Revising for exams in clearly defined steps

My online presence began just a few months ago now, and has grown considerably. I had no idea I would able to help so many people with their revision and exam preparation. It all started with model solutions to a past examination. I wasn’t asked to do this by anyone, but just thought it would be useful. I hope it was and will continue to be so, but I am always asking those who follow, like and subscribe to me to tell me what they want.

You tell me what you want to revise from” I say.
Please tell us how to revise” I am often asked.

It is a question I have given much thought to. I think too many teachers assume their job finishes at the end of the scheme of the work. We teach you mathematics, rightly or wrongly some of us teach students how to pass an examination, but all too often we tell you to revise and simply assume you know how to revise. Would it be fair to assume that many of you who need to revise, would appreciate guidance on how to from the beginning?

There are two kinds of revision. The first is the continual cycle of revision throughout the learning process and believe me this is the most important. The second is the exam preparation…

So, without further ado, here are my four (or five) steps to revising for exams:

1) Know what you need to know

This may sound obvious, but before you start learning individual topics and techniques, be aware of the bigger picture. How many topics do you need to know? A good starting point for might be the syllabus, but these can often be confusing and lack clarity. The contents page of your textbook is probably a decent quick check list. If you can’t tick off each chapter or topic to say you understand it all, you aren’t ready for examination practice. So how do we tick these off…

2) Practice topics in isolation

There are two ways to do this. One of course is your textbook, either the individual exercises, or the review section at the back of chapters. I am not against this approach for thorough understanding, but for those of you cramming for an exam this may be flawed. Many textbooks do not match examination questions perfectly, so be wary of worrying about completing textbook questions unless you know they are tested similarly.

The second approach is to complete examination questions on one topic until you fully get it. Ideally your teacher may provide you with exam packs by topic, or at the very least a list of which questions from which exams relate to each topic. You may not need this, depending on the exam you may be able to easily recognise topics within exams, but I’d recommend pestering your teacher for exam packs, it really helps.

3) Complete past examinations

The first step in completing past examinations is to truly complete one. Sit down, work though a recent examination and complete it without your notes or textbook. Don’t worry if you make mistakes, but if you come to a question you really don’t know how to complete, then go back to step two. If you can complete your first couple of past examinations, it’s time to start preparing for proper, full, timed and graded examinations.

4) Sit timed and graded examinations

You now need a quiet place to work for the length of an examination. If you get extra time, allow yourself that time in practice examinations.

Shut the door.

Turn off the phone (I know you’ll all ignore this, but if you want an A please listen to me).

Set a timer for the length of the exam (and before you tell me you need your phone for this let me remind you about airplane mode on all phones).

Sit the examination properly. With the calculator you will use in exams. With the formula booklet. With the stationery you take into exams. Stay for the length of the exam (this takes discipline) and stop when the time is over.

Now mark it, with the mark scheme. Be harsh with yourself. Count your marks up, give yourself a percentage and give yourself a grade. Your grades here affect what happens next.

If there is one type of question you keep losing marks on, go back to step two.

If you are okay with all questions, but struggling to put together an examination, there is no secret speedy solution. A lot of hard work lies ahead. Timed, graded examinations. Over and over again. And again. Until you are nearing 100% you just need to keep working through every past paper you can get your hands on. It takes real discipline, but it will be beneficial to complete the same paper more than once if you’ve completed all the other papers you have.

In an ideal world, repeating steps 2 and 4, by the time of the examination you are nearing a grade you can be proud of attaining, whatever that grade may be.

Just one last step if you are nearing 100% long before the exam and want to know what to do next.

5) Challenge yourself beyond the examination

There are various ways to do this. Example examination series such as Solomon, Elmwood and ZigZag for mathematics are available if you ask your teacher. They are often different to the real examination boards, so I don’t recommend them to all students, but if you are already comfortable with the real past examinations, give them a go, but do it properly – time, mark and grade. Completing all the questions in a textbook may be another way to broaden your understanding, but avoid the warm up and scene setting style exercises. The last thing I would recommend if you take this step is to always go back and complete the last year or two’s actual examinations immediately before the examination to fully familiarise yourself with the style you will face in the exam hall.

Now before I go please remember, this list is not perfect for everyone. Depending on the time you have or do not have, you will need to spend more or less time on various stages. All I hope is that his gives you a vague idea of where to start, or where to go next. Please do get in touch if you need advice or help at any stage, and more than anything, good luck!

P.S. I would love you to get in touch with your own tips or advice. Leave a comment, or contact me via any of the websites on the my websites tab on this blog.


2 thoughts on “Revising for exams in clearly defined steps

  1. Pingback: The Day of the Examination « Math or Maths?

  2. Pingback: In the examination « Math or Maths?

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