GCSE revision tips: How to maximise learning and reduce exam stress

It can be a difficult time for teenagers with a lot of information to remember

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GCSEs are now well underway and revision is top of the agenda for many students across the country.  Whilst there is no one approach that will work for everyone, a range of sound advice has developed over time in the form of revision tips.

Don’t just read – do!

Reading through revision notes may seem like a good way to familiarise yourself with the material, but reading alone is unlikely to be enough to help you internalise the information sufficiently for you to recall it in the exam. 

You could try rewriting your revision notes in a different format, such as a mind map or labelled diagrams or you could do past paper questions in an ‘open book’ style so you can refer to the key points in your revision notes. 

You will remember Chris Tarrant from the television series Who wants to be a millionaire? often said ‘it’s only easy if you know the answer’.  The same is true of exams; those who find the exams easy have often completed a significant number of past papers, which means they understand the style, format and pace and have probably seen very similar questions before.  For many exams, practice really can make perfect. 

Use memory techniques

Many exams require the recall of key facts and information and it can be overwhelming trying to commit everything to memory.  Research shows that the short-term memory cannot hold vast amounts of information, but there are many memory techniques that could help you. 

The obvious one is the use of mnemonics.  For example, many of us will have used the word BIDMAS or BODMAS in mathematics to help us remember the order of operations (Brackets, Indices, Division, Multiplication, Addition and Subtraction).  Mnemonics are great for two reasons.  Firstly, remembering only one word gives access to many other words without cluttering the short-term memory.  Secondly, they give an order or priority to the list of words. 

There are many other memory techniques too, such as creating a memory palace or linking the words you need to remember to images. 

What all of the techniques have in common is that they provide a context for the information you need to remember.  For example, you will be able to recall what you learnt from a great school lesson from months or even years ago because of the context of that lesson.  You can recreate such contexts through your revision to help you remember the key facts and information.

Have a balanced approach to revision

Some students like to cram the night before an exam and some draw up a revision timetable many weeks in advance.  It is certainly not wise to leave everything to the last minute, but equally, filling up all available time with revision is also not a good idea.  Be organised and arrange your time so have sufficient down time for relaxing in front of the television and sports.  Some students like to start early in the morning, with regular breaks throughout the day, so they have the late afternoon and early evening to themselves. 

If the volume of revision is too much, you could try prioritising what you need to do or sharing the load with your friends.  If they are sitting the same exam as you, you could each make revision summary for a separate section of the course and then pool your summaries, so you quickly have a full set of revision notes.  Lastly, looking at sheets of paper all day can be very tiring.  Balance the format of your revision with some pen and paper activities, some revision video resources and some revision mobile apps. 

Use the wisdom of previous examiners

The marking of exams is heavily regulated and consistency is important, but this means there is a wealth of information available about exactly what the examiners are looking for and what will allow you to access those crucial marks.  As well as the mark schemes, there are often published examiners’ reports, which will provide information about common misconceptions and useful interpretations of the curriculum.  You don’t know what you don’t know; but reading examiners’ reports will often highlight new areas of revision that you may not have been aware of. 

Write an executive summary

Executive summaries are often used in business to articulate complex information or concepts in a succinct way.  However, they can be a useful revision tool too.  At the end of each section of revision, see if you can cover the main concepts and key points on no more than one page of A4 paper.  The process of writing the summary will help to embed the information into your memory and you will end up with a condensed version of your revision notes.  You might even consider an executive summary of all of your executive summaries in a particular subject area. 

These tips will help your revision to be more efficient, but remember that exams are only a process of benchmarking you against your peers.  Some students are great at exams and some are not.  Whatever the outcome, you still have every chance of being successful in life.  So, follow these words of wisdom and enjoy your revision!

Dr Adam Boddison is Director of the University of Warwick’s Centre for Professional Education (CPE)

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