"How should I revise?" - Part 1 (Planning revision)

Students very regularly ask me “how should I revise?”

This question is a smart one to ask this early in the year and it has different answers depending on what in particular you need help with. When students ask me this, really they are asking one of these more specific questions and likely need answers to all!…

revision stress.jpg
  • Planning revision - part 1

    • When should I start revising?

    • How do I plan?

    • How long do I revise for?

    • How should I balance my subjects?

  • The art of revision - part 2

    • What should I spend my time doing?

    • How do I pick what to learn and what to leave?

    • Do I need to revise differently for maths and science compared with humanities?

  • Evaluation - part 3

    • How do I find out what I still don’t know?

    • How do I know if my revision is working?

    • I’ve revised most things but still don’t score well in exams, what am I doing wrong?

Over a set of three blogs, I’m going to answer all these questions; use the answers as food for thought. Everyone is different and you might find some things resonate with you and others sound less appealing. This is just a little advice for anyone nervous about impending exams…

Planning revision

When should I start revising?

After you receive your mock results (whether December, January or February at your school) is the best time to start your proper summer revision.

Mocks are a great milestone as they give you a list of things you are shaky on and no doubt they will have instilled some fear about how tricky the summer could be without too much revision... By the end of mocks, your teachers will be in ‘extra helpful mode’ right through until the summer, all resources for your exam boards will be online ready and waiting for you and starting then gives you enough time to plan stress-free revision. (Yes I actually said stress-free! I’ll be showing you how to start enjoying it in the run up to the summer).

“I received my mock results a while ago and still haven’t started, will I be ok?” Yes, there is no better time to start than now. If you are already past the recommended start point or mock results, you may have to ramp up the suggested revision times later in this blog but where there is a will, there’s a way; any revision is better than none!

“What about finishing the syllabus first?” Don’t be the student who waits for teachers to finish the syllabus before revising! Each subject has a different timeline and students in other schools are going at different paces. Some teachers like to move more slowly through the content revising as they go, whereas others race through to secure a few months of revision afterwards. Don’t bank on there being enough time to refresh your mind after you’ve reached the end of your textbook as you’ll almost certainly run out! If you start early and end up with extra revision time, it’s a bonus.

Start slow, little and often and always prioritise practice over passive reading. Specifically what to do in revision time is coming up in the next blog so watch this space…!

How do I plan?

The fun but feared revision timetable…

There are many students who relish the day when they get to make their revision timetable - spending days making and months breaking all their best intentions. Timetables do help and they do work, but if you create one that is too rigid, you’ll only disappoint yourself, losing faith and motivation for no tangible reason whatsoever!

The best timetables I’ve seen, loosely divide the time between now and exams into half week sections for different subjects including one mandatory rest day per week. From January-February, just one hour a day is needed, from March-April, two hours per day is a good ballpark and April onwards, anything up to 4 hours a day (with a limit of 2 hours on any full school day). Here is a GCSE example…

Revision timetable example

Having the three consecutive days for each subject gives your brain time to really get into the swing of things without getting too bored. You can bunch revision and test days next to each other which, as you’ll see in the next blog, is vital for retention.

Very importantly, you must count any time spent revising as revision - sounds obvious right? But I’ve seen many students attend school revision classes then come home in a frenzy because they don’t have time to do their scheduled revision for the night. You should count any special revision classes at school, any time revising with a tutor, friends or other revision activities as part of your effort. Don’t worry if it’s been for a different subject to the one on your timetable for that week as it will even out across the next few months. Only use your timetable as a rough guide of what you haven’t spent much time on recently.

To make the point about all revision contributing, imagine you had a gym schedule and unexpectedly ended up playing five-a-side football one afternoon. You’d happily let yourself off the gym timetable for that day so you don’t get too tired; your brain is a muscle as well and needs just as much consideration!

How long do I revise for?

The time spent revising should ramp up as you get closer to exams but bear in mind there are three types of days between now and your exams:

  • School days;

  • Holiday days; and

  • Mandatory rest days.

On school days, you should never try and do more than 2 hours additional revision, and until March, only one additional hour per day is necessary.

On holiday days, you can stretch yourself a bit more but do save your energy and motivation for those longer stints in the Easter holidays. I suggest never doing more than 4 hours a day because in all honesty, you’ll wear yourself out! If you’re planning 4 hours of revision in a day, what works best is getting up early to do it before lunch, giving yourself the afternoon to relax and socialise. This stops you feeling like you’re missing out (FOMO is real!)

On mandatory rest days, (one day every week) the maximum number of hours revision you should do is zero. Obviously if you spend your time taking lots of unplanned rest days, reconsider (!), but if you’re consistently working hard, these days are just as important to let the information sink in and for recollection pathways to form.

What to do in these hours and how to split them up will all be explained in part 2 so hold your hats for now!

How do I balance my subjects?

As you can see from the example timetable, the best thing to do initially is to give each subject the same amount of time. This will lessen the chances that you underestimate any subjects you’ve been told are ‘easy’ or are ‘difficult to revise for’. I don’t mean that you can sit there doing less or nothing on days when you run out of things to do - being flexible is key to exam success. If you run out of ideas, change subject. If you hit a mental wall, have a break and change subject. If you’re too tired, fresh air and exercise is even better than a sleep, then change subject.

Plans are good guides but let your interest, motivation, knowledge and progress guide your plan.

In summary - be flexible, work little & often and have guilt-free rest.


Coming soon in part 2: The art of revision

  • What should I spend my time doing?

  • How do I pick what to learn and what to leave?

  • Do I need to revise differently for maths and science compared with humanities?