How to revise effectively when you don't have much time

by Anita Naik

It will probably not shock any parent or teacher to know that many students cram for exams. In an ideal world, the revision would start early, but if you have left to the last minute, doing something now is better than doing nothing. So, here's how to revise effectively when you are short on time.

Learn to cram correctly

The problem with cramming is to do with long term retention and learning. When you try to literally cram information into your head, the info is stored in short-term memory only, which means you won't be able to recall any of it over a more extended period of time. Yet, cramming can help for upcoming exams, which is good news for the 45% of students who use this method.

Like everything knowing how to cram correctly is key to getting it to work. Firstly, know that cramming only works for the subjects where memorising things is key. For example, English Literature and History requires you to remember names, dates, places, characters etc. Or re-tell a story or event with context.

On the other hand, maths requires you to understand mathematical concepts to figure out the answer. If you don't know how to do things, then cramming isn't going to help. Maths requires practice, so revision means you have to work on problems over a long period so that the process is ingrained through practice.

Use past papers to steer you

Reviewing past papers, your homework, and past tests is the best way to do last minute revision. It's a great way to learn a lot quickly, but it will also enable you to understand how exam marks are awarded and how exam questions will be phrased. Knowing this is key to maximising your marks in exams and knowing where to place your revision focus.

While this method will not get you top marks, it will help you select which topics are worth prioritising. So start by looking over three to four years' past papers. Look for patterns within the papers and note which questions appear each year and what topics haven't come up for a while.

To give yourself the best chance of scoring the most marks, prioritise the recurring topics and then move on to the topics that don't tend to come up so often.

Break down your topics

Once you've identified the subjects you want to focus on, break them down by listing the essential elements of each of them (use the exam specification to help you). If you've left everything to the last minute, there won't be time to revise all the details, but you can get to grips with the fundamental ideas and facts for each topic, which will help you in your exams.

Next, scan through this material and highlight key areas that you feel you need to know. Once you think you have retained the information, jump into past papers and test your knowledge and your ability to answer questions. Repeat as much as you can.

Be realistic about your revision aims

Keep reminding yourself that you will never be able to go through all subject notes in a short period of time. However, you will be able to make use of summaries and bullet-pointed lists. Use subject revision guides to help you as these break down the key elements of subjects. Also, make use of study tubers on YouTube who offer up tips and revision hacks for specific subjects. Above all, work at learning the content repeatedly daily so that some information sinks in.

Focus on the things you can change

Last-minute revision is disheartening as seeing all the things you should know can create feelings of panic. However, there's no point in giving yourself a hard time about not revising; what matters is what you do now. So have a plan, stay organised, and whatever you do, don't stay up studying all night. You want your reasoning skills and short-term memory to work so that you can answer effectively. If you are tired, this won't happen.

Quiz yourself and others

Nothing will help you learn faster than explaining your answers to others and using quizzing apps like Quizlet. Studies show students who spend time teaching what they have learned to others go on to deliver better understanding and knowledge retention.

This is because explaining things to others compels you to retrieve what you have studied and relate that information in an understandable way to you and your audience.

For more on revision see our posts on Revision Fatigue, How to create a revision timetable and How to cope with exam stress.