The Best Way To Revise For Exams Is…

Backwards Revision

Exams are based on questions. Lots of questions. So the best way to revise for exams is to start with the questions and work backwards. Instead of spending all your time memorising facts and information (praying they’ll come up in the exam), you will base your revision time around finding the right answers to frequently asked questions. Henceforth, you are no longer a bored student. No – you are the Sherlock Holmes of revision – trying to find the right answers from your notes, readings and lectures.

Revision is elementary, dear Watson!

Exams Shouldn’t Involve Any Thinking

It is a common misconception that you should be doing lots of thinking in an exam. Similarly, (and equally wrong) is the belief that revision should be passively skimming through texts, notes and lecture slides. This is the wrong way around. Instead, when your revision is based around solving exam questions, and learning the best methods to reach the best answers, you actually complete your thinking before the exam. The only thinking necessary for an exam is therefore ordering and structuring your pre-learnt knowledge to maximise your grade. There should be no shocks, or scares. Just cool and calm application of what you have already covered. That’s the best way to revise for exams.

“Know Thy Enemy” – Sun Tzu, The Art of War

Sun Tzu - Good at wars, great at exams

Most exams have a plethora of past papers and revision questions. Most students ignore these until the end of their revision. However, the best way to revise for exams is to start with the exam questions, not to end with them! You need to open up every exam question you can find. Now group them by topic. Whichever topic has the most questions is your first topic. Then the second most etc. You must revise the bits of the syllabus that your examiners find interesting and important, not the bits that you find easiest. I am always amazed at how much of any syllabus has never been asked, especially at the highest level of exams. I learned the hard way that when I focused on the most basic topics, which rarely came up, I’d wasted precious time and potential marks. Be smart – learn what you need to know.

Let’s Get To Work

An easy way to group questions together is to use BitPaper. Open Bitpaper and get together every exam paper/question that you have found. If you are a Mac user, CMD+CTRL+SHIFT+4 is your new best friend. If you are a Windows user, download Lightshot. These tools allow you to screenshot any part of your screen, copy it (to your computer’s ‘clipboard’) and you can now directly paste onto BitPaper using CTRL/CMD + V.

Before you begin your revision: take 30-60 minutes to group every exam question by topic like below:

You can then download these into handy PDFs or print them for later use.

This method works perfectly for grouping essay questions too. It will also help you to prioritise less interesting, but important topics that come up more frequently, like these theories of transaction costs questions.

Who doesn't love Transaction Theory?

Copy How The Pros Revise

Check out this site which perfectly demonstrates how to revise. Don’t be disheartened by the old-school webpage. The content is POWERFUL: GCSE Maths Questions By Topic.

Re-Thinking Revision

Once you have your exam questions grouped by topic, the way in which you revise is now fundamentally different. Every minute should be spent finding and creating answers to exam questions. Remember, you are preparing the very answers that you are going to write in your exams.

Responses To Critiques Of This Method

Q1) I haven’t taken any notes so how can I move straight to the exam questions?

A1) You have to answer questions in the actual exam, so you might as well start by making notes based on answering exam questions. Your revision will be more interesting if you are trying to find the answers to questions, rather than learning long lists of readings, not knowing if your notes will actually be relevant or applicable. So use the questions to guide your note taking and to keep you focused on application of what you learn. Otherwise, you run the risk of very unstructured revision and therefore wasting lots of time.

Q2) I can’t find past paper exam questions.

A2) Most schools or universities should happily provide you with these. If not, ask friends in older years for past papers or ask teachers for similar questions. If this does not work, try finding past papers on the internet (for school-level exams) or else your university library (most universities have to store all past papers in their archives). Failing this, go online and buy a workbook or revision guide with problem questions.

Q3) The exam is new and not many people take it so there is no workbook online.

A3) Backwards revision seems doomed in this case right? No! Not at all. In fact, this is when you have the greatest advantage over your peers. As a last resort you will have to look at the summary of each topic and write your own questions. Look for the “learning objectives” at the start of a topic and the “summary” at the end (of a textbook or lecture slides). Now rewrite those into straight-forward questions. You will have a massive advantage. The best way to revise for exams, backward revision, may just make you the only candidate structuring their revision around questions, putting you in the best place to score top marks in the exam.

Q4) It takes a long time to do and I don’t have very long until the exam.

A4) The less time you have, the more powerful backwards revision becomes because it focuses your study on application. It is better to group the topics before starting and find the most commonly asked topics to make the most of your time. Lastly – avoid the temptation of trying to learn everything. It is better to focus on a bit of the syllabus to a high standard than to skim through every topic and forget everything in the exam.

Where there is a question, there must be an answer!

Backwards Revision Is The Best Way To Revise For Exams – It *Really* Works

Grouping questions together before you start revision has many benefits:

1) Exams are only 40% knowledge. The other 60%? Application of that knowledge, exam-technique, time-management and well-organised answers. This exam revision method avoids creating hundreds of pages of redundant notes by instead making every bit of knowledge focused on answering a question.

2) Whilst creating this topic list, your brain will automatically group similar topics together. Grouping similar topics allows your brain to form stronger connections between facts – making you significantly more likely to remember information that is stored sensibly in your brain. To learn more, see this post on how to study effectively and how your brain stores information.

3) It forces you to stay focused on the entire syllabus and not to shy away from the harder topics.

Disappointed there isn’t a simpler hack?

Tough. Acing exams is hard work, but it’s a lot easier than most people think. The trick is to do just that: think. Revise smart and make every second count. Group your exam questions and write your answers down before you get to the exam. That way, the exam will be easy as π.

And then… check out how to keep on top of your studies with our Revision Hacks.

NEXT: Now that we’ve covered the best way to revise for exams, check out my optimal exam revision strategy if you haven’t already!