How to revise effectively

Or how to get an A*. 20 of the best revision strategies of A* students or proven by research, to ensure you’re mentally sharp, focused and revising effectively.

Last Updated on April 5, 2018 by Karl Thompson

20 Effective revision strategies used by A* students and/ or  proven to be effective through actual research.

how to revise

The revision advice below is broken down into three general categories:

  • General health and well being advice – how to ‘take care’ of yourself during the revision and exam period to make sure you’re physically and mentally up to the challenge.
  • General ‘exam and revision preparation’ advice – advice on planning your revision and exam period: what you need to do before you start your two months (or so) of revision, and what to do before any particular ‘revision session’
  • Specific revision  techniques you should be using during any particular revision session (whether that’s 20 minutes, 30 minutes, and hour or more!)

NB – I teach A-level sociology (as if the blog doesn’t give that away), but the advice here should be relevant to anyone studying similar humanities A-levels, or even science based A-levels. If you’re doing A-level sociology, you might be interested these exam-focused revision resources I’ve put together – they’re basically a series of ‘bundles’ of revision notes, mind maps and model answers based on possible exam questions. 

General health and well being advice 

How to ‘take care’ of yourself during the revision and exam period to make sure you’re physically and mentally up to the challenge. 

  1. Eat properly – this means eating breakfast, plenty of fruit and veg, minimize the junk and sugar, and stay hydrated!
  2. Get a decent night’s sleep – keep your phone in a separate room if necessary.
  3. Get our for some exercise and fresh air – even just a brisk 20 minute walk around the block can help shake off fatigue.
  4. Figure out when you work best (morning, afternoon, evening) and plan to do as much revision during your own personal ‘mental peak’ times as possible.
  5. Figure out where you work best – at home, or at college, or a mixture of both.
  6. Set yourself realistic revision goals and treat yourself when you reach them (see number below) – although don’t overdo the treats. Take a leaf out of the workout kid’s book – just a few pieces of candy as a treat at the end of each session, rather than a large Dominos,  jumbo Toblerone or family size pack of Cornettos.

Preparing for Revision

Advice on planning your revision and exam period: what you need to do before you start your two months (or so) of revision, and what to do before any particular ‘revision session’.

sociology revision timetable 2018
An example of a monthly ‘overview’ revision timetable
  1. Download the specification (or more broken down knowledge checklist) for each subject, put them at the front of your revision folder, or stick them on your bedroom wall. (If you’re studying sociology, then here is an overview of the AQA’s sociology specification). Another way of saying this, is that the first thing you need to know, is what you need to know! 
  2. On the above lists, grade each sub-topic into ‘easy’ ‘moderate’ and ‘difficult, use the traffic light system if you like…. then you’ll know what you need to spend more time revising.
  3. Do a monthly ‘overview’ revision timetable – which overviews the topics you’ll be studying on a day to day basis, stick it at the front of your revision folder, or on your bedroom wall. This ‘overview plan’ should incorporate at least one day off a week. For A-levels, I’d suggest starting on April 1st (and if you think that’s a joke, you’re the fool) at the latest – to allow yourself time to ‘visit’ each sub-topic at least three times before the exam. Click here for an example of what I believe an effective revision timetable. (This ticks the ‘spreading out study over time’ box in many of the guides used to compile this mega-list.)
  4. Read the examiners reports and any marked exemplars you can find from past-papers – together these will tell you what the examiners want you to do to get particular grades.
  5. Download all of the past papers you can find, or at least know where you can get hold of them. Text books, revision guides, your teacher, or little moi (on this very we site) can provide you with examples of ‘possible questions’ for the new specifications, given that there aren’t too many exemplars around ATM.
  6. If you have to, then organise your revision notes (or if you don’t have them yet, your actual notes) – into appropriate folders with dividers which demarcate each sub topic.
  7. Sort out your study space – you don’t necessarily have to fold your clothes up, but at least clear a desk space in advance of hitting the revision. I’d also recommend having a ‘place’ for each set of revision notes for each of your subjects.
  8. Cut out all distractions before you begin any study session – for most students this is probably simply a matter of putting their phone in another room for a couple of hours or so, and making sure there are no social media windows open through which you may be distracted. Obviously you might go online for revision advice, but don’t get distracted down the rabbit-hole in the process!
  9. At the beginning or day (or week, but I prefer days), plan out what you are going to revise that day- with goals for each session. A decent ‘day revision plan might incorporate the following:
  • Two or three sessions with each session lasting from one to three hours, and focusing on one or more sub-topics (depending on how well you know that sub-topic).
  • Each session should have a distinct goal: for example: review all of the marriage and divorce topic by ‘testing myself’ and ‘plan 2 exam questions’ on this topic.
  • You should ‘mix it up’ over the course of the day – for example if you you’re doing three sessions, do one of sociology, one of English, one of History.
  • Your daily plan should be realistic – some sub-topics might take you two sessions, depending on how large they are and how difficult you find them.
  • If should incorporate all of the health and well being advice above: time for breakfast, breaks, exercise, and allow you time for a decent night’s sleep
  • It might incorporate an element of the ‘revision cycle’: the first 10 minutes of your sociology session might involve testing yourself on yesterday’s sociology session.

Specific Revision Techniques 

This is probably what you came here for: these are the specific strategies you should be using during any particular revision session (whether that’s 20 minutes, 30 minutes, and hour or more!).

The advice below is supposed to apply to any of the major ‘topics’ or ‘chunks of learning’ within any topic. For A-level sociology, for example, a sub-topic is something like ‘perspectives on education’, or ‘demography’ within the family. For each of these topics, you should have something like 1-4 pages of your own revision notes, depending on how you’ve organised the information.

Some general advice is that revision should be active and exam focused, not passive (i.e. not just re-reading)

  1. Test yourself – rather than simply re-reading your own revision notes, you should ‘turn the page face down’ and ‘go over the content in your head/ our out-loud’, and then turn the page back over to see how well you remembered the content.
  2. Make brief, active revision notes with a clear structure  (NB most of these should already be done BEFORE you start on your final wave of revision in April-May, so this should only be applying to the few gaps you have) – then do more reading and thinking and less ‘writing’ – i.e. think about the structure of the notes, use sub headings, and as few words as possible. Make links between other areas of the course and be as visual as possible (mind maps work well for many students), and TEST WHAT YOU KNOW immediately after you’ve made them.
  3. When reviewing revision notes, do so actively – THINK about how you would use the material to answer exam questions, look for links to other areas of the course. This is where working with a constructive friend can come in really handy – test each-other, and explain what you’ve just reviewed to your friend. ‘Teaching’ someone else is often the best way of learning.
  4. Read past papers and exemplars – make sure you’re doing this regularly, especially towards the end of May for A-levels (2018 dates)
  5. Practice exam papers – both planning and the occasional full answer.

In short – Effective revision is not rocket science, it’s just a matter of adopting a healthy lifestyle, planning in advance, and doing active, exam focused revision in each revision session. 

Sources used to write this post

Below, I list the sources I used to create the above ‘mega revision advice list’ with a summary of each of the specific pieces of advice given on each site, and a rationale for why I used this each source of advice. 

Making the Grade: A* Students Share their Secrets (Nik Taylor, The Student Room, Which University)

  1. Read the examiners reports
  2. Check the past papers
  3. Download the syllabus for your subjects and check off everything as you learn it
  4. Break down revision into manageable, bite sized chunks
  5. Don’t cram, revise continually (unfortunately if you’re reading this in May and you haven’t yet done this, then it’s already too late!)
  6. Make a revision timetable.

I’ve included this first as everything on this list is just very sensible! No gimmicks at all here, just good, sound, exam focused revision advice.  In terms of validity, these strategies are what have actually worked for actual recent A* students. 

Revision Techniques – the Good, the OK and the Useless

The above BBC article summarizes some research carried out by Professor Dunlovsky and co (published in Psychological Science in the Public Interest) which reviewed 1,000 scientific studies looking at 10 of the most popular revision strategies found that only 2 of them were ‘highly’ effective in promoting learning a further 3 had a ‘moderate’ impact on learning, while the remaining 5 had a low (or possibly detrimental) impact on learning.

2 High impact learning techniques – Do these!

  • ♦Practice testing – Self-testing to check knowledge – especially using flash cards – HIGH
  • ♦Distributed practice – spreading out study over time – HIGH

3 Moderate impact learning techniques – use them if they work ‘for you’

  • Elaborative interrogation – being able to explain a point or fact – MODERATE
  • Self-explanation – how a problem was solved – MODERATE
  • Interleaved practice – switching between different kinds of problems – MODERATE

5 Low low impact learning techniques – DON’T USE THESE!

  • X Summarising – writing summaries of texts – LOW
  • X Highlighting/underlining – LOW
  • X Keyword mnemonics – choosing a word to associate with information – LOW
  • X Imagery – forming mental pictures while reading or listening – LOW
  • X Re-reading – LOW.

In terms of validity of this advice, well it’s summarising 1000 pieces of research…. and certainly where the top five are concerned, I’m fairly convinced these are all effective revision techniques. As to the five to avoid…. personally I still think there’s a place for all of them, but only in moderation and only at certain stages in the revision process:

  • Highlighting and note taking are probably best used when learning initially, probably not for revision.
  • Mnemonics might be useful in certain areas – for example the TPEN plan for research methods.
  • I’ll withhold comment on the use of visuals…. Personally I’m a fan, but I’ll come back to this later.
  • As to re-reading, yes, useless, unless you’re ‘turning your notes over and going through them in your head’ and then re-reading said notes to check you’ve got them ‘in your noggin-nog’.

The University of Reading Library’s Revision Guides

It may be directed at degree level students, but there’s lots of good advice that’s relevant to A-level students here too. The web sites also got lots of useful downloadable pamphlets, so it’s well worth checking out!

  1. Plan your time effectively – work out a revision timetable, be realistic
  2. Download exam papers
  3. Find out what the examiner wants you to do
  4. Learn actively – if you’re ‘reviewing’ revision notes then do ‘active reading’: test yourself, and ask yourself ‘how would I use this to answer an exam question’? Look for links between what you’re revising and other areas of the course.
  5. Know the ‘structure’ of the course you are studying.
  6. Make your revision notes memorable with sub-headings, and spider diagrams, and do them in your own words.
  7. Work in blocks of two to three hours
  8. Mix it up – revise something different in each ‘block’
  9. Set targets and rewards
  10. Test yourself
  11. Practice exam questions – do written answers
  12. Be nice yourself – basically, don’t overdo it! Take regular breaks.
  13. Know when the best time is for you to revise and stick to it!
  14. Revise with friends (?)
  15. If you need to learn formulas and facts, then mnemonics or making up songs may help with ‘rote learning’
  16. Stick to a revision cycle:
  • 10 minutes after learning something (e.g. at the end of the 10 minute study break which you take after learning the topic).
  • 1 day later at the beginning of the next revision session.
  • 3 days later…
  • 1 week later….etc

I really like this well-organised list of sensible revision advice! Check out the web site for some useful and free revision resources. 

The Science of Revision: Nine Ways Students Can Revise for Exams More Effectively (The Guardian Teacher Network)

  1. Eat breakfast
  2. Put your phone away
  3. Start early and spread it out
  4. Test yourself
  5. Teach someone
  6. Think twice about using highlighters
  7. Don’t listen to music
  8. Get some fresh air and take some excercise
  9. Sleep

This is more of a ‘health and well being and general preparation list, but it’s credible because it’s from The Guardian Teacher Network. 


Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: