When it comes to revision, science can help

Families all over the country are gritting their collective teeth at the prospect of the final run-up to GCSE and A levels, so make Easter holiday revising a bit more effective with our top tips.

When it comes to revision, science can help.

Staring blankly at subject notes over the Easter holiday won’t get you far, says thinking skills expert Alisdair Wade. Here, he uses the science of learning to help you to revise smarter, not longer.

Families all over the country are gritting their collective teeth at the prospect of the final run-up to GCSE and A levels, with Easter holidays dominated by hours of fruitless revising.

But 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 long 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’ll 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.

Plan your revision.

If you are going to do lots of shorter bursts of revision, it will help if you have everything well timetabled. Don’t just reading 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 fit into or shows similarity to the one you are studying?

So you’ve 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.

Self-testing: 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.

Quietly does it: the revision environment

If you can get this right it will make a significant difference to how efficient your revision is.


Lose the tunes:Listening to music before revising can put the mind in a good mood for revision but not when you’re actually revising. Studies show those who revise in a quiet environment do up to 60% better in recalling material than those who study listening to music with lyrics.

Dial down the digital: Having any type of phone/electronic device in your revision space is a bad idea. The good news is that science has come to our rescue on kicking the addiction to your device and all temptations they offer. The brain operates in two main modes, focused and diffuse. Focused is when we are concentrating hard on the task in hand. Diffuse is when we are not on task but letting our minds wander. Studies show that optimal outcomes come when we don’t stay in focussed mode for too long. A sensible time to spend revising in focused mode is 20-30 minutes. Set an alarm  and when your focused time is up, take a ‘diffuse’ break. During the break don’t spend any time thinking about the task you have been revising on but think and do something completely different. Naps, a shower, baths, popping outside for some fresh air and exercise are good. If you feel the urge to use your phone, do it in one of these breaks. Look to weave these diffuse breaks into your revision timetable – but don’t make them too long 5-10 minutes is enough – before you set your alarm for another focus period.

Get some rest:Sleep is particularly crucial as not only does it allow for better attention but it also allows the information you absorb during revision sessions to be re-run and therefore better embedded into your neural networks. Teenagers should be looking to get around nine-and-a-quarter hours sleep each night and the sleep should be of good quality. Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep is required for cognitive processing and refreshment. Here’s the good news: there’s no need to get up early!Circadian rhythms research suggest that teenagers typically fall asleep a couple of hours later and get up two hours later. Setting the alarm early if you haven’t got had your nine-and-a-quarter hours shows commendable keenness, but won’t actually help. Better to get up slightly later but timetable accordingly.

Alisdair Wade is an expert on thinking skills and works with schools all over the country that want to become Thinking Schools at Thinking Matters. You can follow them on Twitter at @thinkschoolcom

%d bloggers like this: