The Most Scientific & Effective Way to Revise

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daily_stoic
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This post serves as advice to all future or current A-Level students who want to do better in their studies. It is also a collection of all of my mistakes and things I had to learn the hard way during my 2 year journey. I'll be describing my A-Level experience and how I learnt to prepare for exams properly. From my own experience, I think that A-Levels are mainly a way of testing how much you can remember. I think that grades are not representative of intelligence or skill. If you are about to start or are currently doing A-Levels, you have to make the decision about what grades you want and why you want them, because as I discuss later on, A-Level grades don't mean much on their own. This is quite a lengthy post but if you've found your reasons for why you want to do well in your A-Level exams and you are aiming high, then read on...

Some background.
I started my A-Levels in September 2017 and I did A-Level Maths, Physics, Computer Science and Psychology. For some context, during my GCSEs I was entirely distracted, unfocused and did not care much for my education. I somehow managed to get away with 6's and 7's in most of my subjects, which was enough for my college to accept me onto some of the harder A-Level courses like Maths & Physics. I've never been good at academia, but for the 2 years during my A-Levels I cultivated a lot of focus and discipline, neither of which I can attribute to my teachers or my school - it was entirely self-taught. My thinking was that I only have one chance at these qualifications and they will stay with me for life. I didn't and still don't believe that they mean much on their own, however I did and do believe that they will allow me to go to a more prestigious university and be surrounded by mainly the people who are focused and actually want to be there. In my thinking, being surrounded by these people would encourage me to try harder and develop connections with people who are more likely to be successful in the future. If the tuition fees are the same for all universities, I might as well work hard to get into a good one.

My initial target was straight A*'s, which was a very high aspiration but not unheard of. As the months went by I realised that it is a lot harder and unnecessary to achieve such high grades, so my target gradually decreased to my university offer, which is AAB to study Physics at Nottingham University (AAB is the lowest they will accept people, though their original offer is A*AA). Folks, you really don't need A*'s, unless your target is somewhere like Oxbridge. Allow yourself some time to develop yourself, to socialise, to read books you want to read and pursue hobbies. Rather than isolating yourself for months to revise and practice, re-direct some of that discipline to improving the things in your life that TRULY matter, like your health, confidence and skills. It is currently June 2019 as I write this, so I guess we'll find out soon enough whether or not I hit my target!

The Turning Point.
Just like most students, for the first year and a half of my A-Level journey I took notes in all of my classes, compulsively re-read my textbooks in hopes of retaining information and sat through all of the lessons to listen to my teachers reading off the PowerPoint or out of the textbook. In January 2019, about 3-4 months away from exam season, a high-achieving friend of mine who did similar subjects introduced me to the concepts of Active Recall and Spaced Repetition and told me to watch a couple of videos. That was the day where everything changed for me. You see, before finding out about these concepts, I was a consistent D grade student. I was committed to my studies, and I studied outside of lesson for hours every day on most days, however it wasn't effective studying. I got into the bad habit of rewarding myself for studying & practising for hours, but not necessarily retaining much information or developing a deep understanding. I was rewarding myself for the quantity of work I put in, rather than the quality of the work and the results that it was producing. I was memorising methods on how to solve problems, instead of building a good understanding of what I'm actually doing and learning. I was looking at the back of the book for answers way too often. I wasn't thinking deeply enough about the content I was learning, and I wasn't asking enough questions. I learnt the hard way that in order to understand something deeply, it requires you to sit there and think about it, and question it to death until you can successfully explain it to someone with no understanding.

What is Active Recall and Spaced Repetition?
Active Recall & Spaced Repetition are scientifically-proven revision techniques which capitalise on the ways in which the human brain operates and learns information. Active Recall basically means testing yourself, and Spaced Repetition basically means spacing out that testing. Watch these 2 videos if you want to maximise your studying. Trust me, there isn't a more effective way of studying than the one described here, because we are all human and our brains learn information in the same way:

From this point onward I will assume you have watched these 2 videos.

Apart from playing a couple of videos about flashcards during assembly, my school has never actually put much effort into explaining how to learn effectively. They reinforced the same trendy revision techniques like taking notes, highlighting key information and re-reading the super boring textbook. I assume this happens in most schools. However, after watching these videos, the first thing I realised is that I can actually save my grades. The second thing I realised was that if I wanted to save my grades, I needed to drastically change the way I was studying. I thought of the countless hours I spent reading the overly-complicated maths and physics textbooks and how I always secretly wanted to throw them out or burn them. I decided to try and find the most simple A-Level textbooks that would replace my own half-baked school notes and school textbooks, because those weren't at all useful to me. I tried a couple different options, but all of them seemed overly worded and simply too hard to read, and I didn't have much time left until exams. However, when I encountered the CGP Physics revision guide, I finally found what I was looking for. I found CGP revision guides to be amazing because they present information in such a simple and concise way, that you require little effort on actually reading the difficult words & phrases that most textbooks use. From that point onward, the CGP guides became my notes. I never used any of my school notes again. I then proceeded to sit down and 'scope the subject' using the guide.

If you want to master the subject you're studying, it is important to build a tree of knowledge of sorts. That means you have to have know exactly what sub-topics are within each topic within the entire subject that you are studying. You have to have a mental map in your head, categorising everything and thus knowing what goes where. For example, in the subject of A-Level Physics, there is the branch of Mechanics, under which are the smaller branches of projectile motion, moments, Newton's laws and so on. Or, another example, under the subject of A-Level Psychology, there is the branch of Health Psychology, under which there is a branch of Recreational Drugs, under which there is the branch of Alcohol, under which there are several branches for Alcohol's psychological effects, physical effects, mechanism of action etc. One tool you can use to scope your subjects is a Spaced Repetition Spreadsheet (see video). Later on, as you do practice questions on key topics, you can mark them in green/orange/red to indicate how well you're doing and how much more practice you require.

After spending time looking through my guide and categorising all of the topics on Google Sheets, I now had a clear scope of my subjects. I knew exactly what I had to learn and what I would be tested on. It was now time to start committing the information to memory using active recall. That's where the flashcards came in.

Why notes are pretty much useless:
You have your textbook open. You're making pretty-looking notes in your notebook and using all the colours of the rainbow. You're proud of your notes. But guess what? You're not actually using any brainpower to make these notes - you're essentially copying out of the textbook. And after you've finished writing your notes, then what? You're re-written the same information into your notebook in a slightly more concise form, having achieved very little retention. And you've wasted a lot of time making these notes as well. This is exactly what I used to do for the first year and a half of my A-Levels. My artistic skills may have improved as I made my notes, but my understanding and retention of the information certainly has not! The superior alternative is to make use of the notes & resources already available out there. Like mentioned before, I find the CGP revision guides to be the best. However, I must say that summarising information can be useful if you do so with the book closed. As mentioned in the first video, testing yourself and using brainpower (mental effort) to recall information is the key here. Instead of making notes, try turning the note-taking habit into a 'closed-book-summarising' habit.

How to use flashcards:
The more work your brain has to do to recall information & concepts, the stronger the neural connections in your brain become. When you re-read the textbook or your school notes, all you're doing is inputting information into your brain, along with all of the other information that you expose yourself to everyday. Your brain discards most of it because there's no work being done in remembering - it doesn't take much brainpower to read a paragraph apart from trying to grasp the complicated terminology written on the page. Most of the stuff you re-read in your textbook doesn't stick. Using flashcards to "beat the forgetting curve" (as explained in the video) is, in my opinion, the best way of remembering whatever it is you want to remember, be it a few Spanish words or the definition of magnetic flux linkage in Physics.The concept of using flashcards is simple:
  1. You read through a chapter in your CGP guide and do the practice questions until you understand what's going on.
  2. Using an app like Quizlet or Anki, you write yourself as many flashcards as you need on all of the things you want to remember (concepts, facts, definitions).
  3. 1 day, 2 days, 5 days, 10 days later and so on, you test yourself on the flashcards you've made. The more often you test yourself, the better.
  4. You test yourself by answering the set of flashcards you've made on Shuffle Mode. Write or type up the answer to the question on the flashcard in as much detail as you can (even if you think it's wrong). I found that typing into something like notepad or Word on your PC is very efficient because it's quicker - it allows you to get through more flashcards for every hour of revision. I found that having some paper next to me also helps if the flashcard requires you to draw a diagram of some kind or write down a formula.
  5. Once your answer is written, you click to uncover the answer.
  6. Repeat this process as many times as you need for all of the flashcards in the set until you can answer every flashcard perfectly and you feel like you've understood the concepts. Space out your testing to maximise the amount of information that will be transferred into your long-term memory.

If you're a current A-Level student and you're getting close to the exams, I would say follow this method for the topics that you feel you're the worst at. Make flashcards, test yourself on them often and commit whatever you want to remember to memory. If you feel like you've got a half-baked understanding on all of the topics (like I did for Physics), then you're going to have to prioritise the hardest ones first. I managed to cover, re-learn and make flashcards for the entire Physics course in around 3 months leading up to my exams, which allowed me to develop a deep understanding of what I was learning. I also did similar for Computer Science and a little for the statistics module in maths. It will take a lot of work but it is definitely do-able.

Always make your own flashcards.
Make your own flashcards, written in your own words, to make sure you understand what you are actually trying to remember. Don't paste definitions into Quizlet and press 'Save'. Take the time to read your revision guide, think about it, do the practice questions and make flashcards on what you want to remember. The key to understanding is the process of sitting there and thinking about it. Using someone else's flashcards may work, but it is a lot better to develop your own understanding and come out of your study session being able to explain what you just learnt to a person with no knowledge, in your own words. In order to understand something properly, you have to question it instead of just accepting it.

What if I just don't get a topic?
In order to make good flashcards that will help you remember stuff, you first have to understand the stuff. There were many topics in Physics or Computer Science that I just could not understand at the time. At first, I used to spend over an hour on a single topic, just re-reading my revision guide and trying to understand it, to no avail. That was a waste of time. What I found to be more efficient was to take a break - come back to it later in the day or tomorrow, and try approach it with a fresh mind. I also watched YouTube videos from lots of different content creators, and I found that listening to many perspectives and ways of explaining the same topic is very helpful. As for asking my teachers for help, I tried avoiding that because for the most part (my Physics teacher in particular) just went along with everything that I was saying, and didn't really understand the topic deeply enough themselves. Unless you've been blessed by having passionate and high-quality teachers, you're going to have to be prepared to teach a lot of this stuff to yourself.

Why lessons are ineffective.
In my opinion, listening to a teacher stand at the front of the classroom and read off a PowerPoint presentation or talk for an hour is not only boring but hugely ineffective. Just like re-reading the textbook, the words register in your head but you end up forgetting 90% of what you've heard a week later. And god forbid you get lost half-way through the explanation and have to stop the class to ask a basic question. But it's not because you're stupid or forgetful or not focused enough. For most people, their attention spans start to decline significantly after 25 minutes of lesson time! The problem is with the lessons themselves. Unless you are hugely passionate about being in that lesson every single time, chances are that you'll end up forgetting and/or not understanding deeply most what you're learning. You have to sit down by yourself or with a group of like-minded friends, remove all distractions and think about the content thoroughly. Ask questions about it. For example, in my Astrophysics module, we were covering the life cycle of main sequence stars and, as per usual, we got the standard lecture that provided us with facts that we just had to remember. The way I went about it was to go through and imagine the stages of the star's life. I asked questions about it, like 'if our Sun will turn into a white dwarf after it runs out of fuel, why do some stars turn into neutron stars or black holes?'. I tried to apply what I was learning to things that I already knew. I then proceeded to make flashcards on what I learnt and what I wanted to remember, in a way that makes sense to me.

However, at A-Level, I think that lessons can be useful, just as summarising content/making quick notes can also be useful. If you are able to discuss the topic with the teacher in real-time and question it until you fully understand it, then that is great and you can develop a good understanding in your lessons. The key, as with summarising, is to be actively engaged with the thing you're trying to learn. Sitting there and letting yourself be spoon-fed information through reading or listening to the teacher is not effective - most of it won't stick in your head. Although I felt like my teacher did not have a thorough understanding of Physics in general, I was still able to find flaws in my own (and often the teacher's) understanding of the topic since my class was quite small, allowing me to ask many questions and get a good discussion going. However, that is not often the case with other classrooms, so as I mentioned previously, the best thing to do would be to try to figure stuff out on your own or with a group of friends doing the same subject(s) as you.

Past Papers.
After you have scoped the subject, read through the revision guide & developed a good understanding of the topics, practised answering the questions you set yourself in the form of flashcards and committed the information to memory such that you actually get it, the next stage is to simulate the environment in which you will be tested using past papers and practice papers. This can be done after you feel like you've mastered a particular group of topics and committed the information to memory. As mentioned previously, the key is to space out your testing just like you did with your flashcards. This means that a bad way of studying would be to cram a single topic in the span of a few days, for example by: reading about Topic A and practising the revision guide practice questions on Monday, making flashcards & practising them on Tuesday and then doing a couple of topic-specific practice papers on Wednesday. That is a bad way of studying because there is little time in between these sessions to commit what you've learnt to long-term memory. It is much better to space out the practice over many weeks & months for all of your subjects, so that it all (hopefully) sticks in your long-term memory.

There are not many past papers available for a lot of A-Level courses, at least at the time of writing (because of the new specification). This means you have to ration out these papers near the end of your course and only use them when you feel like you have a very good grasp of the topics that are likely to be inside. A huge mistake that I made during my own journey through A-Levels is doing past papers and practice papers with a poor understanding of the topics and very little prior practice. Because of this, I looked at the answers for nearly every question because I either didn't understand the question at all, or I couldn't remember the key knowledge to answer it. This resulted in me looking at the answer, and just like with re-reading the textbook, forgetting it after a few days, to then get stuck on similar questions in the future. This is also the reason as to why I kept getting consistent D grades. It was not only frustrating but a waste of past papers, since I couldn't do them again without being able to remember some of the answers. So, make sure you have a good grasp of the content by doing flashcards before you do papers on it, otherwise you may fall in the same trap as I have.

Content-heavy subjects vs. STEM subjects.
For some A-Levels like Graphic Design or Photography, coursework is a large component of the course. These subjects are not as difficult as exam-based subjects, since you can get a high grade by putting in the required hours on your project and following a clearly set out methodology. It can be long and boring, but not necessarily difficult. Many other A-Levels are content-heavy, meaning that they are essay-based (like English Lit or Psychology). For subjects like these, the most important factor is committing the huge volumes of information into your brain and being able to regurgitate it into the common 12, 16 or 20+ mark questions under exam-conditions. In that case, flashcards are priority as they will allow you to remember a lot of stuff through active recall & spaced repetition. However for STEM subjects, the priorities are different. If you are doing A-Level Maths or Further Maths, then the priority will be less on making flashcards and more on practising the revision guide questions and practice papers. You can still make flashcards on things you want to memorise (e.g. what is the derivative of ln(x) or certain facts from modules such as Statistics), but practising is more important. For Physics, the priority is split in half between making flashcards and practising, because about half of the questions in the course will test you on your calculation skills, and the other half will test you on your understanding (i.e. written responses). So not only do you have to understand the content deeply, but you also have to be able to apply the knowledge using mathematics by performing calculations correctly, which is what makes Physics one of the hardest A-Levels. I assume this is similar with Chemistry and Biology, although how much time you have to spend on flashcards vs. practising will be different. The point here is that you need to understand what kind of subjects you're dealing with, and what tools will be the most effective to use throughout your 2 years to get the grades that you are aiming for.

Interleaved Practice.
Interleaved practice is the idea of mixing up the topics that you're studying and doing a little bit of lot's of different stuff, rather than do 'blocked practice', which is focusing on one specific topic before moving onto the next. Just like re-reading your textbook or listening to the teacher talk on and on and on isn't effective, practising the same thing for hours on end is not effective either, because your brain gets used to doing the same thing for hours and loses interest. You have to stimulate your brain with different kinds of information to remain engaged during your study sessions and therefore accelerate your learning. Your brain likes novelty (new information), and considers new input to be significant. So, instead of sitting down and blocking out 3 hours to do questions/flashcards on just Nuclear Physics or just Social Psychology, mix it up and do a bit of lot's of different topics. For example, do 30 mins of practising Integration questions for maths, then do a few questions on Particle Physics, then go and take a break for 15 mins (move around and do some exercise), then go back to doing some more Integration, and so on.

Explaining stuff to others.
When I discovered this method of using flashcards to commit information to memory I stopped studying with friends, because I wanted to take the time to properly learn the stuff for myself. In fact, I think I was a 'lone wolf' for most of my A-Levels until I grasped the content very well near the end of my course by using active recall & spaced repetition. I did, however, enjoy putting my knowledge to the test by having to explain a topic to a friend who did not understand it. Having someone probe your understanding in real-time by asking questions is extremely helpful, because it will enable you to see whether or not you truly understand something. Here, I found that it's crucial to be open & honest, and admit when you just don't know something. The outcome is much better when you admit your mistakes and/or lack of understanding and try to fix it, instead of finding wishy-washy explanations to cover them up and stop your ego from getting hurt. There is nothing wrong with failure as long as you learn from it. So, if you think you understand something well, try explaining it to a friend who needs help understanding it, or to anyone who will listen to you. If you cannot explain something simply, you don't understand it well enough.

Get good sleep!
Sleep is essential for forming new long-term memories and strengthening pre-existing ones. In Matthew Walker's book on sleep called "Why We Sleep: The New Science of Sleep & Dreams" he explores the countless benefits of having good night's sleep, learning being one of them. He describes a small region of the brain called the hippocampus acting as a short-term reservoir for accumulating new memories as you go about your day. This brain region has a limited storage capacity (think of it as like a USB stick), meaning that once it's capacity is reached, it will have to overwrite some of memories stored in it (called interference forgetting). Through sleep experiments on human participants, him and his team found that sleep acts as a file-transfer mechanism between the hippocampus and the brain regions associated with long-term memory storage. A good way to think about sleep would be to imagine it as a 'Save' button on all of the knowledge that you've learnt the day before. You go to sleep to consolidate all of those memories stored in the hippocampus. However, although the file-transfer mechanism that is sleep isn't guaranteed to copy 100% of what you've learnt the day before, the more sleep you get the more you will remember and the stronger those memories will be, so don't skip out on it!

Implementing these learning and revision tactics paired with a good quality, restful 8 hours of slumber every night is like a superpower. To improve your sleep quality, make sure that your room is pitch black and avoid looking at blue light from screens for 1-2 hours before sleep. If you're using a laptop/phone/computer, install F.Lux on it, which will automatically block out blue light and stop your brain from being tricked into thinking that it is daytime. Good quality sleep is a human necessity, just like food or water!

Tutoring.
I spent somewhere around £300 on tutoring in the last 2 months leading up to my exams, right as I was making my flashcards & practising lots of questions on the topics I was now getting good at. Yeah, that is a lot. For me, and many other students, the problem is that no matter how much you read about certain topics, or how many questions you practice, or how many times you question your teacher (mine wasn't very good), you just need some explaining from someone who knows exactly what they're talking about. This should be the job of the teacher, but unfortunately, not all teachers are as good as they seem to think. Tutoring is a great way to fill in any flaws you may have in your understanding or exam technique. I would recommend pursuing this option only once you have followed the steps above (i.e. read through the revision guide many times, watched videos and spoke to your teacher). My tutor charged me £20 per hour, so I made damn good use of every hour by thinking about exactly what I wanted to find out in advance. If you are a student who is consistently getting low grades and are aiming high, and you're also following this method of learning & revision, I would strongly recommend investing in tuition to patch any of the flaws that you may have. There's no shame in making the investment in getting an expert to help you out with a few things, as long as you are still putting in the work yourself and trying your best to improve. If you don't have a lot of time left until exams, like myself, and you really want to get into your first choice of university, then I would go ahead and hire a tutor.

What to expect from and keep in mind for A-Levels.
Phew. Now that all of the practical stuff is out of the way, I can get onto talking about what I actually think of A-Levels. When you first learn the content, it will be interesting and you'll be excited to learn it (that is if you're actually interested in the subject that you're doing). But after learning it for the first time, making flashcards and doing a few questions, the focus for most subjects becomes on keeping the information in your head and being able to regurgitate it onto the exam paper months later. For me, this got extremely boring and monotonous and the closer I got to exams, the more I couldn't wait for all of it to end. I couldn't wait to finish and get to reading all the books I always wanted to read and just generally enjoy learning things again. If you're aiming for a high grade, make sure this is something you really want, because you have to be prepared to experience a lot of repetitive, mindless memorising. And the sad thing is that you're just trying to remember stuff without much practical utility. It's not as if you're lifting weights in the gym, training for a competition or developing a skill that produces measurable results - you're just remembering things. Just make sure that you understand that, and know that this project will take up a lot of your time for 2 years. Like I said at the beginning, you really don't need A*'s unless you're looking to be very successful in academia (for whatever reason).

Grades are not representative of intelligence, skill, knowledge or future potential. You can memorise facts, write them in an exam and get an A, without being able to apply what you're learning in real life. Having said that, your grades will change how attractive you are to universities and employers, but apart from that, not much else.

Focus on skill development, too.
Because of the fact that A-Levels are not actually developing many practical skills for the future, I recommend you dedicate some of your time to developing skills outside of your A-Levels. If you're doing Computer Science, do programming in your own time if it interests you because it is a very useful skill in the field. If you're studying Philosophy or Psychology, read books about it that interest you and apply what you learn in your own life. Discuss concepts with friends and help people improve their own lives. If you're studying Sport, apply what you're learning by training for a competition in your favourite sport, instead of spending all of your time remembering what muscles are used when you practice it. Grades mean little on their own. If you spend all of your time practising flashcards, doing practice questions and past papers, you may get an excellent grade in your test, but when you come out school you won't have many skills and extracurricular activities that will distinguish you from all the other A-Level students applying for the same job/university. Also you'll probably come out of your exams frustrated and tired of the same stuff being stuffed down your throat for 2 years (like I did) and not want to engage in any kind of learning over the summer, which isn't good.

Conclusion.
So, if you watched those two videos, read through this post and thought about how your current revision tactics may be ineffective, you are well on your way to learning how to prepare for exams properly. I urge you to employ this strategy in your own revision, so that you can get the grades that you want to get. I wish that I learnt all this stuff at the start of Year 12, as it would've saved me all those countless hours of re-reading, compulsive note-taking and ineffective studying. A lot of these ideas may be far from what most people consider normal, but just because note-taking and re-reading is trendy, does not mean that it is effective. Everyone around you can be sitting there making their notes, while you make your flashcards and implement active recall to make your brain work hard to recall and output the information, rather than repeatedly inputting and hoping that it would stick. Very few people actually sit down and learn how to learn properly. Most people go with the flow and copy what others are doing - i.e. making huge piles of notes like it's an art class, compulsively re-reading the textbook or highlighting as if it means something.

To finish off I recommend you watch the video about the STIC method for revision to link some of these ideas together:

The 'STIC' Method: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k5A26Sc63F0&t=

Down below I linked some other stuff you may want to delve into to improve your study tactics. Thanks a lot for reading and good luck in your A-Levels!

Further reading/listening:
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SimplyAshella
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(Original post by TheProctor)
This post serves as advice to all future or current A-Level students who want to do better in their studies. It is also a collection of all of my mistakes and things I had to learn the hard way during my 2 year journey. I'll be describing my A-Level experience and how I learnt to prepare for exams properly. From my own experience, I think that A-Levels are mainly a way of testing how much you can remember. I think that grades are not representative of intelligence or skill. If you are about to start or are currently doing A-Levels, you have to make the decision about what grades you want and why you want them, because as I discuss later on, A-Level grades don't mean much on their own. This is quite a lengthy post but if you've found your reasons for why you want to do well in your A-Level exams and you are aiming high, then read on...

Some background.
I started my A-Levels in September 2017 and I did A-Level Maths, Physics, Computer Science and Psychology. For some context, during my GCSEs I was entirely distracted, unfocused and did not care much for my education. I somehow managed to get away with 6's and 7's in most of my subjects, which was enough for my college to accept me onto some of the harder A-Level courses like Maths & Physics. I've never been good at academia, but for the 2 years during my A-Levels I cultivated a lot of focus and discipline, neither of which I can attribute to my teachers or my school - it was entirely self-taught. My thinking was that I only have one chance at these qualifications and they will stay with me for life. I didn't and still don't believe that they mean much on their own, however I did and do believe that they will allow me to go to a more prestigious university and be surrounded by mainly the people who are focused and actually want to be there. In my thinking, being surrounded by these people would encourage me to try harder and develop connections with people who are more likely to be successful in the future. If the tuition fees are the same for all universities, I might as well work hard to get into a good one.

My initial target was straight A*'s, which was a very high aspiration but not unheard of. As the months went by I realised that it is a lot harder and unnecessary to achieve such high grades, so my target gradually decreased to my university offer, which is AAB to study Physics at Nottingham University (AAB is the lowest they will accept people, though their original offer is A*AA). Folks, you really don't need A*'s, unless your target is somewhere like Oxbridge. Allow yourself some time to develop yourself, to socialise, to read books you want to read and pursue hobbies. Rather than isolating yourself for months to revise and practice, re-direct some of that discipline to improving the things in your life that TRULY matter, like your health, confidence and skills. It is currently June 2019 as I write this, so I guess we'll find out soon enough whether or not I hit my target!

The Turning Point.
Just like most students, for the first year and a half of my A-Level journey I took notes in all of my classes, compulsively re-read my textbooks in hopes of retaining information and sat through all of the lessons to listen to my teachers reading off the PowerPoint or out of the textbook. In January 2019, about 3-4 months away from exam season, a high-achieving friend of mine who did similar subjects introduced me to the concepts of Active Recall and Spaced Repetition and told me to watch a couple of videos. That was the day where everything changed for me. You see, before finding out about these concepts, I was a consistent D grade student. I was committed to my studies, and I studied outside of lesson for hours every day on most days, however it wasn't effective studying. I got into the bad habit of rewarding myself for studying & practising for hours, but not necessarily retaining much information or developing a deep understanding. I was rewarding myself for the quantity of work I put in, rather than the quality of the work and the results that it was producing. I was memorising methods on how to solve problems, instead of building a good understanding of what I'm actually doing and learning. I was looking at the back of the book for answers way too often. I wasn't thinking deeply enough about the content I was learning, and I wasn't asking enough questions. I learnt the hard way that in order to understand something deeply, it requires you to sit there and think about it, and question it to death until you can successfully explain it to someone with no understanding.

What is Active Recall and Spaced Repetition?
Active Recall & Spaced Repetition are scientifically-proven revision techniques which capitalise on the ways in which the human brain operates and learns information. Active Recall basically means testing yourself, and Spaced Repetition basically means spacing out that testing. Watch these 2 videos if you want to maximise your studying. Trust me, there isn't a more effective way of studying than the one described here, because we are all human and our brains learn information in the same way:

From this point onward I will assume you have watched these 2 videos.

Apart from playing a couple of videos about flashcards during assembly, my school has never actually put much effort into explaining how to learn effectively. They reinforced the same trendy revision techniques like taking notes, highlighting key information and re-reading the super boring textbook. I assume this happens in most schools. However, after watching these videos, the first thing I realised is that I can actually save my grades. The second thing I realised was that if I wanted to save my grades, I needed to drastically change the way I was studying. I thought of the countless hours I spent reading the overly-complicated maths and physics textbooks and how I always secretly wanted to throw them out or burn them. I decided to try and find the most simple A-Level textbooks that would replace my own half-baked school notes and school textbooks, because those weren't at all useful to me. I tried a couple different options, but all of them seemed overly worded and simply too hard to read, and I didn't have much time left until exams. However, when I encountered the CGP Physics revision guide, I finally found what I was looking for. I found CGP revision guides to be amazing because they present information in such a simple and concise way, that you require little effort on actually reading the difficult words & phrases that most textbooks use. From that point onward, the CGP guides became my notes. I never used any of my school notes again. I then proceeded to sit down and 'scope the subject' using the guide.

If you want to master the subject you're studying, it is important to build a tree of knowledge of sorts. That means you have to have know exactly what sub-topics are within each topic within the entire subject that you are studying. You have to have a mental map in your head, categorising everything and thus knowing what goes where. For example, in the subject of A-Level Physics, there is the branch of Mechanics, under which are the smaller branches of projectile motion, moments, Newton's laws and so on. Or, another example, under the subject of A-Level Psychology, there is the branch of Health Psychology, under which there is a branch of Recreational Drugs, under which there is the branch of Alcohol, under which there are several branches for Alcohol's psychological effects, physical effects, mechanism of action etc. One tool you can use to scope your subjects is a Spaced Repetition Spreadsheet (see video). Later on, as you do practice questions on key topics, you can mark them in green/orange/red to indicate how well you're doing and how much more practice you require.

After spending time looking through my guide and categorising all of the topics on Google Sheets, I now had a clear scope of my subjects. I knew exactly what I had to learn and what I would be tested on. It was now time to start committing the information to memory using active recall. That's where the flashcards came in.

Why notes are pretty much useless:
You have your textbook open. You're making pretty-looking notes in your notebook and using all the colours of the rainbow. You're proud of your notes. But guess what? You're not actually using any brainpower to make these notes - you're essentially copying out of the textbook. And after you've finished writing your notes, then what? You're re-written the same information into your notebook in a slightly more concise form, having achieved very little retention. And you've wasted a lot of time making these notes as well. This is exactly what I used to do for the first year and a half of my A-Levels. My artistic skills may have improved as I made my notes, but my understanding and retention of the information certainly has not! The superior alternative is to make use of the notes & resources already available out there. Like mentioned before, I find the CGP revision guides to be the best. However, I must say that summarising information can be useful if you do so with the book closed. As mentioned in the first video, testing yourself and using brainpower (mental effort) to recall information is the key here. Instead of making notes, try turning the note-taking habit into a 'closed-book-summarising' habit.

How to use flashcards:
The more work your brain has to do to recall information & concepts, the stronger the neural connections in your brain become. When you re-read the textbook or your school notes, all you're doing is inputting information into your brain, along with all of the other information that you expose yourself to everyday. Your brain discards most of it because there's no work being done in remembering - it doesn't take much brainpower to read a paragraph apart from trying to grasp the complicated terminology written on the page. Most of the stuff you re-read in your textbook doesn't stick. Using flashcards to "beat the forgetting curve" (as explained in the video) is, in my opinion, the best way of remembering whatever it is you want to remember, be it a few Spanish words or the definition of magnetic flux linkage in Physics.The concept of using flashcards is simple:
  1. You read through a chapter in your CGP guide and do the practice questions until you understand what's going on.
  2. Using an app like Quizlet or Anki, you write yourself as many flashcards as you need on all of the things you want to remember (concepts, facts, definitions).
  3. 1 day, 2 days, 5 days, 10 days later and so on, you test yourself on the flashcards you've made. The more often you test yourself, the better.
  4. You test yourself by answering the set of flashcards you've made on Shuffle Mode. Write or type up the answer to the question on the flashcard in as much detail as you can (even if you think it's wrong). I found that typing into something like notepad or Word on your PC is very efficient because it's quicker - it allows you to get through more flashcards for every hour of revision. I found that having some paper next to me also helps if the flashcard requires you to draw a diagram of some kind or write down a formula.
  5. Once your answer is written, you click to uncover the answer.
  6. Repeat this process as many times as you need for all of the flashcards in the set until you can answer every flashcard perfectly and you feel like you've understood the concepts. Space out your testing to maximise the amount of information that will be transferred into your long-term memory.

If you're a current A-Level student and you're getting close to the exams, I would say follow this method for the topics that you feel you're the worst at. Make flashcards, test yourself on them often and commit whatever you want to remember to memory. If you feel like you've got a half-baked understanding on all of the topics (like I did for Physics), then you're going to have to prioritise the hardest ones first. I managed to cover, re-learn and make flashcards for the entire Physics course in around 3 months leading up to my exams, which allowed me to develop a deep understanding of what I was learning. I also did similar for Computer Science and a little for the statistics module in maths. It will take a lot of work but it is definitely do-able.

Always make your own flashcards.
Make your own flashcards, written in your own words, to make sure you understand what you are actually trying to remember. Don't paste definitions into Quizlet and press 'Save'. Take the time to read your revision guide, think about it, do the practice questions and make flashcards on what you want to remember. The key to understanding is the process of sitting there and thinking about it. Using someone else's flashcards may work, but it is a lot better to develop your own understanding and come out of your study session being able to explain what you just learnt to a person with no knowledge, in your own words. In order to understand something properly, you have to question it instead of just accepting it.

What if I just don't get a topic?
In order to make good flashcards that will help you remember stuff, you first have to understand the stuff. There were many topics in Physics or Computer Science that I just could not understand at the time. At first, I used to spend over an hour on a single topic, just re-reading my revision guide and trying to understand it, to no avail. That was a waste of time. What I found to be more efficient was to take a break - come back to it later in the day or tomorrow, and try approach it with a fresh mind. I also watched YouTube videos from lots of different content creators, and I found that listening to many perspectives and ways of explaining the same topic is very helpful. As for asking my teachers for help, I tried avoiding that because for the most part (my Physics teacher in particular) just went along with everything that I was saying, and didn't really understand the topic deeply enough themselves. Unless you've been blessed by having passionate and high-quality teachers, you're going to have to be prepared to teach a lot of this stuff to yourself.

Why lessons are ineffective.
In my opinion, listening to a teacher stand at the front of the classroom and read off a PowerPoint presentation or talk for an hour is not only boring but hugely ineffective. Just like re-reading the textbook, the words register in your head but you end up forgetting 90% of what you've heard a week later. And god forbid you get lost half-way through the explanation and have to stop the class to ask a basic question. But it's not because you're stupid or forgetful or not focused enough. For most people, their attention spans start to decline significantly after 25 minutes of lesson time! The problem is with the lessons themselves. Unless you are hugely passionate about being in that lesson every single time, chances are that you'll end up forgetting and/or not understanding deeply most what you're learning. You have to sit down by yourself or with a group of like-minded friends, remove all distractions and think about the content thoroughly. Ask questions about it. For example, in my Astrophysics module, we were covering the life cycle of main sequence stars and, as per usual, we got the standard lecture that provided us with facts that we just had to remember. The way I went about it was to go through and imagine the stages of the star's life. I asked questions about it, like 'if our Sun will turn into a white dwarf after it runs out of fuel, why do some stars turn into neutron stars or black holes?'. I tried to apply what I was learning to things that I already knew. I then proceeded to make flashcards on what I learnt and what I wanted to remember, in a way that makes sense to me.

However, at A-Level, I think that lessons can be useful, just as summarising content/making quick notes can also be useful. If you are able to discuss the topic with the teacher in real-time and question it until you fully understand it, then that is great and you can develop a good understanding in your lessons. The key, as with summarising, is to be actively engaged with the thing you're trying to learn. Sitting there and letting yourself be spoon-fed information through reading or listening to the teacher is not effective - most of it won't stick in your head. Although I felt like my teacher did not have a thorough understanding of Physics in general, I was still able to find flaws in my own (and often the teacher's) understanding of the topic since my class was quite small, allowing me to ask many questions and get a good discussion going. However, that is not often the case with other classrooms, so as I mentioned previously, the best thing to do would be to try to figure stuff out on your own or with a group of friends doing the same subject(s) as you.

Past Papers.
After you have scoped the subject, read through the revision guide & developed a good understanding of the topics, practised answering the questions you set yourself in the form of flashcards and committed the information to memory such that you actually get it, the next stage is to simulate the environment in which you will be tested using past papers and practice papers. This can be done after you feel like you've mastered a particular group of topics and committed the information to memory. As mentioned previously, the key is to space out your testing just like you did with your flashcards. This means that a bad way of studying would be to cram a single topic in the span of a few days, for example by: reading about Topic A and practising the revision guide practice questions on Monday, making flashcards & practising them on Tuesday and then doing a couple of topic-specific practice papers on Wednesday. That is a bad way of studying because there is little time in between these sessions to commit what you've learnt to long-term memory. It is much better to space out the practice over many weeks & months for all of your subjects, so that it all (hopefully) sticks in your long-term memory.

There are not many past papers available for a lot of A-Level courses, at least at the time of writing (because of the new specification). This means you have to ration out these papers near the end of your course and only use them when you feel like you have a very good grasp of the topics that are likely to be inside. A huge mistake that I made during my own journey through A-Levels is doing past papers and practice papers with a poor understanding of the topics and very little prior practice. Because of this, I looked at the answers for nearly every question because I either didn't understand the question at all, or I couldn't remember the key knowledge to answer it. This resulted in me looking at the answer, and just like with re-reading the textbook, forgetting it after a few days, to then get stuck on similar questions in the future. This is also the reason as to why I kept getting consistent D grades. It was not only frustrating but a waste of past papers, since I couldn't do them again without being able to remember some of the answers. So, make sure you have a good grasp of the content by doing flashcards before you do papers on it, otherwise you may fall in the same trap as I have.

Content-heavy subjects vs. STEM subjects.
For some A-Levels like Graphic Design or Photography, coursework is a large component of the course. These subjects are not as difficult as exam-based subjects, since you can get a high grade by putting in the required hours on your project and following a clearly set out methodology. It can be long and boring, but not necessarily difficult. Many other A-Levels are content-heavy, meaning that they are essay-based (like English Lit or Psychology). For subjects like these, the most important factor is committing the huge volumes of information into your brain and being able to regurgitate it into the common 12, 16 or 20+ mark questions under exam-conditions. In that case, flashcards are priority as they will allow you to remember a lot of stuff through active recall & spaced repetition. However for STEM subjects, the priorities are different. If you are doing A-Level Maths or Further Maths, then the priority will be less on making flashcards and more on practising the revision guide questions and practice papers. You can still make flashcards on things you want to memorise (e.g. what is the derivative of ln(x) or certain facts from modules such as Statistics), but practising is more important. For Physics, the priority is split in half between making flashcards and practising, because about half of the questions in the course will test you on your calculation skills, and the other half will test you on your understanding (i.e. written responses). So not only do you have to understand the content deeply, but you also have to be able to apply the knowledge using mathematics by performing calculations correctly, which is what makes Physics one of the hardest A-Levels. I assume this is similar with Chemistry and Biology, although how much time you have to spend on flashcards vs. practising will be different. The point here is that you need to understand what kind of subjects you're dealing with, and what tools will be the most effective to use throughout your 2 years to get the grades that you are aiming for.

Interleaved Practice.
Interleaved practice is the idea of mixing up the topics that you're studying and doing a little bit of lot's of different stuff, rather than do 'blocked practice', which is focusing on one specific topic before moving onto the next. Just like re-reading your textbook or listening to the teacher talk on and on and on isn't effective, practising the same thing for hours on end is not effective either, because your brain gets used to doing the same thing for hours and loses interest. You have to stimulate your brain with different kinds of information to remain engaged during your study sessions and therefore accelerate your learning. Your brain likes novelty (new information), and considers new input to be significant. So, instead of sitting down and blocking out 3 hours to do questions/flashcards on just Nuclear Physics or just Social Psychology, mix it up and do a bit of lot's of different topics. For example, do 30 mins of practising Integration questions for maths, then do a few questions on Particle Physics, then go and take a break for 15 mins (move around and do some exercise), then go back to doing some more Integration, and so on.

Explaining stuff to others.
When I discovered this method of using flashcards to commit information to memory I stopped studying with friends, because I wanted to take the time to properly learn the stuff for myself. In fact, I think I was a 'lone wolf' for most of my A-Levels until I grasped the content very well near the end of my course by using active recall & spaced repetition. I did, however, enjoy putting my knowledge to the test by having to explain a topic to a friend who did not understand it. Having someone probe your understanding in real-time by asking questions is extremely helpful, because it will enable you to see whether or not you truly understand something. Here, I found that it's crucial to be open & honest, and admit when you just don't know something. The outcome is much better when you admit your mistakes and/or lack of understanding and try to fix it, instead of finding wishy-washy explanations to cover them up and stop your ego from getting hurt. There is nothing wrong with failure as long as you learn from it. So, if you think you understand something well, try explaining it to a friend who needs help understanding it, or to anyone who will listen to you. If you cannot explain something simply, you don't understand it well enough.

Get good sleep!
Sleep is essential for forming new long-term memories and strengthening pre-existing ones. In Matthew Walker's book on sleep called "Why We Sleep: The New Science of Sleep & Dreams" he explores the countless benefits of having good night's sleep, learning being one of them. He describes a small region of the brain called the hippocampus acting as a short-term reservoir for accumulating new memories as you go about your day. This brain region has a limited storage capacity (think of it as like a USB stick), meaning that once it's capacity is reached, it will have to overwrite some of memories stored in it (called interference forgetting). Through sleep experiments on human participants, him and his team found that sleep acts as a file-transfer mechanism between the hippocampus and the brain regions associated with long-term memory storage. A good way to think about sleep would be to imagine it as a 'Save' button on all of the knowledge that you've learnt the day before. You go to sleep to consolidate all of those memories stored in the hippocampus. However, although the file-transfer mechanism that is sleep isn't guaranteed to copy 100% of what you've learnt the day before, the more sleep you get the more you will remember and the stronger those memories will be, so don't skip out on it!

Implementing these learning and revision tactics paired with a good quality, restful 8 hours of slumber every night is like a superpower. To improve your sleep quality, make sure that your room is pitch black and avoid looking at blue light from screens for 1-2 hours before sleep. If you're using a laptop/phone/computer, install F.Lux on it, which will automatically block out blue light and stop your brain from being tricked into thinking that it is daytime. Good quality sleep is a human necessity, just like food or water!

Tutoring.
I spent somewhere around £300 on tutoring in the last 2 months leading up to my exams, right as I was making my flashcards & practising lots of questions on the topics I was now getting good at. Yeah, that is a lot. For me, and many other students, the problem is that no matter how much you read about certain topics, or how many questions you practice, or how many times you question your teacher (mine wasn't very good), you just need some explaining from someone who knows exactly what they're talking about. This should be the job of the teacher, but unfortunately, not all teachers are as good as they seem to think. Tutoring is a great way to fill in any flaws you may have in your understanding or exam technique. I would recommend pursuing this option only once you have followed the steps above (i.e. read through the revision guide many times, watched videos and spoke to your teacher). My tutor charged me £20 per hour, so I made damn good use of every hour by thinking about exactly what I wanted to find out in advance. If you are a student who is consistently getting low grades and are aiming high, and you're also following this method of learning & revision, I would strongly recommend investing in tuition to patch any of the flaws that you may have. There's no shame in making the investment in getting an expert to help you out with a few things, as long as you are still putting in the work yourself and trying your best to improve. If you don't have a lot of time left until exams, like myself, and you really want to get into your first choice of university, then I would go ahead and hire a tutor.

What to expect from and keep in mind for A-Levels.
Phew. Now that all of the practical stuff is out of the way, I can get onto talking about what I actually think of A-Levels. When you first learn the content, it will be interesting and you'll be excited to learn it (that is if you're actually interested in the subject that you're doing). But after learning it for the first time, making flashcards and doing a few questions, the focus for most subjects becomes on keeping the information in your head and being able to regurgitate it onto the exam paper months later. For me, this got extremely boring and monotonous and the closer I got to exams, the more I couldn't wait for all of it to end. I couldn't wait to finish and get to reading all the books I always wanted to read and just generally enjoy learning things again. If you're aiming for a high grade, make sure this is something you really want, because you have to be prepared to experience a lot of repetitive, mindless memorising. And the sad thing is that you're just trying to remember stuff without much practical utility. It's not as if you're lifting weights in the gym, training for a competition or developing a skill that produces measurable results - you're just remembering things. Just make sure that you understand that, and know that this project will take up a lot of your time for 2 years. Like I said at the beginning, you really don't need A*'s unless you're looking to be very successful in academia (for whatever reason).

Grades are not representative of intelligence, skill, knowledge or future potential. You can memorise facts, write them in an exam and get an A, without being able to apply what you're learning in real life. Having said that, your grades will change how attractive you are to universities and employers, but apart from that, not much else.

Focus on skill development, too.
Because of the fact that A-Levels are not actually developing many practical skills for the future, I recommend you dedicate some of your time to developing skills outside of your A-Levels. If you're doing Computer Science, do programming in your own time if it interests you because it is a very useful skill in the field. If you're studying Philosophy or Psychology, read books about it that interest you and apply what you learn in your own life. Discuss concepts with friends and help people improve their own lives. If you're studying Sport, apply what you're learning by training for a competition in your favourite sport, instead of spending all of your time remembering what muscles are used when you practice it. Grades mean little on their own. If you spend all of your time practising flashcards, doing practice questions and past papers, you may get an excellent grade in your test, but when you come out school you won't have many skills and extracurricular activities that will distinguish you from all the other A-Level students applying for the same job/university. Also you'll probably come out of your exams frustrated and tired of the same stuff being stuffed down your throat for 2 years (like I did) and not want to engage in any kind of learning over the summer, which isn't good.

Conclusion.
So, if you watched those two videos, read through this post and thought about how your current revision tactics may be ineffective, you are well on your way to learning how to prepare for exams properly. I urge you to employ this strategy in your own revision, so that you can get the grades that you want to get. I wish that I learnt all this stuff at the start of Year 12, as it would've saved me all those countless hours of re-reading, compulsive note-taking and ineffective studying. A lot of these ideas may be far from what most people consider normal, but just because note-taking and re-reading is trendy, does not mean that it is effective. Everyone around you can be sitting there making their notes, while you make your flashcards and implement active recall to make your brain work hard to recall and output the information, rather than repeatedly inputting and hoping that it would stick. Very few people actually sit down and learn how to learn properly. Most people go with the flow and copy what others are doing - i.e. making huge piles of notes like it's an art class, compulsively re-reading the textbook or highlighting as if it means something.

To finish off I recommend you watch the video about the STIC method for revision to link some of these ideas together:

The 'STIC' Method: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k5A26Sc63F0&t=

Down below I linked some other stuff you may want to delve into to improve your study tactics. Thanks a lot for reading and good luck in your A-Levels!

Further reading/listening:
Amazing, this was much needed.
I appreciate you taking the time to write this for all the students who need help at this time.
Thank you.
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Samirawardhere
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This is amazing.
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