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Preparing for exams

Expert guidance from Study Advice at the University of Reading

The best approach to revision is to prepare for it throughout the year by spending a short amount of time each week thinking about what you have learnt in each of your modules, and writing a page of notes including your own understanding and any questions you may have. Then you can treat these notes as the basis for more detailed revision later in the year.

However, most students don't start revising until after taught classes have finished. With much to cover in a short time, it's essential to think carefully about how, when and what to revise. Try not to leave starting too late, or you may find it difficult to get access to resources and advice from your tutors. Do attend any revision classes that are offered by your department.

One thing that's never a good idea is cramming at the last minute! It may have got you through A-levels but will not work so well at university level where you need to have processed your learning so that you can communicate an understanding of your subject rather than just memorising information.

Getting organised

Start to organise your revision by selecting the topics you're going to revise for each exam paper. Choose topics that are basic to the understanding of the subject. It's also a good idea to choose topics that you enjoy or already understand well. Have a look at some past papers first if possible to see how many questions you will have to answer and make sure that the number of topics you've chosen allows enough choice of questions.

Plan your time – be realistic and don't make a schedule that's too inflexible or onerous as you're less likely to stick to it. Some people work better under pressure, but don't leave it all till the last minute. You'll probably need to allocate more time to topics you are less confident in, however tempting it is to just work on the ones you like.

Download past exam papers – these give you experience of the kind of question that might be asked, and get you used to what the paper looks like before you enter the exam room. Use them to practise reading and understanding the question; identifying topics; planning answers; and writing timed answers. If there aren't any past papers available, ask your tutor if practice questions will be available; or use any questions you may have from past assignments.

Find out what the examiner wants – examiners are looking for an understanding of the topic, not just a good memory. They want you to show that you can apply your knowledge to answer the question. So some of the questions you get may look as if they are not something you've been taught - but a bit of thinking will show you how you can apply the things you have been taught. Practise this skill before the exam by setting your revision in context – how does this topic link to others? What are the major debates and issues? Think critically: do you agree or disagree with what has been said? Can you explain why? Is there evidence for or against your view? And keep asking yourself, how would I use this information to answer a question?

Tip...

If you are entitled to any special arrangements for exams (for instance, if you have extra time or are allowed to use a computer, or have a scribe), now's a good time to make sure that these are in place. When you get your exam timetable, check the rooms - they should be different to your classmates. If you are at all unsure, contact the Exams Office in the Carrington Building as soon as possible.

Filling in gaps in knowledge

Revision is about reminding yourself of what you've already learnt, and identifying the gaps you need to fill once you have an overview.

Practise active reading – write down what you know about a topic already, then make a list of what you need to know more about (methods, theories, issues, order of events etc).Look for these in your reading. If you are unsure about a topic, start small with a paragraph (e.g. in a subject dictionary) that gives a general overview. Read with exam questions in mind. How does this reading help you answer these questions? Is it evidence for a particular argument? For more on this, see our guide on Reading and notemaking.

Do more thinking, less note-taking – read without a pen in your hand, or you'll be tempted to write down everything. Read a page or section, then stop and think about what you've just read. Write brief notes and read them through. Thinking and reflecting makes understanding, and can be done any time or place, - on the bus, in the gym, walking to uni.

Make your notes memorable. Use subheadings, bullet points, and colours. Spidergrams are useful for showing whole topics with main points and supporting evidence all on one page. In the exam you will not have time to write in details of studies, so just note down main points. For more on this, see our guide on Reading and notemaking.

Having a revision routine

Set times, targets and rewards – It's a good idea to decide on your most alert times of day (morning, afternoon or evening) and commit to fixed revision sessions so you don't waste time. Have a list of achievable targets for each session and tick them off to motivate yourself. Set up short-term rewards (coffee break, chat with friend, gym session, videogame, cake) and keep your long-term reward in mind – to do as well as you deserve in the exam by being properly prepared.

Work out a revision timetable if you have a whole week (or several weeks) in which to revise. Keep at least one day free for relaxation and make sure you cover each of your exam papers. Don't make it too inflexible - build in some wiggle time so that when the unexpected happens (good or bad!), you can reorganise your time around it. It's not a good idea to revise one whole paper before going on to the next - if you swap subjects regularly you'll make connections which will help the material to become embedded in your memory.

Work in blocks of two to three hours with minibreaks. Try not to spend a whole day focusing on the same module - if you change to a new one after a 2 - 3 hour block, you'll feel refreshed and get more done. Over your week try to do at least one study block for each paper requiring revision. It will avoid the "I've run out of time and haven't looked at anything on paper X!" crisis.

Test yourself – after you have revised a topic, test yourself. Then test your self again the next day! Write a sheet of notes without checking what you've already written – you might include main issues and debates, major theories, formulae, connections to other topics, ideas you may have had while reading.

Write timed answers – when you get closer to exam time, it's really important to practise writing some timed answers by hand. Work out how much time you'll have in the exam for each answer. Aim to spend a little more time at first – then speed up with each answer you write. Don't refer to notes. This is a great way to get used to writing by hand, get a clear idea of how much you can write in the time, and find out what gaps you have that might need to be filled with more targeted revision.

Revise with friends? Some people find it helpful to learn by discussing questions or topics with friends. If this is you, set up a study group - perhaps book a classroom or study pod to meet in. Two things you shouldn't do though: don't compare the amount of time you're spending to others, as everyone works differently; don't try to learn shared practice answers, as you could find yourself being accused of a form of plagiarism called collusion.

Be nice to yourself! Work effectively not virtuously - if you plan and focus your revision you shouldn't have to work 24/7. Studying is a mentally tiring occupation which can't be maintained at a high level for long periods of time. Your brain needs downtime to process the information it's been given, so take regular breaks, make time for exercise and socialising, eat healthily and get enough sleep.

If you're feeling anxious...

Some students get extremely anxious whilst doing exams. It will help to feel prepared – the strategies in this series of guides aim to help you to do that. If you are still anxious, and are worried that this will affect your performance, do come and discuss this with a Study Adviser or someone from Student Wellbeing. The Chaplaincy also offer regular sessions open to all students to teach relaxation techniques.