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Speeding up study without cramming

We’ve all been there before. It’s a few weeks to the exam, we’re starting to panic and we’re starting to prepare ourselves for a mad few weeks of late nights, textbooks and caffeine… #cramming

So with exams looming and the stress beginning to set in, I have 2 questions: how do we actually learn faster? What’s the best way to revise without cramming?

Whilst I don’t pretend to have one secret answer that will revolutionise your life and allow you to learn Chinese in a week – a bit like the guy in Limitless - I can give you a simple strategy that will help you break your revision down.

Here’s how it works:


Stage 1 - Overview


The aim of this phase is to get an overview of the topic as quickly as possible. Don’t waste your time reading your text book and making detailed notes on every single topic and sub topic.  Instead, I use a simple method to get a quick overview. 

First, I skim read through the text, making sparse notes whilst going along. If I struggle to understand a topic or point I try and write a quick summary of what I’ve read or make a note of that specific section and move on. You’ll come back to this hurdle later.

Second, I make a simple mind-map for each topic. Detail is not necessarily important here, although you may pull out a few key facts and/or quotations. This tests your own ability to summarise and break up a topic into themes or its constituent parts.


Stage 2 - Practice

The second part of revision is completing practice questions. Elevate’s research demonstrates that this is single-handedly the best form of preparation.

The simple reason for this is that by doing a lot of practice questions, a student is very quickly able to identify what it is they know and what it is they don’t know with regards to a topic. Once you know where your mistakes are and where you lack knowledge it is then very clear what you need to fix!

In order to practise effectively, make sure you always have the right answer to hand – either in the form of an answer scheme, or ideally a teacher. There is no point in frustrating yourself by not finding out what the answer is. In revision, unlike Game of Thrones, spoilers are good…


Stage 3 - Understanding

So stage 1 was scanning the info to see where your gaps are. Stage 2 was testing yourself to reveal them. Stage 3 is filling those gaps and developing an understanding. I use three simple techniques to develop this deeper understanding:

Mark example papers

By marking example papers you quickly see how other students have managed to get around or understand the topics you previously didn’t understand. You also get a feel for how the examiner’s mind works and what specific things they’re looking for (structure, technique, explanation).

Try to explain whatever topic it is you are revising to a friend, parent or tutor, even if you find this really hard. When you get stuck, head back to the textbook or your notes and read through them. Then repeat the teaching exercise until you understand.
Create connections

To help remember your revision, try to create connections, analogies or mnemonics. For example, a mnemonic for Mitosis might be ‘I Passed My Algebra Today!’ (Interphase, Prophase, Metaphase, Anaphase, Telophase). Likewise, analogies simplify information into more manageable forms, making it easier to memorise. 

These three stages make up my strategy for effective cramming. There are of course other ways to revise – but in an exam-focused environment (such as school) these are perhaps the fastest methods with the highest returns in terms of revision time well spent!


Now get back to work and don't cram!