your family to leave you alone until you’re on a break.
I found that tidying first and listening to film soundtracks helped me focus, but it might be different for you. Whatever works to engage your brain and keep you going when it’s tough.
And just remember point one on this list - make time for this. All great revision timetables will allow for downtime from your studies and offer flexibility within your schedule for when you’re not in the right headspace to study - make sure you have this option in yours too.
Now, as a good revision technique, this relies on being able to strike the right balance. When studying a specific topic, don’t focus your time on one idea for too long, but remember to give yourself enough time to understand each idea before moving on to the next one.
By exploring related concepts alongside each other, you’ll learn to distinguish between them but gain a deeper understanding of each one at the same time.
A good student understands all the principles, while an excellent student knows when to use each one. There are some other benefits to interweaving similar topics into one revision sessions:
You’ll revisit each topic several times and this repetition will help your memory
Each time you meet ideas in a different order, you’ll make connections that strengthen your understanding
You won’t feel stuck for ages on a topic you don’t like learning about
Interleaving ideas is harder than studying each idea separately. As with most of the best revision techniques out there, if it feels more challenging then it probably means you’re learning more.
One of the biggest pitfalls students face during their revision time is not looking at exam papers early enough. Exam papers aren’t a precious resource to be saved until closer to exams. Instead, to make them one of your best revision techniques, you should be using them very early on in your studies, consulting them right up until you sit your exams.
There’s a few reasons why you should consider using exam papers very early on in your revision:
Unless you test yourself first, it’s impossible to know which areas to focus on - there’s no point revising things you’re already great at
Exam papers can be intimidating, so if you get used to them early you’ll be prepared for the real thing
In a few months’ time you can try the same paper again and see how much improvement you’ve made.
This won’t be a reflection of your full potential, so don’t be disappointed if you’re scoring below the grades you're working towards. That’s what revision is for! Concentrate on the areas to improve, not the overall mark. Remember, this is to help you focus on the right areas and there’s no need for anyone else to know how well you’ve done.
But how do you go about looking for past papers?
The best place to find exam papers is on the exam board website. Once you’ve got everything you can out of them (more on that next), there are plenty of unofficial exam-style papers freely available online. There might also be relevant papers in old versions of the same qualification, or from different exam boards. Just check that you’re only answering questions covered by your syllabus.
We’ve mentioned past papers already, but this deserves its own point.
As good revision techniques go, completing past papers is only effective if you’re answering every single question out of them. You can squeeze so much more out of an exam paper by attempting every question, opening your eyes to areas where you’re probably weaker and need additional practice.
When you’re working on a new paper, follow each of the steps below in a different colour:
First, try it in exam conditions with a time limit
Then, carry on until you’ve done everything you can without help
Use your class material to complete the paper to the best of your ability
Fill in any gaps and make corrections using the mark scheme
Finally, add anything you looked up on your list of topics to revise as part of your study schedule.
This process means you’ll get to practice everything, not just what you can do in the time. And instead of just finding out the areas you’re less sure on, it actively forces you to revise them at the same time.
We know, it’s tempting to put off revising difficult topics when there’s an easier option.
But, there’s much more to gain from familiarising yourself with the areas you find most tricky, than there is from perfecting areas you’ve nearly mastered. The sooner you face the parts you struggle with, the more times you’ll be able to revisit them to consolidate what you’ve learned. Plus, you can explore hard bits on your own terms, instead of when exams are looming and you’re feeling the pressure.
The easy bits that you like will look after themselves because you can cover these when you’re tempted to procrastinate.
Have you ever realised you had all the knowledge, but just didn’t know how to best use it to get the most marks in an exam?
When you first learn something, it’s often in the form of specific facts or methods. However at A-level, simply recalling everything you’ve learned won’t be enough for the top grades. In essay subjects you’ll need to include your own original perspective to form constructive arguments; while in the sciences you’ll need to apply what you know to unfamiliar scenarios and situations.
One of the most simplest but best revision techniques you can do is to ask yourself “How?” and “Why?” Both will help you build this deeper understanding.
If you’re not sure how or why something works, look for the answers in your class materials or discuss them with your classmates. Find similarities and differences between related ideas. Describe what’s going on out loud. Write down accurate explanations that you can refer back to.
For further information on how to use this revision technique, take a look at this article from The Learning Scientists to see how to apply this technique to different subjects.
To move your knowledge from theory to practice, using real examples in your studies can be one of the best revision techniques to help you memorise information in a way that makes sense to you, for the long-term.
Abstract ideas are harder to put onto paper and it can be tricky to know whether you truly understand them without a concrete example. There are two main ways to do this:
Find concrete case studies - (your teacher may have already provided you with some) and focus on understanding how the theory has been applied - case studies with diagrams are even better
Reverse engineer model answers - (you can often find these in mark schemes) to work out how they’ve been put together, what makes them good and how you would go constructing it yourself.
You’ll find it a lot easier to apply the theory once you’ve seen it done well in practice. To help you understand how to put this into practice, here’s a concrete example from The Learning Scientists.
Although a lot of people describe themselves as visual learners, there’s no evidence to suggest that different learning styles are more effective for different people. But everyone will benefit from seeing information in multiple ways as they’re learning.
This technique, sometimes called dual coding, gives you two different ways of remembering information later. Here are some ideas to put it into practice during your revision time:
When you’re reading through material, pause every time there’s a visual and compare it to the words
Look at visuals and use your own words to explain what’s going on
Draw your own images for the information you’re revising.
Remember, visuals don’t just have to be pictures. They could include diagrams, infographics, cartoon strips, timelines - it should just be whatever best suits the information you have.
This is one of the old-age methods which is considered to be one of the best revision techniques for A-Level students and beyond.
Reading and making notes can be helpful, as long as you practice retrieving that information afterwards. This works because it helps to build your long term memory. Make sure you do it regularly for each topic and you’ll find that you remember a lot more.
Here’s how to do it effectively:
Make sure you have a method to test yourself - this could be flashcards, a quiz app, sketching what you know, or getting someone else to ask you questions
Close the books and put away your notes - then recite everything out loud - recording it as you go to reflect on later
Try to remember everything you can about the topic, making connections between the initial topic and other readings - go beyond simple definitions and short answers
Check your answers and look up anything you missed or got wrong
Remember retrieval is meant to be hard! There are so many benefits to testing that it’s worth the effort, especially when you can use the information it gives you to improve. It’s not cheating to look up answers that you don’t know, because if you look something up enough times, eventually you’ll remember it without prompt.
Sometimes, there are some things which are just too difficult to understand on your own at first. This is nothing to be ashamed of, as every student faces something during their studying that they struggle to grapple with on their own.
But, instead of spending too much time re-reading paragraphs of text and getting nowhere, keep a list of questions for each subject. Next time you see someone who might know, don’t be afraid to ask them. Your teachers will appreciate a list of questions because they’ll know exactly how to help you. If it’s one of your classmates, you might be able to work together to come up with an answer, and sooner or later you’ll be able to return the favour by helping them too.
You probably know it’s good to sleep well the night before working so you’re not tired for the next day, but it turns out the night after is just as important.
Much academic research has looked at the relationship between memory retention and sleep. And conclusions have found that if you don’t sleep well after a day of revising, you could actually undo some of your hard work you’ve been studying earlier that day.
While we’re asleep, changes happen in the brain which allow it store new knowledge more effectively. Less sleep means it doesn’t matter how good your revision techniques are, you’ll remember less the following day.
Now, where’s our pillow spray?
Work-life balance is something which is talked about more in the workplace, but it’s just as important for you to avoid burnout when you’re revising.
Let’s not kid ourselves. Sometimes, it can feel as though A-levels can take over your life, making it difficult to switch off - especially as revision time creeps up on you.
Thinking about them all the time won’t help you learn more, but it will affect your wellbeing. And anything that affects your brain negatively can reduce your ability to learn or recall information.
One of the best revision techniques we can recommend is to work on achieving a healthy study-life balance. This can be achieved by having a routine for just before and just after revision to signal to your brain when it’s time for a break. If possible, avoid doing anything else in your dedicated workspace and close your books when you’re done. When you take even a short break, move away from the desk and focus on something else. Listening to podcasts or dancing around your kitchen with your headphones in can be good for this - just find something that works for you.
Finally, one of the best revision techniques we can offer is to remember why you’re doing all of this hard work.
It’s natural to fall out of love with something when you’re being tested on it. After all, past papers don’t usually feature when we think about the joy of learning.
Remind yourself why you chose your A-levels in the first place. It could be a requirement to study the subject you want at university, or as a first step for your dream career. Maybe you’ve had a great teacher who encouraged you to study it further. Perhaps you feel connected to it for personal reasons.
When things get tough, take a moment to remember what you’re aiming for. Find ways of staying connected to the parts you love and being curious outside of revision. This could be through reading, exploring careers or even taking a course for your own interest. Celebrate the progress you make in the parts you don’t love.
If there’s one thing you should take away from our list of good revision techniques, it’s this:
Don’t fall into the trap of wasting revision time worrying that you could have worked harder or better before. Your brain is incredibly capable of holding the knowledge you need, so channel those thoughts into something productive. You’ve got this.
A-levels are an important part of your educational journey, but there are plenty of opportunities to learn that don’t involve working towards an exam.
If you’re looking to explore new avenues of learning and are considering participating in an online learning programme, take a look at what we have to offer. There are so many benefits to online learning, and you could even find that trying a new learning technique may enhance your retention of difficult subject matter.