First of all, I am fully aware that most of you who have actually taken the time to click on this link not only have an imminent exam timetable, but also are likely to consider it a minor miracle that you’ve managed to summon the motivation to break the procrastination cycle of Twitter, Tinder, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Tinder, Facebook, Insta…. And therefore not only do you perceive time to be an extremely precious commodity, but you’re already being distracted by thoughts of exactly how to reward yourself for making it this far, so I’ll try and make this brief.
Knowing how to revise effectively was probably the single biggest advantage I had over my peers during my undergraduate degree. Aside from leading to considerably higher marks, you’ll have less stress, and more time in which to ponder how you might get your next yak into the hot section, or whether today is the day library bae finally acknowledges your existence.
During a recent procrastination session of my own on one of the aforementioned cursed apps, someone posed the question, ‘how do you actually revise?’ I decided to respond with a few brief pointers and somebody else replied in apparent amazement with, ‘this might actually help… *shock-face emoji*, you should write a guide on this shit’. At first I thought, ‘but if everyone knew how to revise, how would anyone gain an advantage?.. And surely they’d have to make exams harder?’ But then I thought, wait a minute, no one’s going to read this anyway, let alone pay any attention to some know-it-all postgrad student/part-time waiter, so what the hell, it might help someone, and anyhow it’ll provide me with a new means of procrastination.
A warning though, I remember towards the end of my third year, one of the better teachers actually held a lecture on how to revise. Pretty much everything he said was right, and potentially useful (different to what I’m going to say, but useful nonetheless). I was sitting there thinking, ‘nooo, stop telling everyone else how to do this!’ Then on the way home something came to me - it was a lecture, nobody was listening, and even if they were they’d soon revert straight back to the techniques they’d always used, because it’s what they’re used to; because it must work if they got three A*s at A-level, but most importantly because it feels easier doing it their way. And I was right. (You know because you’re the only one in the waiting room just prior to an exam without any revision notes).
What follows, therefore, is a short, simplified guide, based primarily on three steps to effective revision, but first I want to say one more thing that you should remember throughout: memory has no limits. There isn’t a finite amount of information you can store in your head before it explodes. You can put as much as you can possibly imagine in there and be able to retrieve it, as long as you do it in the right way.
1. The Storage Phase
Once you’ve gathered all of your to-be-remembered material (make it a lot – remember: memory has no limits), the key point to bear in mind at this stage is that the more areas of your brain you can involve in the remembering process, the better. The most effective way to do this is to constantly try to create meaning and associations when reading through your notes.
Meaning just describes the process of understanding why something is happening. The why requires the pulling together of the knowledge you already have, and the new information you are trying to learn. In other words, well defined brain networks are activated, and the new information is then assimilated, forming a more robust new memory. Now you might be thinking, isn’t this just what happens when we learn something? Yes, but meaning isn’t always apparent in revision material, or things you need to learn for a test. There isn’t necessarily much meaning in the names of the 206 bones in the adult human body to a biology student, but they may still need to know them, so you have to memorise them. Therefore, when reading through your notes, try to create meaning, even when there appears to be little – something that means something to you. For example, why have I written these notes in this part of the page? Why have I used these colours here? Why does this sentence follow this one? Why does this make logical and coherent sense?
Perhaps even more useful than creating meaning, especially when there is none, is creating associations.
Again, by creating associations in our minds, we’re activating more areas of our brains and then connecting this activity with what we’re trying to remember, making a stronger memory. Consequently, the more elaborate and imaginative the associations, the better. For example, let’s say you wanted to memorise a fairly generic reference, such as Smith (1999). Create an association in your mind and elaborate upon it:
‘Smith? Like Smith & Wesson pistols!?’
*Insert an American accent*
‘But Smith & Wesson pistaals came way befowa naaanteeen nandenaan!’.
Now you can begin to associate the memory of this hitherto forgettable name and year with images of Midwestern gun slinging rednecks talking in deep southern American accents, along with the most elaborate imagery you can conjure in relation to this notion. Such imagery requires the activation of many different brain regions responsible for different types of processing, such as imitation, imagination, or the recollection of facts and experiences. This allows the new memory to form many different neural connections with the many already existing ones, making it subsequently easier to retrieve (remember).
So this is the memorising phase: creating meanings and associations even where there appears none. Try to do this relatively quickly at perhaps a paragraph or a page at a time (you’ll get better the more you do it), before going straight into phase two.
2. Free Recall
Free recall simply describes recalling information to memory without the aid of any cues. We’ve put the information into our heads with many connections using meaning and associations, and now we need to form the strongest possible path to retrieving them. Free recall provides this, whilst also mimicking what you’ll have to do in an exam (where you won’t have any notes). All you need to do is look away, or stand up, whatever, and try to recall what you’ve just attempted to put into your memory. This is hard, and tiring, and that’s because your brain is a muscle like any other and is using sugar/glucose to form all of these new memories – it’s tiring because it’s working!
But you only need to do this for a few minutes until the next phase which is a break!
Try hard to remember without any cues, and if you can’t, glance back to remind yourself and do it again. All the while reminding yourself of the meanings and associations.
3. The Break
Now, you’ve stored the notes and created strong paths in your brain for remembering them, you’ll probably be feeling quite tired at this point. It is now very important to take a break. We want all of those brain regions to deactivate. This is because every time you remember something, you actually create an entirely new memory. We want to create a new memory which is so strong, it doesn’t need these brain regions to be active in order to retrieve it, which is exactly what you’ll have to do in the exam. The break should be no more than 15-30 minutes – however long it takes to relax, forget about your work, and recharge (although the longer the better! But it depends how much you need to keep memorising more!). You’re going to need to make sure your brain is stocked up on sugar too, so now you actually have a valid reason to binge on chocolate, watch an episode of Friends, and use up your daily allowance of swipes on Tinder (the latter probably applying slightly more to the guys).
Finally, go back to your notes, attempt to recall without any cues again, remind yourself of associations and meaning if necessary, and move onto the next section. Remember, memory has no limits. Your brain is a muscle and will get stronger with exercise; and the best thing – now you can justify a half hour procrastination every half hour because you need it… Good luck.
And just to prove a point, without looking, ask yourself what year the Smith reference was…..