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Revision: A guide on how not to do it


It’s that time of year when my top revision tip is “calm down and don’t forget to eat”.

Most of my year 11 tutees are sickened by the sight of yet another past paper and are spending their weekends sitting in the middle of piled folders and papers, drinking pints of tea and resisting sleep. Revise – but take a break! Your brain will reward you by working better if you do.

Over-doing it isn’t the only poor revision strategy I come across. Here are some major pitfalls to avoid:

Pitfall #1: Writing Extremely Long Notes

Revision, like learning, has to be active to do any good. You have to do something with the information to make your mind (re-)engage with it. Since it’s entirely possible to read without thinking (it can’t be just me who gets to the end of a page and realises I have no idea what I just read), revision tends to involve ‘making notes’ as a more active strategy. However, I think it’s a big mistake to attempt making verbose notes, writing down everything you know about a topic or copying out all your class notes, or worse, sections of textbooks. It’s unlikely that you have time to do this, or that you will be able to do it without being overwhelmed by boredom. A great way to process information is to read and condense it, or transform it to a different format, so instead of writing, try these alternatives:

– playing ‘just a minute’, where a friend times you talking about a topic non-stop for a minute (or until you run out of steam)

– making Q&A flashcards for bits you find tricky, and having a friend use them to test you

– go through the syllabus statements for the subject and write out the ones you feel unsure of, then revisit/research them and annotate until you feel comfortable

– group information into tables or mind maps

Aha, mind maps… that brings me onto pitfall #2

Pitfall #2: Make Useless Mind Maps

Thanks to reading the work of Geoff Petty, making visual organisers or mind maps is one of my favourite revision techniques. Unfortunately, some students don’t seem to get explicit help learning this skill, and it’s not as easy to make a meaningful, useful mind map as you might think. Quite often a first attempt mind map looks something like this:

Which is more or less completely useless for revision purposes. The subtopics, related keywords and definitions are scattered randomly all over the page, with no sense of how they fit together. This is one reason why Petty prefers the term ‘visual organiser’ to ‘mind map’.

To make a useful mind map, you have to make an effort to arrange and group things in ways that help you make meaning and sense of them, using use visual techniques like relative sizes and colours to show how different areas of a topic are related.

Here’s a better version:


If you like to work digitally, you might like to try using software packages to make visual organisers. Here’s my attempt to recreate this map with popular free and open source app XMind:


I have to admit, I haven’t found any mind mapping software that works for me for this purpose, but maybe I just need to persist a little bit. It’s true that whether you use paper based or digital methods to mind map, there’s a learning curve to the process, and you might end up discarding a draft or two. This might sound like a waste of precious revision time, but I disagree: working out how to arrange information clearly is a very useful piece of mental organisation; you have to tidy up the topic in your head before you can get it tidily on a page! The process can help you locate areas in need of revision as well as enhance your understanding. You can also add links to other topics, as I did, pointing off the page. This can help you decide which topic to mind map next. The issue of drafting leads me on to the last pitfall…

Pitfall #3: Presentation

This one goes both ways. Some folks pay no attention whatsoever to presentation. Nobody else is going to see your notes, so readable handwriting, underlining, correct use of pencil and so on aren’t important, right?

Well, right and wrong. The whole point of presentation is to produce something easy and comfortable to read and re-read, and you definitely want your revision notes to be that. Also, as we’ve seen, presentational features like colour coding and making some things bigger than others help to organise information in a meaningful way. Highlighting and drawing different shaped bubbles around things can also be really helpful. Be creative and figure out your own system as you’re priming your brain to take shortcuts when you review your notes.

On the other hand, certain people (some of my own current tutees!) take a perfectionist approach to note-making. They spend half their ‘revision’ time sharpening pencils, selecting colours, waiting for tip-ex to dry. All so they can rewrite one letter perfectly, or screwing up the page and starting all over again because the alignment of a diagram is out of whack. Need I say more? 😉

by Zanna Bleasdale

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