How to study effectively for your exams

Books, apple and stationary on desk

Take the hard work out of revising and get in great shape for your exams with our study habits and revision methods

Do you want the good news or the bad news?

Everyone always goes for the bad news first, don’t they? OK, here goes: there are no shortcuts to exam revision. Well, none that work, anyway.

Sure, you might feel productive while you’re merrily highlighting class notes or reading something online. But how much learning are you actually doing?

Chin up though, it’s time for the good news: learning how to study effectively is easy. You just need a plan and you need to stick to it. And here’s the handy thing. By following a set plan, that hard work suddenly stops being such a grind. Get into good study habits and you’ll barely notice you’re revising. Sound good?

Read on and we’ll help you sharpen your study skills. We’ll show you how to get more organised, how to study for exams and how to ensure it all comes flooding back in the exam hall. It’s our revision method masterplan. Let’s get going.

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1. Make a revision timetable

Don’t think you need a study timetable? Think again. Creating a decent revision timetable is key to being well prepared for your exams. If you revise without any kind of plan, you’re in danger of running out of time or focusing too heavily on some subjects to the exclusion of others.

"Creating a revision timetable helps a lot. It is a great way to organise your study time and boosts your motivation towards each subject," says TSR member Chittesh 14. 

By creating a good plan, you can balance your subjects and mark out enough time for all of them. You can also make sure the rest of your life gets a look in.

Don’t overdo it; your revision guide shouldn’t dictate your time to the second. What it should be is a useful general guide. Slice your revision into sensible chunks – a topic here, a topic there – and stick each piece into the plan, making sure you limit each day to a reasonable amount of study.

Avoid the classic mistake of overreaching. It’s easy to write down 12-hour sessions in your plan, but are you actually going to be able to do that much in a day? Probably not.

What you’re after is a plan that’s both detailed and flexible. It’s detailed so you can quickly refer to it and know exactly what you’re meant to be doing. It’s flexible so you can easily switch your revision time around when life inevitably intrudes on your plans.

One thing: don’t let this become first stop for the procrastination train. Putting your study plan together should only take a few minutes, not half a day. This article gives tips to help you create a revision timetable you'll actually stick to. 


More on TSR
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2. Setting up a room for your study space

When you’re studying you’re going to need a quiet space. For many people, this will be your bedroom, but you might find it’s good to work in the local library or in the study space at your school or college.

You don’t need to study in the same place every time – moving about will help keep your mind fresh. But wherever you end up, make sure it’s tidy and comfy with lots of natural light.

Most importantly, make sure there are no distractions. No TV rabbiting away in the corner, no mobile phone bleating out Facebook notifications, no temptations to veer away from the task at hand.

Trapmoneybenny suggests you should "remove distractions and focus, Turn off your phone, disable your internet, discipline yourself and get stuck in". 

"The fundamental step is to get yourself organised. Have you got a tidy workspace? If you think you work better in a clean environment, organise your room as well! Organise loose sheets by chapter in folders, a to-do-list for things to do today etc," says Kangaroo17.

Keep a bottle of water and some healthy snacks close by as well – brain food such as fruit, nuts and the like will help fuel you through your study sessions.

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3. Define your study objectives and plan ahead

Revising effectively is about targets, and this is one way your revision timetable can help you. Where do you want to be at the end of each day? Set yourself achievable and measurable targets and make sure your timetable is set up accordingly.

Maybe on one day you want to create three mind maps for a particular physics paper. Maybe you want to have remembered 50 French words on a particular vocab topic. Whatever it is, as you reach each target, tick it off. Nice: now you’re buzzing with a little sense of achievement.

Review your targets at the end of the day (don’t be tempted to skip this bit). You want to give yourself a little test on each one – that way you’ll be reinforcing it in your mind. If you haven’t nailed something, don’t beat yourself up about it – just use it as an opportunity to revisit the topic the next day.

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4. Get your study motivation

Let’s not pretend you’re going to skip with joy to your desk each day; we really can’t promise that. But if you’ve got an end goal in mind then you’re less likely to slope off for an hour of telly when you’re meant to be studying Of Mice and Men.

Ask yourself: why are you doing this? Perhaps you need your grades to get into a particular college or university. Perhaps you need them to get into a specific career. Maybe it’s just a sense of personal accomplishment that you’re looking for. Do some useful procrastination and spend 10 minutes writing this goal up on a massive sheet of paper, with lots of colours and elaborate doodling. Then stick it up above your study space.

Lean on people you know to support you, both when you’re feeling stressed and when you just need a hand. Get them to test you on what you’re learning. Parents are ideal for this sort of thing – they love it because it makes them feel helpful. Try going to a friend’s house to study – having a revision partner will keep both your motivation levels up (and you’re less likely to let each other skive). Remember: revising doesn’t have to be a lonely pursuit.

And – guess what? One day, these exams will actually be over. Plan something nice for when your exams are finished and keep the thought in mind to help you stay motivated.

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5. Pull your class and course notes together

Before you go any further, get all your revision papers in one place. That’s your class notes, your handouts and any other resources you think will be useful.

That done, it’s time to organise. Find the course specification and make sure your notes cover everything. Any gaps? Ask your teacher to help you fill those in.

Ideally you’ll be working from your own notes, and we’re sure those notes are amazing. But, on the off-chance they’re actually a bit rubbish (too much doodling, not enough note-taking) then it’s worth asking your teacher again for a hand. Alternatively, you could buy a study guide; it will take you through everything you need for the exam. Just don’t cheap out and buy a second-hand one, it might be out-of-date.

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6. Check past exam papers and mark schemes

Past papers, mark schemes, examiner’s reports. These are your secret weapons to bossing your revision. Together, they paint a pretty accurate picture of what the exam’s going to throw at you and how to handle it.

Past papers introduce you to how the paper might be structured and worded. Are there sections to the paper? Are there question choices? How much time should you spend on each section?

Going through these papers will help you understand what to expect as well as highlighting any questions your notes don’t cover. You should be able to find past papers on your exam board's website. 

Next, look at how the mark schemes work. Looking through these will show you where marks are gained and lost, as well as how best to answer each question. Keep an eye out for key terms, which may be essential for marks.

Examiners’ reports are real goldmines; they’re an insight into the mind of the examiner. Basically they list all the questions from an exam, along with notes on exactly what students should have done to get the top grades. Read these and you will know what examiners think is important.

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7. Write up your study notes

Done all that prep? Good work; now you’re ready to get started. Kick off by creating revision notes that summarise the crucial information. You’re looking for notes that simplify what you need to remember, structured in a logical way with clear headings and subheadings that make them easy to read.

Once you’ve got these written up, you’ve got a quick and easy way of checking your knowledge. Just read them through, then cover up sections with a book and test yourself. Be tough and honest with yourself, you need to be confident this stuff is really sinking in.

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8. Create revision cards and flashcards

To make sure you’re learning, take your revision notes and whittle them down further. By simplifying your notes in this way, you’re training your brain to remember what’s unwritten.

Buy some cue cards and use each one for notes on a different topic. Experiment with this and find out what works for you – how much detail you need, whether to use colour, that kind of thing. Your aim is to create a bunch of cards that you can flick through to remind yourself of what you need to know.

Flashcards are a quickfire version of revision cards. The idea here is to put a question / word / theory on one side and the answer / definition / explanation on the reverse. They’re great for testing and improving your memory of the important facts and figures for your exams.

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9. How to create a mind map

Mind maps will mix things up a bit – they’re a more visual way of learning. These diagrams consist of a central starting point, to which you then add branching information.

They’re great for showing how a topic is built up and showing how everything links together. These will help you spot trends and relationships, while focusing on the smaller details too – really handy for essay questions and larger topics.

Here's where you can find free tools to create these kind of learning resources

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10. Finding more revision resources and study help

If you don't click with a certain revision method, don't worry – you can keep testing different ones out until you find one that works for you. 

"Find methods of revision that work for you. Different techniques work for different people. Your friend might be using flashcards whereas you need something more verbal. Don't worry about what techniques you're using, in many cases the sillier it is the easier it is to remember," says TSR member Acsel.

Visit the study help forums as well. You’ll find discussions on specific upcoming exams where other students are sharing their revision progress and tips. 

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11. Using memory techniques for studying

You don’t have to be Derren Brown to use memory techniques; a few simple tricks can make your revision significantly easier. One of these is to go back to your revision plan and set yourself regular tests on each topic. Testing yourself on something 10 minutes after you’ve revised it is important, but you also want to test yourself a day later, three days later, one week later and so on. That way you know it’s really sticking.

If you’re looking for quick ways to remember nuggets of information, try mnemonics. This is the idea of making a little rhyme or sentence around the initial letters of a topic. You might have come across this one for remembering the wives of Henry VIII in order: All Beheadings Should Carry Heavy Penalties (Aragon, Boleyn, Seymour, Cleves, Howard, Parr). Making up your own is best – the activity of thinking up the mnemonic will ensure it really stays with you.

More on TSR
Students who got A* at A-level explain study and revision tips everyone can follow
Students who got grade 9s at GCSE explain study tips everyone can follow
How do I revise when I'm really lazy? 


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12. Study breaks and the Pomodoro Technique

Revising for eight hours straight might seem like an astoundingly productive thing to do, but in reality it’s just going to turn your brain to mush. Taking breaks isn’t just important, it’s essential if you want to keep your study time productive.

Many people swear by the Pomodoro Technique (named after the popular kitchen tomato timer). This method breaks down work into intervals – you work for 25 minutes and then take a five-minute break to do whatever you like. After four study sessions, you take a longer break of 15-30 minutes. Keep yourself focused by adding little treats into each break – a quick burst on the Xbox, a skim of your Facebook. Just make sure it takes no longer than a few minutes.

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13. Practise exam questions

Once you think you’ve nailed the facts, make sure you know your stuff by doing all the past papers you can get your hands on. Try to do each one in a single sitting, under exam conditions (in a quiet place and for the right length of time). Then check your answers against the solutions and practise the ones you got wrong.

This is a brilliant way to expose your weaknesses, which you can then focus on improving. Do a ton of these papers – every one that you tackle will help cement your understanding of the subject.

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14. Exam preparation tips

Don’t underestimate the importance of the prep you do immediately before each exam. Get a good night’s sleep – if you’re yawning your way through the paper you won’t be at your best.

Look after yourself by having a healthy balanced meal before the exam. Tuck into brain food such as those containing healthy fats – Omega 3 (oily fish and flaxseeds) and omega 6 (sunflower, sesame and pumpkin seeds) are known as essential fatty acids and play a huge role in supporting brain functionality which includes memory. 

And do your best to keep a positive outlook. Spend some time before the exam visualising it – picture yourself getting ready at home, travelling to the exam hall, sitting down and then knocking every question out of the park. Visualisation techniques like these will help you feel naturally positive when you do the exam for real.

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15. Don't revise all the time

Revising is going to keep you busy, but you don’t have to turn into some kind of study hermit. Reserving a bit of downtime will keep your mind fresh and give you things to look forward to. Build these events into your study plan so they’re as much a focus as all the work you’re doing.

"I would say that you shouldn't give up all your hobbies just to get extra revision time for your exams. We all need a break at some point, and if it's something you enjoy (if your experience is anything similar to mine) it will help you be less stressed overall," says ToffeeJoy.

Getting that chill time is simple – just cut out the pointless time-wasting. Sure, lounging around watching telly in your dressing gown might feel relaxing at the time, but you’ve now eaten into the hour when you wanted to guilt-free play tennis with your mate. Manage your time properly and you’ll fit everything in and be ready to go once exam time rolls around.

Got it? Need a quick reminder? No problem. Here's your revision essentials crib sheet:

15 steps to amazing revision

1. Make a revision timetable – and make sure it's one you can stick to

2. Find somewhere peaceful to study (and make sure it has everything you need)

3. Set study goals that you can measure yourself against each day

4. Find your motivation and get your friends and family to help you

5. Find all your class notes and plug any gaps

6. Find past papers, marking schemes and examiner's reports

7. Write up study notes

8. Create flashcards and revision cards

9. Use mind maps to learn visually

10. Find additional revision resources and study help to increase your learning

11. Use memory techniques to help things stick

12. Make sure you build in lots of study breaks

13. Practise real exam questions from those past papers

14. Treat yourself well immediately before the exam

15. Don't overdo it!

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