In the run up to exam season, you may have identified which learning style works well for you. However, if you have always stuck to the same approach, it is important to try different methods which may invigorate your revision simply by ringing the changes.
The revision and exam period also coincides with Ramadan this year. For fasting students, it can be difficult to concentrate. Passive techniques, such as reading for long periods, may prove challenging.
This style of learning means engaging with touch, imitation and practice. Also known as active learning, it is an attractive approach for those that learn more effectively by carrying out physical activities, rather than listening to a lecture or watching demonstrations. Copying vast amounts of material and condensing it should be a physical process but can, quite easily, become passive. It is easy to think that you know the information you are copying out when you see it, but can you recall it when you cover it up?
In the last post of the Lent term, I suggested trying a more active approach to revision for all students. Here are some more detailed suggestions for how to enact that.
Types of activity
Write out a question or topic on one side of an A5 card and list the key points that you need to recall on the other. Test yourself on remembering what you have written, then check your answers. The act of writing will help with retention (as opposed to just reading) plus the physical act of turning them over to compare your answers, engages different parts of the brain. It is a bounded and measurable game, rather than trying to digest unending notes. Use them alone or ask others to use them with you, see below.
Meeting up with friends to talk about revision topics is a great way to test what you know, find out about other ideas and divide up the work load. If you know that you are revising the same topic, why not each read up on a different article, topic, author or theory. Then exchange notes verbally, which tests what you have learned, helps you structure your thoughts and communicate them – key skills in the exam. Then learn from your friend as they feed back to you. Ask them questions if you (or they) don’t understand something. If you don’t feel comfortable leaving it up to someone else to share their notes, consolidate your learning by sharing what you both have learned.
The most active and visual of these is the Pattern Approach, which organises keywords and concepts around a main theme in the centre of the page; what is commonly known as mind mapping. It is easy to make links to new and existing knowledge and add extra thoughts later on. This keeps the document live and active. When making linear notes it is very difficult to add to and adapt these without starting over again. With a pattern approach, if you get tired or distracted, you can stop at any point and work on a new area that interests you.
Pattern note-making is interesting to look at and with the use of colours or images it can help you remember points. Try not to fill up the page, but leave space for questions that arise.
Use this approach to test yourself too: can you replicate the map on a blank piece of paper? If there is something you keep forgetting, try and make it more eye-catching.
There is no hierarchy to these notes, so as you get closer to the exam, think about adding numbers to help prioritise more important themes and topics and consider how you would introduce them in an essay.
Post-its, timelines and visual aids on your walls
A pile of paper on your desk or lots of computer files can be easy to ignore. Active learning is about engaging with the material in lots of different ways, so put up key ideas on your walls/doors/mirrors. Use them like flash cards, prompting you to remember key quotations or facts. (Re)Structure them to create flow diagrams; the active process will help you remember information and make links.
If it won’t fit on a post-it, make thematic posters or timelines to help you retain key information. The act of planning and creating is great way of bringing a subject to life, which it can be tough to do with reading. Don’t spend a huge amount of time making them look beautiful, but consider adding colour, lists, numbers and shapes to make them distinctive in your mind.
Making up rhymes, mnemonics and even songs can also help with retention. Again, the act of composing them and then the ease with which you can practise them is great for active learning. Combining an activity with listening can help too. Record your notes on your phone and then play them back to yourself when you are too tired to look at them, if you are out and about for a walk or at the gym.
You could even make up an interpretive dance to communicate what you know. If you think I’m joking, why not watch the winners of this year’s Dance Your PhD!
Take a break
Just because revision is more active, doesn’t mean you need to skip breaks. You need to take short and frequent rests with this approach and change your activities frequently. Timetable breaks so that they feel part of your revision structure. For longer breaks, get some fresh air or take a nap. Sleeping will help with information retention and you will wake feeling fresher and ready to take on the next challenge.
But what about exam practice?
It is still very important to make sure that you get used to writing for defined periods of time, without access to your notes. Practising sample exams and past papers is essential. However, structure your revision time so that you can do this sort of concentrated activity when you feel rested. Trying to complete lots of questions in quick succession isn’t necessarily the most productive way to spend you time.
Generating skeleton essays or essay plans can be a good compromise to help you organise your thoughts, even if you haven’t got the time or energy to write a whole, hour-long response.