Revision and Exams

It is that time of the year when our Year 11 and DP2 students are entering the final stages of their preparations for their external examinations. These are big moments in these young people’s lives, some would say too big.

I took all of the Year 11 students for a 50 minute lesson this week looking at memory, revision and how best to approach examinations. I was a little startled when one honest young lady put up her hand at the end to say that, while she was utterly convinced by the wisdom of the advice I was giving, she saw little chance of being able to persuade her parents of the same. Much of what follows is based upon empirical research (Google the research of Tony Buzan, for example); the rest is the fruit of 27 years as an educator:


  1. When it comes to revision, more is not more; as in all things effective revision should be approached in a way that maintains a healthy balance
  2. Learning periods (revision sessions) of 20-40 minutes are optimal- anything longer is a waste of precious time and energy
  3. Recall is under 25% if learning continues without a break for 2 hours or more
  4. Recall improves dramatically when regular breaks are planned; even better if how the break will be used is planned as well as when it will be taken
  5. If not regularly revisited, 80% of learning is lost within 24 hours
  6. Learning should revisited: within 10 minutes;  within an hour; within 24 hours; after a week; and after a month
  7. When revisiting learning, reviews should be 2-4 minutes in length
  8. Because effective revision needs to start early, the approach to it must be sustainable over a number of weeks or candidates will burn out. Mimic the shape of a typical school day (including homework) when revising at home
  9. A wealth of evidence suggest that physical fitness and exercise significantly improves cognitive function so keep exercising during revision periods
  10. Working with a buddy, especially in short review sessions, can have many benefits:


 there is an opportunity to have misconceptions corrected;


 teaching something is one of the most effective ways of consolidating one’s own understanding of it;


Learners can build one another’s understanding (constructivism)


there is the possibility for healthy competition, which can be motivational;


having some company for the next planned break is motivational


there is an opportunity for emotional support from someone who can really empathise


  1.  Attitude in the exam itself, (resilience, determination, effort, positivity) plays a far bigger role than most people realise
  2.  Nerves and adrenaline will be factors; candidates need to prepare for them and know how to handle them by breathing slowly and deeply
  3.  The first part of any exam is Maths: if they didn’t already know it, candidates should calculate the ratio of marks to minutes for the paper and stick to what that tells them about how to allocate their time  on questions and sections as far as humanly possible. Time spent polishing already strong answers at the expense of grappling with areas of the paper that seem tougher is not well spent
  4.   Eating a banana 15 mins. or so before an exam really helps
  5.   It is vitally important to be well-hydrated in exams

    Late night revision is a really bad idea- so is going to bed significantly earlier than normal and then lying awake worrying: stick to meal and bed-time routines


    A wealth of evidence suggest that physical fitness and exercise significantly improves cognitive function so candidates should keep exercising during exam periods


    Emotional support and expressions of confidence from parents and siblings (even if it may seem on the surface that they are not valued- God bless teenagers!) really help….

  9.  and so does a little perspective…these exams are important but there are things that are more important….stressed candidates under-perform so raising the stakes or setting unrealistic expectations is actually counter-productive