Philly Malicka – Oxford graduate and writer
Mastering the much-maligned art of revision is a little like getting to know the intimate and complex workings of your own brain. To revise well is to understand exactly how you absorb information and how you commit it to the dense and dusty confines of your memory, positioned somewhere in your hypothalamus.
If you’ve ever found yourself in that Kafkaesque position of trying to cram the different areas of the brain for an impending biology test, you’re halfway there.
The best study skills are not centered around scented gel pens, screaming parents or stupid mnemonics, it’s about locating where and how you store memories; about positioning the names of the seven life processes next to your sixth birthday party. You must try to bridge the gap between your short term (which can hold around six things for 30 seconds) to that ambrosial territory of long.
This is getting increasingly difficult in today’s world of multi-tabbed browsing, Wikipedia and phone reminders. In times of old it was not that unusual to recite a poem of Beowulf proportions, or even ancient texts such as the Qur’an, by heart. Despite many novel teaching methods, we are all examined against the traditional binaries: what you know and what you don’t.
Pathways between neurons are strengthened through repetition. It’s a little like building the bridge between your short and long term memories with iron enforcements instead of dental floss. Finding a way in which you can effectively repeat recently digested information is the greatest challenge to a successful revision strategy. Yet because this method cannot be, in itself, repetitive you must come up with a variety of means of repeating your material.
For some, simply reading and re-reading pages of study notes suffices as a central strategy; if you’re one of these lucky few then enlist highlighters and other such glorious stationary to ensure the most relevant facts emerge as you scan the page.
Others may prefer to recycle the information aurally; reading notes, then reciting aloud can be particularly effective, provided no one is around to jeer at your bizarre incantations. A scholarly friend once advised me to record your key facts on your phone, and listen to them on repeat. ‘That way you can revise while you’re cycling to the library, while you’re falling asleep, when you’re drying your hair…’ Audio-revision techniques can be very effective but only when used in moderation; who cares if you’re listening to Shakespeare quotes rather than Rihanna? Just ensure you take a break, and don’t overload your brain with too much information.
Once you’ve reinforced your important material, now’s the time for testing. This process can be self-administered, or via a friend or family member, at your behest. Self-modulation has to be an honest business; if you’re covering your page, only to peak at the answers two minutes later too regularly, then get back to the books. A small white board can be a great weapon here; it allows you to jot down remembered information quickly—you don’t even have to write full sentences. You can then rub out your diagrams and sentences and jot them down again—an enriching process for your straining synapses.
Enlisting a study-buddy is a smart way to revise. As a general rule, a good friend, rather than a family member, will be much more effective than asking your Mum to quiz you. Family relationships can be ‘testy’ at the best of times, and the chances are they’re desperate for you to perform well, which can often result in frustrated outbursts from either end. Much better, then, to find someone who’s going through the same pain to test you: a good friend who won’t distract, or proffer their own perfectly formed answer before you’ve even opened your mouth. If they know you well, they can help you to associate other, shared memories with the facts you’re trying to learn (I tend to find that the more comedic the trigger, the stronger the memory)
Don’t be alarmed at what you can’t remember. In Moonwalking with Einstein Joshua Foer, a humble and averagely forgetful journalist, teaches himself to become a finalist in the USA memory championships. ‘It is forgetting, not remembering, that is the essence of what makes us human. To make sense of the world, we must filter it.’ If you accidentally filter the wrong knowledge during your revision, don’t panic. Here’s where you must harness your psychological strength.
Scientists believe that anxiety occupies a large part of memory, so try to eradicate this emotion from your revision as much as possible. Planning your revision time, factoring in plenty of breaks, day dreams and unimportant errands you’ll suddenly feel are necessary, will help you to reduce the stress in your study. Be realistic with yourself and what you can achieve. Create lists, display them around the house and gleefully tick each completed task off with a smug smile. Reward yourself with treats (think box sets rather than brownies) and do not underestimate the transformative power of a night’s sleep. A solid eight hours not only provides a rational perspective on what can sometimes feel like your certain ruin, but it allows your long term memory to digest and decipher the reams of knowledge you last fed into it.
It’s very easy to fall into a routine during your revision, many students think that establishing this is the key to success. But this can be an almighty mistake, and Foer also reinforces this: ‘monotony collapses time; novelty unfolds it.’ Extend your long term memory while you study by introducing novel ways to revise. Recite Chaucer to the cows during your dog walk, create play-dough models of oxbow lakes, attach mathematical formulae to your mascaras…anything which breaks the monotony of your head in those books. Don’t fall into the well-worn trap of revising in a familiar den of despair, change library locations or try coffee shops. List historical battles on the lawn, gulping down your new knowledge with lots of fresh air.
‘You’re taking the exam, don’t let the exam take you’ are the wise words of … my mother. And this is crucial. When the whistle blows don’t scram for your pencil and scribble down your first thoughts, which may as well be your breakfast that morning. Instead, take a breath, in your own time turn over, open the floodgates and think.