EDUCATION: Science can help with revision

Exams can be testing in more ways than the obvious. But there are skills and strategies which can make it easier.

IT’S not the best thing to say to a young person at the start of a new year but exams may very well be on the horizon.

This summer may offer up GCSEs or Alevels to test their intellects and there could be mock exams in advance of those in the coming weeks.

Teachers will always say that it pays to start revising early, which is very true, but what is more important is structuring revision so that it is effective.

Revise chunks of each subject over a period of time rather than trying to memorise a whole book of notes in one go at the last minute, for instance.

Thinking skills expert Alisdair Wade believes there are strategies that can help someone revising to improve their chances at getting a good grade.

He uses the science of learning to help advise on revising more positively.

But, of course, it is always down to the student to put the work in.

It may seem a drag to revise over a long period but it pays off when you don’t have to do it all again because you fail the exams first time around.

Effective revision is all about laying positive foundations.

Alisdair Wade says that our understanding of memory suggests that we can only hold very limited amounts of information - typically five to nine pieces - in our working memory, and not for long.

But we can hold almost unlimited amounts for much longer periods in our long-term memory.

The key is to seek to transfer (encode) information that comes in through our senses to our working memory straight into our long-term memory in a way that we can then easily draw on (retrieve) it in order to bring it back into our working memory - where we can then use it to answer exam questions.

The key to remembering something is to constantly use the information you want to remember.

By doing so you will be creating a strong “neural pathway.”

You won’t get the chance to do that if you wait until the last minute and try to cram it all in.

So here are the handy hints which Alisdair has come up with to help with revision - and remember that the techniques work just as well for more mature students as well as younger people.

Use the strategies and up your chances of a decent grade.

And good luck!

Plan your

If you are going to do lots of shorter bursts of revision, it will help if you have everything well timetabled.

Don’t just read and underline or highlight your old notes.

If you want to encode the information:

Make it personal

Create your own story with the ideas you are seeking to learn. Use images and don’t be scared to make them fantastical and bright.

Introduce movement where you can.

You may want to write down the story and use a mind ‘map’ to capture that.

The more personal, the easier it is to recall it.

There are variations of making personalised stories to embed and recall information.

Mnemonics (memory aids): come up with your own mnemonics where there is a particular set of facts that need to be remembered.

Metaphors and analogies: if you are struggling with a concept, try to link it in with one you are already familiar with.

Interleaving (related to analogies): if you are studying for multiple subjects, question how a topic from one subject fits into or shows similarity to the one you are studying?

So once you have committed pieces of information to long-term memory, how about getting them out?

Use old exam papers

These will also give you the opportunity to test yourself against the timings you will face in the real exam and you should practise against the clock.

Ask friends to test you

You, in turn, can test them. Some group or paired revision time can often be a useful part of your revision timetable.


Spot-test yourself at surprise moments on topics you feel you need extra work on.

Teach it

Set yourself the challenge of teaching the topic to friends or family.

Question time

When you are doing group revision or teaching a topic, asking questions will enable you to process information, understand it, and use it effectively.

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