A month to go to the exams: nine revision tips you need to succeed
Three experts share their insights on how to make the best use of your remaining study time
Shakespeare ponders the question before answering. Photograph: Stock Montage/Getty Images
By trying to cram facts off by heart, students fail to gain a true understanding. Photograph: Deborah Faulkner via Getty Images
In just over a month, the Junior and Leaving Cert exams begin. This is a stressful time for students and many will feel overwhelmed. But try not to panic. Here are some top tips from three experts – a high-achieving former pupil, an education expert and a teacher – about how to make the best use of your time.
Katie Crowley is a past pupil of Christ King Secondary School in Cork. She got six A1s in her Leaving Cert and was awarded a scholarship to UCC, where she is studying accounting.
Murray Morrison is a tutor in the UK. He founded Tassomai, an online game that helps GCSE students on potential exam questions and will be rolled out to other programmes.
"I lived by my study plan," says Crowley. "I made a list of every subject of what i would want to have revised if I was to sit the Leaving Cert the next day. I got an A3 piece of paper, divided it into the remaining weeks across the top and with my seven subjects down the side, and filled in what I needed to revise."
“Planning is essential,” says O’Mahony. “If you have an idea of where you are and what you have left to cover, everything becomes more manageable.”
Don’t cram, says Morrison. “Spread your revision over a long period instead of a single intense burst. Studying over a long time allows the information to properly sink in and improves understanding.”
Effective revision should be about relearning, not remembering, says Morrison. By trying to memorise facts off by heart in intensive cramming sessions, students fail to gain a true understanding of the subject.
“Old-fashioned techniques like ‘copy, cover, repeat’, or sitting numerous practice papers are not nearly as effective as people think,” he says.
He advises students not to simply practice past papers, but to pick one question at a time. “Look at the mark scheme and then do the question. Don’t use a highlighter to mark the things you don’t know; use a pencil to cross out the things you do know. This builds positive feedback and a sense of achievement as you cross things off, rather than highlighting your gaps.”
Don’t just sit looking at your textbook. “Read it aloud to yourself, or your cat, or your parents. Read it or sing it or perform it: make it memorable. The more processes – movement, hearing, speaking – you use when learning, the better.”
VARY YOUR ROUTINE
“I would revise a poet and then do an accounting question, followed by a French comprehension,” Crowley says.
“This way I was never stuck in a particular subject. Once I got through a particularly difficult chapter, I would change to something easier.”
USE FLASH CARDS
Long, detailed notes taken from a textbook are a waste of time. Crowley found flash cards useful, especially for subjects where there are a lot of definitions, such as biology and economics. “I would write the word on one side and the definition on the back. While making them, it helped me learn. They were ideal the night before the exam to quickly test myself.”
BE THE TEACHER
Morrison has a particularly interesting idea: “Don’t revise for your exam; instead, teach that material to somebody else, such as a brother or sister, a parent, grandparent, school friend or anyone. If you can explain it to someone, if you can tell the story, you can explain it to an examiner.”
AVOID BAD HABITS
Some bad habits are hard to break. But you need to do so if you are to avoid wasting hours of valuable study time to Snapchat or WhatsApp. “For me, I could not study with my phone on my desk,” says Crowley. “I know it is hard, but you have to have it outside the room you’re studying in.”
But don’t avoid all technology. “There are a host of online learning platforms that are easy to use and track your progress.
“Examinations.ieis your best friend, particularly for theory subjects,” says Crowley. “Once I had revised a chapter I would take out my exam papers and read through all the past questions that had come up on that topic. Then I asked myself if could answer them and look up the solutions. And I’d advise using the past comprehensions and listening tests for language subjects.”
Breaks are essential, says Crowley. “Nobody can study 24-7. I have never in my entire life studied on a Friday night. When you have days off to study, or at the weekend, I would advise getting up early and treating the day like a working day, 9am to 6pm. Take a small break in the morning, an hour for lunch and a small break in the afternoon. Then you have all your study done and the evening is yours.”
O’Mahony agrees: “It’s important to have something to take your mind off what’s ahead: watch some telly, play a match or go for a walk.”
Studies have shown that giving up exercise or sport because you are too busy studying is a terrible idea: exercise has a hugely beneficial effect on the brain, increasing the connections between different parts of the brain and increasing information processing, storage and retrieval. Consider exercise an integral part of both your relaxation and your study plan.
GET HELP, SHUN HINDRANCES
You have done your orals and your mocks by now, says Crowley, so you know which of your classmates might panic under pressure. This can be contagious, and you might, even unconsciously, pick up on other people’s fears. “Don’t let other people psych you out,” she says.
On the other hand, she says, there are plenty of people who will support you. “Your teachers are there to support you and love when you hand up questions to be corrected. This was vital for me in the language subjects.”
Your family can be a source of support, O’Mahony says. “It’s worth remembering that your obsession with the exams can drive the rest of the family mad, so try to include them rather than push them away.”
ENGLISH AND HISTORY: A TEACHER’S TIPS
Teacher Fintan O’Mahony’s top tips for English and history:
English exams give space to think, so you’ll be rewarded for your opinion.
English and history – and some other exams – are endurance tests, and you need to train for them: set a stopwatch for the time you’ll have on the day. Practise.
English: know the text inside out, with quotes and references. Your revision should centre on characters and themes. For comparative texts, know what brings the texts together and what is different about them.
Prepare the poems that brought a reaction out of you, whether you loved or hated them.
History: this is marked paragraph by paragraph, so tightly plan your answer. You won’t get marks for writing all you know, so write an essay that takes a clear view of the topic.
STAY CALM: HOW TO BEAT EXAM STRESS
Tap into your support network Access all the support that you can over the next four weeks. The extent to which you fulfil your potential in the Leaving and Junior Cert depend on the degree to which you avail of offers of help and assistance around you.
Family and friends can provide you with the emotional support to sustain you through the next six weeks. Your teachers will be in class for another few weeks; after that they will be available to deal with any last-minute questions throughout the exam period.
Manage stress to your advantage Stress is a perfectly normal physiological response when undertaking a major exam. Managed properly, it can maximise your examination performance. Allowed to run out of control, stress can paralyse your capacity to perform well.
Firstly, talking to those you trust about how you are feeling helps reduce stress. Simple breathing techniques can also help your body relax. Physical exercise – such as a brisk walk, run, or swim – can help burn up excess stress.
Get a sense of control It is never too late to begin to seriously prepare for the exams. There are six weeks or so to the end of the exams. So, plan your study timetable, back from your final paper to now.
When you have completed this, you will have a clearer picture of how you are going to use the time available to you to ensure all sections of every paper have an identified time slot for final revision. This will give you back a sense of control. Also check out the State Examinations Commission’s marking schemes online; they show you how to structure your answers to maximise your grades.
Self-care during a stressful time You can do this by sustaining a well-balanced study routine, eating regular healthy meals, going to bed before 11pm each night and relaxing for at least an hour before you do. Make sure to resist the temptation to study too late into the night. It is counterproductive and will leave you exhausted the next day.