Active revision techniques

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.

Kinesthetic learning

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

Flash cards

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.

Collective revision

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.

Visual notes

Our Study Skills Guide on Note-making  highlights alternative approaches to taking notes, mainly when reading.

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.

Auditory approaches

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.


Good luck with the exam season! If you have any questions about skills for revising, get in touch with Meg or Laura to arrange a one-to-one session.


Image credit: Photo by Ahmad Dirini on Unsplash


Lent term – Week 8: Revision tips

As it is the last week of term, many taught students will be thinking about how to spend the Easter vacation. For those with forthcoming exams, no doubt some of this will be dedicated to revision.

This post is therefore dedicated to highlighting a few ways to make this as productive as possible. Revision tips are a combination of time management , critical reading and note taking, with a few extras thrown in. We’ve already posted on these and will only repeat the most essential points.


The best way to reduce anxiety is to plan ahead. That means starting as early as is feasible. You may have other work to finish, be undertaking paid or voluntary employment, or even going on holiday – all of which will limit your time. However, if you can spare a little of what you do have to make a plan so that you know what the next few weeks will hold, you will feel in a much better position than facing the next term unprepared.

Decide what you will revise. Think about what you understood best and have done the most work on. In most disciplines you won’t be expected or able to revise everything you have learned this year.

Of the subjects you have chosen, decide what you need to commit extra work to, whether it is something you studied a while ago or didn’t quite grasp at the time. Recent work will be fresher and probably won’t need as much time spending on it. Mix up revision topics during a morning or afternoon session, so that you’re not spending too long on any one subject.

Identify if there are any areas you need more information on and how you are going to get this. Do you need to read more (and can you get the books before you leave or from a local library), speak to a friend if you missed something, find notes or slides on Moodle or a departmental page? Acquire it in plenty of time so it is in place when you need it.

Build in time to test yourself with practice papers, writing essay plans, recalling facts and figures. Imitate exam scenarios by giving yourself the same amount of time as you would have in exams, whether for short answers or long essays.

Define your revision space and remove distractions. If you decide to work in your room, you may need to take extra steps to stop you spending time on your phone or computer for non-revision purposes. If you want to work in the library and find it full up, remember that you can work in any faculty or departmental library. Use Spacefinder to track down a suitable spot.


It might be a good idea to start with something you feel confident about to reduce anxiety levels. Then progress onto those areas that you feel need more attention.

Active revision techniques such as talking aloud and making notes are generally better than passive techniques such as reading. Put up post-it notes in multiple locations, make cards to look at or record your notes onto your phone to listen to outside your revision space.

Writing essays during term and in an exam require very different skills. If you have been used to working on a computer, make sure you get used to writing with a pen for several hours at time. Repeatedly copying out notes isn’t just to build up stamina in your hand; it can really help embed them in your memory. You’ll also be expected to work in a linear fashion; again something that is very different to editing a piece of writing over several days. It’s quite a change of mindset, so ensure that emulating this forms a regular and core part of your revision.

Look after yourself

Time management is as much about not working as working. Make sure that you take regular, short breaks at least every hour.

Schedule longer breaks that involve getting outside for at least a walk, but more physical exercise, if you can manage it. Make sure you are still doing some of the things you enjoy and find time to socialise. If you have timetabled these in then you don’t need to feel guilty when taking a break. Instead, look forward to them and hopefully you’ll be more productive knowing that you have to finish at a certain time.

Eat and sleep well and try to have a cut off time for bed. You’ll perform better after a good rest.

The University’s Counselling Service provides some useful self-help information for dealing with academic issues and low self-esteem or contact them if you would like to talk to someone or contact the college nurse, Sally Maccallum.

And most of all good luck over the next few weeks!


Photo credit: 

Lent term – week 7: promoting your research with video

So far on this blog, we have suggested using various different social media tools to promote your research. However, the amount of information on these channels can be overwhelming. So to help you stand out in this crowded arena, why not try expressing your self through video, rather than just text?


A short video is easy to make and edit, and can make a huge impact. First you’ll need to think about what you want to communicate, to whom. You might want to create a vlog to record your thoughts about the research process on a regular basis.  Alternatively, it could be a summary of your time spent on field work. A film could promote your research at a conference or you may find that your faculty or department are keen to use it to showcase research on their website.


Second, you need to consider the equipment you’ll need. A phone can suffice or you may have access to an SLR or dedicated video recorder. Alternatively, you might be able to borrow equipment from your department.

It can take some practise to make a good film. The University Information Service run a training course which will give you insights into how to plan, shoot and edit video. However, it depends on what you want to use the film for and it may be that a simple, authentic look is what you are after.


Do remember to get permission from anyone who is recognisable in your film.  The University provides a template form so that you can get this in writing. This will be important if you want to have it uploaded onto your department/faculty site. You cannot use this form if the recording isn’t on behalf of the University, but it will give you an idea of the things you need to take into consideration when seeking permission.

If you intend to film on location, you may also need permission. Some places may charge you to film on their premises.


There is lots of editing software available to you. Your PC may come with a package. Some packages are expensive and flexible. Others such as Adobe Spark Video are free and straightforward to use and that’s what we’re going to focus on here. We used this to create the video for new library users, embedded on the Library homepage. Adobe Spark also has packages for creating webpages (good for making a research journal) and marketing materials.

It is a very simple editing package for beginners that allows you to combine video, slideshows and images to tell a professional, visual story. You can add a voiceover and/or music separately, which mean you don’t need to worry about the quality of the microphone on your camera, especially important if you are recording outside where the wind can really interfere with sound quality. Instead, use a headset with a microphone to record your key messages. You can add text over the image to emphasise key points or if you are using this in a presentation and want to do the talking live.

Once you’re registered you start with a template or from scratch. Add video, photo, text or an icon to begin your project, editing your video length and cropping out unwanted sections. Use the + sign on the toolbar to add more sections and reorder by dragging and dropping the sections of film or images. You’ll choose a theme to determine colours and a font; there aren’t endless options when it comes to the look of your film, but that makes it quick and simple to use. You record your narration straight into the programme and can add music from a long list of options or upload your own.


When you are happy with it, share the film via social media or upload to YouTube. The free version of Adobe Spark does mean that your video is branded with a logo, but we think that the ease of use outweighs this inconvenience.

Remember the whole point of creating a film is to make an impact so share it as widely as you can. Tweet about it, blog about it and include a link on your email signature.

Have a go and see what you can create!

Image credit:

Lent term – week 6: Managing your online footprint

When you post information online you are leaving clues about yourself. These clues will allow others to form an opinion of you, in some cases for years to come.

Review what is out there

Make a list of all the places that you interact online. Don’t forget about older accounts which you may have used in the past in addition to current ones, even if you haven’t touched them for years.  As a student/researcher you are also a potential employee. You need to ensure that the material online is current and reflects your current interests and skills.

Developing a presence

Consider what sort of information are you trying to communicate and to whom. Do you want to highlight your work and study in isolation or are you looking to emphasise a broader portfolio of skills, such as volunteering? Who do you want to look at your profile? Make sure that review security settings for any profile and consider your audience when posting content online.

Aim for consistency with your public profiles. Choose the same name and make sure that the basic details are repeated.  Use the same photograph so that people quickly know that they are reading about the same person. Why not situate the photograph to demonstrate your skills in delivering a talk or whilst on field work?

What to include

First check your settings to make sure that you are findable. Ensure that viewers can see information about your education, past experience, awards and publications (if you have them). The structure of a LinkedIn profile can be applied to any online presence:

Include a catchy one-line overview: the headline. This should be clear and concise. See how others describe themselves and think about what works well. Do you instantly know what they are an expert in, passionate about, where they are heading? For example: “Computer scientist with a passion for undergraduate education and experience in conceptual modelling and research management.”

Go into a little more detail with a summary. Be specific about your achievements, detail your strengths and explain what you aspire to be doing in the near future. Prove your value by explaining why what you have done matters.

You don’t need to include everything in a profile. It isn’t your CV. Only include the best bits and let anyone who is interested dig deeper to find out more.  Select what is relevant to where you want to you go academically and in terms of employment.

Provide evidence for your claims by linking to online content. Upload slides and posters, talks and links to paper abstracts (or Open Access material if it is in a repository such as the University’s Apollo). These will add interest and engage the reader.


Remember that anything you post online can be forwarded to others within seconds. Check your security settings for any profile to make sure that only your intended audience see it. However, sometimes, even posting a known group of followers can have disastrous consequences. For an extreme example of how one tweet negatively impacted on someone’s life see:

Leeds University suggests creating an online code of conduct for all online interactions:

“I will:

  • re-read everything before I post it, to check that the language and tone I’ve used is appropriate for the audience that might read it
  • check my privacy settings for each of my accounts, so that I know who can see what I post on different sites
  • let my friends know privately if they’ve posted something that could be misinterpreted as offensive or inappropriate.

I won’t:

  • post anything libellous, obscene or discriminatory
  • take part in any type of personal abuse or use aggressive language against another user, even if they post something that I find offensive
  • post anything that can be viewed openly without thinking about how it might be misinterpreted if taken out of context.”


Once you have a plan about what you are doing and why, think about where to position yourself. Speak to peers and seniors about what they do. As I mentioned in an earlier post, you do not want to overwhelm yourself with places to keep up-to-date and it may be better to choose one place to focus your attention, rather than spreading yourself too thinly.

University profile – as a postgraduate or researcher you may have access to a profile page on your department or faculty website. It is professional and a link to this will add greater legitimacy to any emails you send, rather than one from social media.

LinkedIn – Probably the most well-known employment-oriented site, great for networking and promotion. Not designed for academic jobs but easy to customise.  – You can use this for a single online profile, which links interested parties to all your other other social media channels. – Designed to share your research articles. You must however, be very careful that the publisher permits you to upload content. Most likely you’ll need to make it a pre-print (before the article has been copy-edited and type-set by the journal). Check on SHERPA RoMEO to find out your publisher’s policy.

ResearchGate – this is another resource for sharing outputs and connecting with  researchers. As before, pay attention to publisher guidelines on what you can and can’t make available online.


Communicate your profile by online networking, following others in your field, and including a link on your email signature. Get as much coverage as possible so that your well-honed profile gets maximum visibility.

Image credit: Photo by Tyler Nix on Unsplash 

Lent term- week 5: Data management: it’s for everyone!

Last week was international Love Data Week so I thought it would be helpful to clarify what data is and how you can treat it well to ensure you get the most from it during your studies and research.

Most of the following is relevant to undergraduates and graduates, but the latter stages may be of more interest to the researchers. The following information is based on advice from Cambridge’s Research and Data Management Team. Explore the resources on their site or attend one of their courses to ensure you are creating, storing and (re)using data effectively and efficiently: Alternatively, contact us to discuss your data needs.

What do we mean by data?

Cambridge uses a broad definition of the term which includes images, video, transcripts, and historical documents as well survey responses, lab books, field notes,  physical samples, measurements and statistics. You should consider data to be everything used and produced as part of your studies and research; even your bibliography.

Why should you manage your data?

First and foremost it is good  practice; it increases your efficiency meaning you can find what you need more easily and preserve it so that it is available in years to come. However, it is also increasingly a requirement of funding bodies that research data is made freely available so that others can reuse it to replicate research findings or build upon it.

Data back up and file sharing

As an individual it is very easy to lose data. Whether it is deleting something by mistake or breaking your laptop. It happens to companies and organisations too. In 2017, the Cancer Research UK Manchester Institute at the Christie cancer hospital, a went up in flames leading to the loss of equipment, data and samples.

Back up is essential. Use departmental drives, external drives, cloud/online storage and automate saving where possible. You should always keep backups in at least two locations. Don’t, for example save it to a USB drive and keep it in your bag with your laptop! If you are using cloud storage, you may need to consider data sensitivity issues. Think about where the data is stored and which laws govern that data? You get 1TB free with a university OneDrive account, which is stored in the EU. Have a look at the UIS webpages on data storage for information.

Your strategy should be guided by considering: what you are willing to lose? what is crucial to your research? and how often does it change? The more it changes, the often you need to back it up.

Organisation strategies

I have seen lots of computer desktops covered in a myriad of files. You need to organise your data into a consistent and meaningful system if you are to have any hope of finding something again and if you want others to look at it too.

For physical samples, you could create maps of your storage sytem, reference samples in notebooks, and add notes to the samples themselves.

With digital files, think about using the following:

prefix (for document type e.g. report, notes, essay)_document title_version_dateyyyymmdd

Keep folders structured similarly, using dates where practicable to divide up work. Nest folders to keep each level to of storage to a minimum. Having 50 folders on your desktop is just as confusing as having 50 documents.

Managing sensitive data

Personal data is defined by the 1998 Data Protection Act as anything which can ‘reveal the identity of an actual living person’.

You therefore need to consider whether the data you collect falls into this category and how you will deal with it. The easiest thing is, of course, not to collect it in the first place. But if you do ensure you get consent, try and anonymise it and have a plan of action for how it will be managed in the future. Do seek advice if you think you will be working with sensitive data. A 30 minute online course is available to support you too.

Sharing Data

Why should you share your data? You will potentially benefit from increased citations while helping move knowledge forward. In addition, it will ensure the integrity of your findings and, as with open access publications, many funders now mandate that your data should be publicly available.

You should aim to store it for at least ten years in a suitable repository and link to your publication(s). Data can be uploaded directly through Sympletic.

Data Management Plans (DMP)

Many funders now demand a DMP to demonstrate that you are aware of best practice and the expectations of sharing. It should cover:

  • type of data
  • storage
  • backup
  • metadata
  • how sensitive data will be dealt with
  • sharing

There is a whole section of the Data Management site dedicated to helping you write your DMP  and DMP Online will take your through the process step by step.

Top tips

  • Find a system of organising your data and stick to it
  • Always back up in at least two loactions
  • Be cautious of cloud storage, especially for sensitive data
  • Start planning early in the research cycle

* Image credit: Photo by Samuel Zeller on Unsplash

Lent term – week 3: Critical reading

Does that mean I have to be negative about everything I read?

Critical can mean a number of things. In this case it is not about finding fault with what you are reading. Instead it is weighing up the evidence and the argument presented and making a judgement on it. It is about asking questions of a text and keeping an open mind.

Critical thinking, reading, note making and writing are all connected. You need to take a critical approach to your studies. Before you read or listen to anything you need to do some planning. Think about why are you reading it? What questions do you want it to answer?


You need to develop a checklist to evaluate what you read to help structure your ideas for writing. When reading critically you need to evaluate:

  • Currency
    • When was the information published or posted?
    • Does the time period that the information was published matter in relation to your topic?
    • When was the information last revised? ( often found in the footer for online resources)
    • If reviewing a web source, are the links current or are they broken?
  • Relevance
    • What is the depth of coverage? Is the information provided central to your topic or does the source just touch on your topic?
    • Is the information unique?
    • Who is the intended audience?
    • Is better information available in another source?
  • Authority
    • Can you tell who wrote it? If the author is not identified who is the sponsor, publisher, or organisation behind the information?
    • Are the author’s credentials or organisational affiliations listed? Is contact information available?
    • Is the source reputable?
  • Accuracy
    • Where does the information presented come from? Are the sources listed?
    • Can you verify the information in other sources or from your own knowledge?
    • Does the language or tone seem free of bias or ideologically based arguments?
  • Purpose
    • What is the purpose of the information? To inform, sell or entertain?
    • Can you determine possible bias? If you can, are they clearly stated or do they become apparent through a close reading?
    • Does the point of view appear objective?
    • Does the site provide information or is it a critical evaluation of other information?


You don’t have time to read everything, so take a structured approach to each text:


  • If it is a book look at the contents page and index. If the information you are looking for isn’t mentioned here, you probably don’t need to use this text.
  • If it is a chapter or journal article, use the structure to give you an idea about the content. Are there headings & subheadings?
  • In both cases, do you recognise anything in the reference list? Is it linked to material you have been reading?
  • Quickly look at the text to identify key words or phrases.
  • Look for figures, data, images. These are much easier to digest at speed than words.
  • Evaluate the relevance and usefulness and decide if you should read more.


  • Scanning the text helps you decide what to read in depth.
  • Note key points in summaries / abstract.
  • Read the first and last paragraph or section to get the main points. If they are a good writer they should tell you what they are going to say in the first paragraph and then summarise what they have said in the conclusion. You can then decide if you need more specific information from the body of the chapter or section.
  • This is the case for paragraphs too.  A good writer should introduce an argument in the first sentence and then summarise it in the last.

In-depth reading

  • What is the author’s purpose?
  • Identify core arguments.
  • Look for repetitions of argument, phrases or words to give clues to author’s intentions.
  • What do they consider crucial? Does this match what you think is crucial?


You need to interpret what you read, meaning that your notes and final writing should not just restate or describe what it in a text. You need to think about the wider meaning of it in the context of everything else that you have read.


To help you structure your writing in a critical fashion it is helpful if your notes don’t just describe what you are reading or copy it verbatim. There are several different approaches to help you:


This is popular but generally more passive, so to make your notes as effective as possible:

  • Use headings, underlining and capitals to organise notes on the page
  • Use symbols or abbreviations to keep it brief
  • Use bullet points or numbering
  • Leave good margins so you can add additional notes later
  • Identify direct quotes
  • Identify your own ideas using square brackets or a different colour.


This is a visual approach

  • Organise the key words and concepts like a mind-map, with colours or images to help you understand ideas and make connections
  • You still need to clearly record sources and direct quotes


The three column format organises your page into three areas:

  • key information
  • your own notes (taken any way you like)
  • a summary

Find out more


There are lots of aids available on the web such as those from Washington State University , Leeds University  , Learn Higher  , and Safari from the Open University.

If you want to hear more and have a go at some of the above techniques, book a place on the Academic Skills for Success workshop on Thursday 8th February 6-7.


Image credit: Aaron Burden at Unspalsh

Lent term – week 2: Stay alert and keep up to date

Conducting a thorough literature search can be very satisfying. Unfortunately it can go out of date almost as soon as it is complete. During the course of your research you’ll need to monitor new publications in your field to ensue that your thesis cites current debates and reflects on the latest research.

Social media is good for spotting new research, but if you want to be systematic it is best to set up alerts which will be tailored to your specific search terms. There are two main ways to do this:


Rather than having to check catalogues and databases on a regular basis, you can have emails sent to you whenever a new book is added to a library or an article is published in a journal. They take seconds to set up and will save you hours of searching to see if anything new needs to be added to your literature review.

The Wolfson College LibGuide gives instructions along with videos to help you  set up alerts for new books, journal table of contents (great for keeping abreast of new articles in your field, which may not be directly relevant to your research), articles, changes to web pages and even funding opportunities. Use the menu on the right hand side of that page to select alerts by resource type.

RSS (Really Simple Syndication) 

Similar to email alerts, you can find out about new publications via RSS. You can just view these in your browser as plain text. However, they are most useful when subscribed to. You’ll need to set up a feed reader to view updated feeds and get alerts about new content. ​This can be helpful, keeping them separate from a full email inbox! Alternatively you could embed them if you keep a blog or webpage about your research. To set up a reader have a look at the following:

  • Feedly –  makes feeds look good and includes images. You can keep up with YouTube subscriptions, receive keyword alerts directly from Google and create collections to make lengthy information easier to get through.
  • Digg Reader – is  a simple RSS reader. Create folders to keep all your subscriptions organised and add the Chrome extension (if you use Chrome as your web browser) to easily subscribe to feeds with a click of a button.
  • Feeder –  has a Google Chrome and a Safari extension so you can subscribe and access feeds directly while you’re browsing. It is also configured for mobile with an iOS app and a responsive web version for Android or Windows Phone users.

You might find that, as with Social Media, you spend most of your time deleting irrelevant posts. Luckily there are lots of filters out there which means you can limit the amount of data you receive and therefore need to read.

  • FeedRinse is one such service. You limit what you see or block keywords, authors or tags. Upload your feeds, edit them and then return them to your reader.

Please note that you will need to sign up to these services. We recommend that if you use your Cambridge email address, you do not use your Raven password but choose another one instead.

Image credit: Photo by Boris Smokrovic on Unsplash available at