Preparing for exams

Strategies to revise for resits

You may be preparing for one or more exams in the next few weeks. Perhaps you are feeling frustrated that you have to spend part of your summer holiday revising for resits instead of taking a break from academic work.

It can be difficult to concentrate on your studies when comparing with others who are not taking exams this summer. You may also be concerned about how things will turn out for you, and whether you will pass your modules to continue on to the next academic year. It is understandable that you may have these thoughts and feelings, particularly if you feel you worked hard during the year. Unfortunately, sometimes things do not work out as we hoped despite our efforts, and as a result you may be wondering what you can do differently to improve your results.

In order to manage your frustration, and save your energy for your revision, give yourself credit for your decision to take the exams again. You are giving yourself the opportunity to improve and make progress in your studies.

Perhaps your mind is focused on the hard work involved, or on the disappointment you may be feeling as you think about the things you are missing out on. Instead, redirect your attention and focus on your decision to prioritise your studies as these are important to you. By persevering with your efforts you will move closer to your goals.

                           “Every minute is a chance to turn it all around.” (Cameron Crowe)

So what can you do to maintain your motivation, and increase your capacity to remember the material?

1. View mistakes as a learning opportunity
It may have been frustrating to realise that you got some answers wrong during the summer exam period. Change your perspective and see these errors as providing you with information that you can use to learn and make improvements.

2. Review your study process
Look back on how you revised for your previous exams, and reflect on what you did or didn’t do well. What do you think you could different this time? Perhaps when you went over your notes you had a sense that you knew the material, and it was a surprise when in the exam you could not remember the information?

Research indicates that when studying by reading notes repeatedly it can give a sense of familiarity with the material. This can give a false sense of confidence that we know enough and believe we will remember it later. Instead, it is recommended to use questions to test ourselves on what we have read (Arnold & McDermott 2013).

When revising write out questions about the material, then close your books and ask yourself the questions to practice recalling the content. It is also recommended to space the study periods so that the material can be consolidated making it easier to recall when required (Soderstrom, Kerr, Bjork, 2016). The practice of recalling content requires effort, making us work harder to retrieve the information (Willingham, 2009). The more you use this technique the more your brain will get used to making connections, strengthening them, and with practice it will get easier to access the material you have learned.

3. Create an environment where you can study
To study effectively we need a space that is not cluttered, and one that you can associate with studying. Dedicate a space where you can focus on your revision. Check that you have a comfortable chair, good light and that you have the necessary materials to get on with your revision.

If you know that you get easily distracted by the notifications on your phone put it on silent, and leave it in a drawer where you cannot see it, nor hear the notifications. You can retrieve it during your breaks, and use it as a reward: it will be motivating to check your messages and keep in touch with others.

If you are tempted to check social media or the internet on your laptop or tablet, set your devices aside for a set period of time.You can experiment with making notes on paper for a while, to allow you to continue learning without being
distracted.   Perhaps it is difficult to eliminate all distractions; however, aim to reduce the sources that could prevent you from concentrating on your task and delay your progress.

4. Create a daily routine
In order to be able to study effectively, it is important to have some structure to manage your energy level and your time so that you can concentrate and maintain your strength to persevere with your efforts. Identify a pattern that works for you.

Having a routine can help you to get into the habit of studying, and it can reduce the sense of pressure related to preparing for exams.It can also reduce the amount of effort and energy required to get started as your brain can rely on your routine to prompt you to continue studying. Develop a timetable to structure your time.

You may want to experiment with the Pomodoro technique where the aim is to structure revision by using slots of time (about 25 min) for revision, and a break (5 min). You can repeat the cycle a few times, allowing for a longer break after two or three short revision sessions. This technique can be motivating as at the end of the day you can count how many slots of 25 min you have done.

Creating a routine that becomes predictable can help to create a habit that you can rely on. This is how you can strengthen your willpower to persevere with your goals, and develop intrinsic motivation to enable you to get things done (McGonigal, 2015). When we notice progress it is motivating and can lead to having a sense of achievement.  This in turn, can build your confidence in your ability to get things done.

5. Focus on learning
Research indicates that by adopting a “growth mindset” (Dweck, 2010), we can increase our mental agility. The emphasis is on having the belief that we are capable of developing our knowledge and skills. This means that by maintaining a flexible attitude, were our mistakes are viewed as part of the learning process and we expand our learning capacity.

Our experiences shape how we learn.The more we focus on the learning aspects of our experiences (even if they are frustrating and difficult), the stronger the connections in our brain to consolidate the material we are learning (Soderstrom, Kerr, and Bjork, 2016).

As we notice we are making progress it can boost our confidence in our capacity to learn, improve our mood, and motivate us to persevere with our efforts to keep going.

6. Keep your priorities in mind
When making decisions about what to do during the day, keep in mind what is most important to you. This will enable you to choose what activities you will prioritise.  You can dedicate time to study periods where you focus on your revision, and plan separate slots for any other activities that you are interested in doing.

Planning ahead will help to prevent feeling as if you are missing out on things, while protecting your study time. Planning, a useful study technique, will have the added benefit of increasing your concentration and motivation because it helps to manage your energy more effectively, and reduces tension. In addition, it allows you to let your friends and family know when you are going to dedicate your time to prepare for your exams.

7. Managing emotions
When preparing for exams it is normal to experience a fluctuation of your emotions. It may be difficult to focus on your revision when your mind is interrupted with negative thoughts. Perhaps you find that thoughts about what went wrong during the last exams/academic year are distracting and reducing your motivation to keep going with your revision. It could be that your mood fluctuates when you find yourself having worry thoughts, or when you are feeling tired, which can lead to low mood. Or, perhaps you are feeling frustrated when you notice that it is difficult to remember the material you are revising. This can trigger symptoms of stress which can affect your ability to concentrate on your revision.

The worry thoughts, and the symptoms of stress can be unsettling. It can have an impact on your confidence to learn the material in the time available to get through the exams. When these thoughts and feelings occur acknowledge them without believing them, and without judging yourself for having them.  Instead, ask yourself “is this thought helpful?”. By practising this technique regularly you can create a habit of catching these thoughts, and learn to reduce their intensity.

So, even if you are affected by these thoughts you will have the capacity to restore balance sooner.In order to restore stability notice the triggers and your reactions to them, then pause and take time to just observe them and let the thoughts go by.

Take a few minutes to acknowledge your feelings and breathe slowly to relax your body. This is a powerful technique to restore your internal balance. You can practice some mindfulness exercises, or you can go outdoors and walk. It is essential to exercise, move and stretch, to release the tension in the body. Then, bring your attention back to the present moment and focus on what step you can take next to make progress on your revision.

Identify one task that you can do, and then move on to the next one. You may feel that you do not have time to follow this process as you are concerned that you have too much material to get through.

Although you may have a sense of urgency, trying to rush your revision is more likely to increase tension. Instead, remind yourself that you are doing what you can each day.  The more you focus on each step you are taking, as you notice the progress you are making it will strengthen your confidence. This in turn, will allow you to maintain your ability to concentrate on your material.

Each step you take counts towards moving in the direction you want to go. By repeating this process each time your thoughts and feelings interrupt your concentration, you will increase your capacity to deal with these challenges.

8. Manage stress
When preparing for exams the anticipation of these can produce a significant degree of tension, particularly when feeling that the results are key to being able to pass the module/course. Although this can be challenging, the symptoms of stress are not an indication that you will not do well.

Instead, view them as your mind and body are preparing to manage the challenge effectively. To maintain your health and energy levels it is essential to have a healthy routine that includes doing some exercise such as walking. It is also essential to eat healthy foods as these provide the energy to your body and mind.

9. Optimism boosts learning
An optimistic attitude enables us to identify our strengths, increase our confidence in our ability to manage challenges, and boost our motivation to persevere with our efforts (Seligman, 1998).

It may be challenging to maintain an optimistic attitude when you feel the material is difficult, or you worry about taking exams. This can be particularly challenging if you have had negative experiences of taking exams in the past. You may be anticipating a repeat of the same situation (eg. not remembering the material, feeling tense, anticipating failure). The image of these possible future negative scenarios are understandable.

To learn to develop a more optimistic outlook you can reframe the situation and although these thoughts may be present, focus instead on your efforts to make progress. Even if you find these thoughts interrupt you, remind yourself that they are not evidence that you will not do well. Take a moment to acknowledge these thoughts, and view them as noise that can be tolerated.

It is best not to make efforts to stop them from happening. Instead, just acknowledge they are there and without self-criticism. By simply noticing them, it will gradually reduce their intensity. Then, redirect your attention to a task that you can focus on in the moment. Ask yourself “what one step can I take right now to make progress?”

By focusing on taking action it will help to reduce the tension you may be experiencing (Wilson, 2011). Also, keep in mind that you are taking a different approach this time, and remind yourself that you are giving yourself the opportunity to improve your knowledge of the material.

10. Maintain a support network
We are social beings so it is beneficial for our health and sense of wellbeing to maintain contact with others. It is important to create space to spend time with family and friends and joining in activities even if only for a short while. If you are away from home you can arrange time to connect with them. One of the benefits of the digital age is that there are a number of ways to reach family and friends across the world.

11. Be your best friend
When we support our friends we normally are very understanding, and tend to be encouraging so they can feel understood. When we feel frustrated, or perceive we have made mistakes, it can trigger self-criticism: negative thoughts about ourselves that can increase tension and reduce our confidence.

When we are dealing with challenges having self-doubt is part of the process to manage them. We may feel unsettled, and worry about the future.When learning new things it is normal to have doubts, as the material is new and we are finding our way. This extends to any new situation where we are not sure about how things will turn out. It indicates that what we are doing is important to us.

Feeling unsure is part of the range of feelings we can experience when facing new challenges, and as we persevere with our efforts we build our strength (Brown, 2010). When you notice thoughts that are self-critical, pause and notice them. Ask yourself  “would I say this to my best friend?”.  It is very unlikely that you would do this. Instead, the most likely reaction would be that you want to be a good friend and helpful so you probably are likely to say things like “it is frustrating that it did not work out“, or “sorry that you are having a difficult time“, and then you may say “what can I do to help?”, or “what would be helpful now?”, “is there something I can do?”.

So when you notice the self-criticism appear, treat yourself as if you were your best friend: with kindness and self-compassion. When we feel understood and our efforts are acknowledge the tension reduces and we are more able to manage challenges (Neff, 2011).

  1. References:

    Arnold, K. M., McDermott, K. B. (2013). “Test-potentiated learning: Distinguishing between direct and indirect effects of tests.” Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 39, 940–945

    Brown, B. (2010) The gifts of imperfection. Let go of who you think you are supposed to be and embrace who you are. Minnesota: Hazelden.

    Dweck, C. (2008) Mindset. How you can fulfil your potential. New York: Ballantine Books.

    Kneff, K. (2011) Self-compassion. stop beating yourself up and leave insecurity behind. New York: Harper Collins books.

    McGonigal, K. (2015) The upside of stress: why stress is good for you (and how to get good at it). London: Vermilion.

    Seligman, M. (1998) Learned optimism: How to change your mind and your life. New York: Simon and Schuster.

    Soderstrom, N.C., Kerr, T.K, and Bjork, R. A. (2016)  “The critical importance of retrieval – spacing – for learning.”
    In Psychological Science, Vol 27, issue 2, pages 223-230.

    Willingham, D. (2009) “What will improve student’s memory?” in American Educator, Winter 2008-9.

    Wilson, T. (2011) Redirect. The surprising new science of psychological change. London: Penguin Books.