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A revision strategy

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Because of its association with exams, the word revision often evokes doom and despondency, nights spent on last minute cramming of notes that can be regurgitated under timed – and hence stressful – conditions.

However, effective revision has little to do with either cramming or rote learning. Rather it should be part of a planned and creative process that consolidates course learning, and helps you see how different parts interrelate, giving you a holistic knowledge of your subject.

Planning a revision timetable

Revision should not be done piecemeal and haphazardly, but as a series of planned activities. It should be seen as a project, with a series of distinct but interrelated tasks, linked by a timeline.

Ideally, you should approach your studies throughout the year with a ‘revision mentality’, having regular reviews of topics as you study, but you should start seriously thinking about the revision two months before the exam date.

Analysing the problem

You first task is to analyse what it is you have to revise. For example, if you have an exam for a marketing course, it does not mean that you necessarily have to revise every part of the course.

Your first task should be to find out as much as possible about the exam. You can do this by:

  • Getting hold of past exam papers and looking at the types of questions and how they are organized. How many sections are there, how many questions per section? Are the questions and sections weighted equally in terms of marks? How do the questions relate to the course content? What are the types of response that the questions dictate? Are they multiple choice (requiring selection out of a choice of predetermined answers) or do they require essay type answers? If the questions have different parts, what is the mark weighting?
  • Talking to your course tutor, who should be able to give you information about the exam. Many course tutors provide revision sessions as part of the course.

Sorting out your course notes

You may be the sort of organized person who has all your course notes neatly filed in one folder, separated by tabs for different parts of the course. But then again you may not, in which case your first task is to assemble all your notes for one course and then sort them out into topic (this may well fit into particular weeks, for example, week 1= what is marketing, week 2 = market segmentation etc.). You should include lecture notes, notes from books, journal articles etc., assignments, handouts etc.

Overall this exercise should give you a good idea of the overall shape of the course, and how bits of it fit together.

Deciding on priorities

You will not be able to revise the whole of the course; you therefore need to select particular topics and revise them well, rather than attempting to memorize everything. You should make sure that you revise sufficient topics to enable you to answer a range of exam questions – for example, five topics for three questions (don’t just revise the topics that didn’t come up on the exam last year.)

Preparing the timetable

Once you have decided what you need to revise, you should make yourself a timetable. You can do this using your computer, using the ‘Table’ facility in Word, Excel or (perhaps the best as the months are laid out for you) your Outlook calendar.

The exam(s) should be the first date(s) you put in, together with any important coursework that may be due in the time. Equally important, however, is that you take account of your personal, work and domestic commitments.

If you are in full-time work, and/or have child care responsibilities, you should note the times when you will not be able to work. You should also plan in adequate time for relaxation, as well as perhaps opportunity to study with others.

If you have a busy life with a lot of commitments, try and make use of ‘dead’ time – for example when commuting, during lunch breaks etc. If you do this, it will be especially important to break tasks down into manageable chunks. Memorizing the whole of Kotler would need a long bus journey!

You should by now have an idea of the slots of time available for revision. Go back to your list of topics, and slot them into your revision time (you will probably need to do this fairly roughly at first, until you get a better idea of how long things take). You will need to do a certain amount of prioritizing at this stage, deciding on the most important things you need to revise, and concentrating on these first. Try to give similar amounts of time to your main priorities.

Creative revision strategies

A common mistake with revision is to see it as a reading and memorizing activity – it is more creative and active, and will certainly involve writing and organizing.

The whole object of revision is to gain a whole picture of a branch of knowledge. To achieve this, it’s important to understand not just the bare bones of topics, but the theories, models and concepts that underpin them, as well as they way in which topics relate to one another. As such, you need to develop revision strategies that encourage you to connect ideas and to think creatively.

Creating condensed notes

Northedge (2005) suggests that a good strategy is to ‘boil down’ your chosen revision topics so that you have the concentrated essence, bearing in mind that exam questions demand short answers and therefore there’s not room for a lot of detail. In order to do this you need to:

  • Take your notes from books, articles, lectures, plus handouts etc., and make condensed notes.
  • From your condensed notes, create summary sheets for each sub-topic.
  • Summarize the main points from your sub-topic summary sheets onto one topic summary sheet.

You could also use index cards to record essential information, such as dates, formulae, legislation, components of models (e.g. what does SWOT stand for) etc.

Other strategies

Here are some other strategies you can use, all of which call for creative and interactive techniques.

  • Find the essence of a topic
    – for each topic, select and make notes on the main theories, models, evidence (as relevant). You can use the Table facility in Word for this.
    – seek the key questions at the heart of the topic, and make notes around these.
  • Look at topics from a different angle.
  • Use your senses and your creativity
    – Make your notes creative and visual, using mind maps, different colours etc. (You will benefit if you use these techniques throughout the year, but if you have not, start now!)
    – Revise by ear – record your notes, and listen to the recording.
  • Create hierarchies (as in the condensed notes referred to above).
    – Use the ‘outline’ view in Word for your notes, which allows you to cut and paste easily, rearrange things, and view in as much or as little detail as you want.
    Mind maps are also a good way of organizing your thoughts.

All these are active strategies, designed to help you recall information under exam pressure. You will probably also want to check back over your notes several times, and check that the information has sunk in.

Using past exam papers

We have already said that it is important to get hold of past exam papers, in order to get a good idea of the sort of questions you are likely to be asked. You need also to use these papers as part of your revision strategy, to ensure not only that you have the knowledge, but that it has sunk in.

The peculiar thing about exam questions is that you are required to write an answer in a given time frame. The upside of this is that you will not be expected to give a long answer. You do need however to practice thinking and writing for these types of questions.

The important thing to remember that for an essay type answer, the examiners are looking for some sort of structure, just as in a course assignment. So you need to test your ability to think quickly and organize your knowledge coherently as opposed to writing down everything you know.

Look at the question carefully and decide what it is asking: what are the key words? What topics in the course does it refer to? What are the themes, concepts and ideas that you need to draw from the course? What order do you need to put things in?

You also need to practice your ability to write under timed conditions, in handwriting – neither of which you may be used to. It’s probably best, because of the time involved, just to do this with a few questions.

Maintaining a positive attitutde

Maintaining a positive attitude, keeping calm and getting adequate rest is very important when you have exams coming up.

When working on your revision schedule, avoid the temptation to cut down on sleeping time, and plan time for relaxation.

Give yourself short-term goals, plan for short breaks and include rewards, such as watching a favourite programme on television.

It’s a good idea to revise with other students – you can test one another, and discuss ways of answering exam questions. You will learn a lot through discussion as well as by explaining things to people. However, avoid spending time with people who don’t have a positive attitude – this will only make you feel worse.

If you find yourself getting very stressed, seek the advice of a counsellor (your university may well have its own counselling service).

However, if you revise in a planned and active way, remember that you are giving yourself the best possible chance of success in the exam.


Northedge, A. (2005), The Good Study Guide, The Open University, Buckingham, UK