The exam season cometh

It may seem premature to be talking about revision methods, but the early starter stays ahead, writes Andrew Gillespie
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W ith GCSEs and A-levels only a few months away, now is the time that many students will start making their revision notes. In so doing they hope to distil two years' work into a more manageable and memorable form. One of the most common methods is to summarise each topic on small revision cards. These are easier to carry around than A4 files or notebooks and are popular because they help to break up the syllabus into short, distinct units. However, some students will inevitably fall into the trap of merely rewriting their school notes with smaller handwriting, more abbreviations and missing out the odd word. Although the act of reading through and reproducing the notes they already have can obviously help, it is not necessarily the most effective way of preparing for an exam.

The first thing students should remember is that they may not need all of their existing notes. On a two-year course teachers often cover subsidiary areas of the subject in more detail than is absolutely necessary for the exam. By looking at the syllabus and past papers, students can get a good feel for what is important and check that their existing notes reflect this. If having done this, it looks as if there are gaps, they should not panic - they still have a few months left in which they will be finishing the syllabus and in which they can read over topics themselves; however, it may be worth them talking to their teachers if they are worried.

Having written out the key topic areas to be covered on a single piece of paper, the next thing is to identify the ways in which each of these is likely to be tested. If notes are to be useful, they should be directed around certain themes. While specific exam questions cannot be predicted, it is possible to anticipate the way in which topics are generally assessed. In my own subject, Business Studies, for example, it is extremely important that students understand the limitations of the decision-making techniques they study; consequently, notes on these topics need to focus on the problems of the techniques as much as the methods themselves. Revision notes should, therefore, have some reference to the way each topic has been tested before.

When it comes to actually writing their notes students should remember that they are only meant to serve as memory joggers and as a way of setting off a series of ideas. Understandably, students are often reluctant to stop writing in full sentences since this is usually the way they have been given notes in class. However, they only need the key points for revision. At this stage the aim is to focus on the main aspects of a topic. After all, they have always got their original notes or the textbook to go back to if they need more detail.

When making notes they should use diagrams, headings and sub-headings wherever possible and liven them up with things such as arrows and connecting lines to link ideas. They should certainly avoid whole pages of A4 notes written in full sentences. Revision notes have to be something they will want to look at and something they will remember. For example, many people successfully use various forms of "mind maps". The main idea or topic is put in a circle at the centre of the page with a number of subsidiary headings feeding off this; each "branch" is developed with further relevant ideas. The result is a far cry from the ordered and tidy notes students may have been asked to present in class but will help them to see how points are linked and to develop logical lines of argument.

If possible, students should start on their revision notes as soon as possible to give themselves time to do several re-writes, further condensing their notes each time. This will help them to recall information with fewer and fewer prompts so that when it comes to the exams they will need very few pieces of paper to act as revision aids.

Inevitably, some students will want to delay the actual moment of starting to revise because it means they have to acknowledge the exams are fairly close. Understandably, many of them want to believe that they still have plenty of time and sitting down to start revising can be quite daunting. Even if they just do a few hours each week, however, it will mean they have actually got their revision programme under way and, once they get started, everything will seem much more manageable. Although it is something of a cliche, it is true that understanding and confidence will come with a series of small steps and even if they only make a slow start they are much more likely to finish in time by setting off early. Their friends may also be trying to delay the moment of truth, and students should be encouraged to have the strength to start working independently. After all, when the results come through it will be their results, not their friends, that matter. If any problems show up at this stage, such as areas of the syllabus where they have lost their notes or topics they have not fully understood, there is still time to do something about it. By starting now they can begin the crucial revision period at Easter in a strong position.

Simply sitting down, writing out the topics they have to learn and organising their existing notes will put them in the right frame of mind and help to structure their revision. They should not worry if there seems to be a vast amount to do or if they feel they do not know anything - this is precisely what everyone else is thinking. Success will not come suddenly - it will be achieved by clearly identifying what has to be learned, making effective revision notes and by hard work. There is, inevitably, a great deal to be done but the key is to break it up into small units of work and get started early.

The writer is director of studies at d'Overbroeck's independent college and chief examiner, AS-level Business Studies.