The best way to revise? Keep it simple

When it comes to revision, pupils should ignore the swathes of wacky advice, and keep it sensible and simple, writes Bernard Trafford

Revision, GCSE revision, Exams revision, A level revision

“It ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it!”  That chorus comes to mind with monotonous regularity each May.

It’s that time of year again. Sats are over for another year (hurrah!), but A levels, GCSEs, and university finals are in top gear. And don’t forget end-of-year exams for almost every other learner from the age of 12 (or less) to 20 during June.

Media channels eagerly churn out revision advice. Some focus on specific techniques for checking all that required knowledge has sunk in, filling in gaps and practising retrieval/regurgitation on demand. Health experts cover the physical angles, sleep, exercise, fresh air, healthy diet, balance, de-stressing techniques, mindfulness: blimey, so much coping activity leaves little time to revise the blooming notes.

This time round, there seems to be particular focus on music. The Times recommended Mozart as the backdrop of choice. Meanwhile, on Classic FM in recent weeks, numerous presenters have offered “the perfect soundtrack to your revision programme”. Such implied personalisation rouses me to fury, like those train announcements welcoming me onto “my” 11.15 service to Addlestrop. “I don’t want a ‘personal soundtrack’,” I yell at the radio. “Just music that I choose to listen to. Or not.”

Or not: that’s an important distinction. Music to aid concentration is a fine idea: but, if you’re really focusing, you’ll gradually ignore it. It’s not like pumping driving upbeat tempos through your headphones as you go out running (something I never do – run in headphones, I mean. All to do with where the sweat runs, and being put in a temper by running anyway). So by all means stream your choice of Mozart, Celtic fringe or thrash-metal to get you in the working mood: but, trust me, if the revision’s going well, you’ll soon blot it out.

Enough, though. Give candidates a break. Stop trying to micromanage their lonely labours. Give them a modicum of peace so they may suffer in blessed solitude.

I’m guilty too. In my long years as a head, I naturally issued sage advice to exam candidates – or to their parents, partly to keep them off their children’s backs.

In essence my advice to students was: keep it simple, and don’t kid yourself. You’re not going to become a different person overnight, nor be able to maintain the transformation for several weeks. So, if you normally take a lot of exercise, keep doing it: if you don’t, now is not the time to start half-marathons. Eat healthily and don’t overdo the coffee or sugary drinks: but if you normally eat lots of meat, don’t suddenly embrace veganism.

Talking of exercise, I always deplored committed sportsmen and women dropping team sports as exams approached: sometimes from their own volition, but too often through parental worry about the time wasted. The independent schools’ association HMC recently published, with some glee, research that demonstrated team sport actually boosts exam outcomes. Amen to that: but I’m not sure it will win over anxious parents.

Don’t pretend you can revise for six hours at a time: nor that you can work till 4am and be alert for the 9am exam. Allow yourself breaks, and rewards. A solid two-hour session earns a break, maybe even some chocolate or screen time (phone off while revising!). When you feel you need to scream, go for a walk instead: though screaming is admissible, too, as long as it’s not a displacement tactic, replacing actual work.

As for revision techniques, do what’s worked for you before: I say that with some trepidation, aware (no offence) that the teaching of study skills is somewhat variable in schools.

As for parents, be there, feeding, encouraging, loving and caring. Helping by testing them for knowledge carries risks: we were ignominiously sacked from helping with a daughter’s Chemistry A level when we proved ourselves scientifically illiterate. Better perhaps to remain that invisible, non-interventionist, non-judgemental supportive presence.

On second thoughts, I was wrong at the start. Actually it is both what you do, and the way that you do it. Good luck!

Dr Bernard Trafford is a writer, educationalist, musician and former independent school headteacher. He tweets @bernardtrafford

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