A scientist’s guide to life: exam revision © Justyna Stasik

A scientist’s guide to life: how to nail exam revision

Exam season is here, but what’s the best way to study? Cognitive psychologist Nate Kornell cracks open his notebooks to reveal his best revision tips.

What’s the best way to revise?

Human brains don’t latch on to things they don’t understand, so pay attention to meaning. If all you’re doing is trying to memorise facts, you’re wasting energy on something your brain is not designed to do. We remember things better if they are contextualised: so understand first, then memorise.

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What if i’m struggling to learn something?

Try and teach it to someone else. It can be a parent, a friend, a dog, anybody really. You can only teach something when you understand it thoroughly and the act of teaching will then help you to remember it. If you find you can’t explain something then it will crystallise where the gaps in your knowledge are.

Is it a good idea to cram?

Learning something once and never coming back to it doesn’t work. You need to have a break and then revisit what you’ve learned. The longer the better, so a one-week break is better than a one-day break, and a 20-minute break is better than a two-minute break.

Are flashcards useful?

They’re okay for certain things like learning foreign vocabulary or molecular structures, but not for things like English literature. Here, flashcards are not a good way to learn, but there’s a lot of evidence to suggest they are effective in review because they can help you to test yourself.

Need to know:

  1. Throw out your highlighters – they won’t help you.
  2. Be active in yor learning, and take lots of breaks.
  3. Music = distracting.

Have pencils ever contained lead? © Getty Images

Is highlighting a good idea?

Not really. Underlining, highlighting and copying are all passive activities. You learn more when you actively generate knowledge, test yourself, and ask yourself how and why things work.

Is summarising a useful strategy?

Summarising is good, but be careful. If you take notes from a book and then use those notes for revision, you may have missed certain key points. I recommend always revisiting the original source material at least once, close to the exam.

Is it okay to listen to music while revising?

Multitasking is a myth. You can’t think about two things at once. The only way you should have music on is if it’s not going to distract you. Similarly, don’t study in a coffee shop or a busy place where you are likely to lose focus.

What key piece of advice would you give to young people revising for exams?

Make a study plan and stick to it. If you don’t, you will procrastinate and end up without enough time. Make sure you understand things, take frequent breaks, revisit what you’ve learned and be active in your learning.

What advice would you give to the parents?

Helping your kid with revision or homework can be an extremely emotional thing to do and can lead to a lot of fights. As a parent, your number one goal is to make sure that your kid still wants your help tomorrow. So give them the help they’re asking for, rather than the help you think they need.

  • This article was first published in BBC Science Focus in May 2019 – subscribe here

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