How to Revise For A levels: A Complete Guide up to the Exam

Revising for A levels can be quite stressful especially if you did 4 A levels like me. However, with the right mindset, organisation and diligence, getting the grades you want is definitely possible.

When should I start revising for A levels?

When it comes to revising for A-levels, people start revising at different dates. This depends on several factors such as how many subjects you are doing, what subjects you choose, what grades are you aiming for and how much of the content you know already.

You want to obviously start as early as possible. How early you ask? You need to give yourself enough time to go over all the content, memorise it then to apply your knowledge (do practice questions).

You should start thinking about your revision at least 2 months before your exam. What do I mean by thinking? Well you have to sit down and go through the whole course specification and identify all the topic areas you know and need to work on. After that, you need to ensure that you have the notes.

On the plus side, starting your revision early can help you benefit from ‘spaced repetition’ which allows you to go over topics repeatedly before your actual exams. You will be better prepared if this is the case.

Let’s say that to achieve a certain grade, you need to spend x amount of hours preparing (let’s just say 30 hours as an example). You want to complete these 30 hours in 30 days by doing 1 hour each rather than completing the 30 hours doing 5 hours, 6 days before your exam.

This is why starting early helps. When you have more days, you only need to spend a few hours a day revising. As you get closer to your exams, you can increase the amount of hours studying accordingly.

How long should I spend revising?

Now this is a very hard question. Does it even have a right answer?

You have probably heard of the saying: “Work smart, not hard” but really, the truth is that you need to put in the hours to yield the results.

Of course, there is definitely a factor of quality vs quantity of revision. But real achievement lies between doing quality revision (using effective study techniques) and putting in the hours.

If you are going to spend 8 hours everyday reading a textbook then you can claim that’s hard work but is it really helping you achieve the grades that you want? Doing 4 hours of practice papers and test questions is better but doing 8 hours of this stuff is just amazing.

How do I actually “revise”

Here is a key idea: revision should always be active. What does that mean? It means that you actively need to be doing something when revising. In other words, you need to be writing and testing yourself. A lot of people consider reading their textbook as revision but this is highly ineffective.

When it comes to revising, you should always be testing yourself. This can be done through several ways such as:

  • Making notes from scratch- A study technique that I love is just to get a blank piece of paper and then write
  • Doing practice questions or old exam papers
  • Going through flashcards with questions on them

We will come onto study techniques later on.

 

Do I need to make notes?

As you approach the exams, you may be concerned because you don’t have notes on a particular topic. Perhaps, you did not make notes as you went along the course.

Your notes could depend on your teacher and what style they use to teach.

There is little point in making notes so close to an exam. You should have made all your notes as soon as you finished the course- with all the topic covered.

Making notes is important because it helps to condense a topic into smaller, more manageable and easy-to-digest information. However, some people make notes then never use them again.

At the end of the day, the information has to be in your head not on a piece of paper. Therefore, only make notes close to an exam if you know that it will help you retain the information.

Effective study techniques

You need to make sure that you use two of the best study techniques: active recall and spaced repetition.

Using active recall (testing yourself)

Active recall is a highly effective study technique because it gets your brain to work and think. Remember that revision requires effort, it’s suppose to make your brain work hard. However, when we use ineffective study techniques like reading a textbook- you think your brain is working hard but it simply isn’t.

Spaced repetition

This is another key technique that you have to use when revising for your exams. It comes from the idea that you will forget about 80% of the information you learned within 24 hours. That’s why when you re-visit a topic your revised last week, it seems like you remember absolutely nothing!

Spaced repetition is quite easy to incorporate in your revision timetable, you just need to ensure that when you study a particular topic, you have to study the same topic a day later, then 3 days later then a week later. This will help you to retain the information for longer since you have repeated it several times over again- within a certain duration.

Dealing with procrastination: How to stay focused

Procrastination is something that affects every student; we can never work all the time. However, when we do work- we need to make sure it’s hard and focused.

You may feel that when you are revising for your A levels, you won’t procrastinate because these exams are so important in determining your university decision and so on but this is not always the case.

There are a few ways to deal with procrastination, the first step is to actually identify what it is that is stopping you from revising. The majority of the answers come from the internet! The biggest distraction is your phone, tablet, computer or laptop.

Whether you watch excessive YouTube, spend too much time on social media or play hours of video games; your revision is at stake. Everyone faces these challenges in this day and age however, the most productive students are those who continue to enjoy these services but do not let this become too excessive.

You can either delete the apps that you use (but you can re-install them) or, the method I prefer is to use an app blocker/website blocker on my device.

On my laptop, I use FocusMe to help me concentrate on my work sessions. What FocusMe does is, it blocks a website or application that you may find distracting during your study session. You can create a plan which re-occurs daily so you don’t need to worry about forgetting to set a plan.

FocusMe and similar app/website blockers will block websites and applications for the duration that you choose. The plus side is that you can use the ‘forced’ mode and ‘prevent uninstall’ which means that you have to focus on your work rather than quickly opening a new tab for YouTube. You can also set daily and weekly limits (in terms of how many hours you can spend) on a particular website or application blocker.

I would highly encourage that you consider using a productivity tool such as FocusMe, ColdTurkey or Freedom. Using these tools, I have been able to cut down watching YouTube for 2 hours a day, to watching no YouTube at all (which was my choice). I am not saying you don’t have to watch YouTube but you can limit the time you spend on the website.

However, you may feel that distractions are coming in from other sources, outside of your devices. You may have guessed it: your friends or classmates. While you may trying to get some work done, you might have your friends walking around and chatting to you casually while you are trying to get some quality hours in.

When dealing with these kinds of distractions, you really need to talk to your friends and decide on your steps. Perhaps, you need to go visit a library (a quiet study place) or maybe you need to organise a study session-that is super productive- between your friends. Or maybe you just need to take a few hours away from your friends in isolation and hide from them!

Whatever it is, the right decision has to be made for you and your friends. If you get your work done for the day then you are free to go socialise with your friends after that, it’s all about organizing yourself and making the right decisions.

How to make use of past papers

Doing past papers is definitely something that you should be doing a month or two before your exam. The idea here is simple: the more practice questions you do, the better you will be prepared for the exam.

I strongly believe that you shouldn’t keep a stack of fresh, uncompleted past papers a few days before your exams. A lot of people, grind through past papers a few days before the exam however this is not ideal. Why is that?

It comes back to what we talked about previously: spaced repetition. You want to have completed the majority of past papers a few weeks before your exams- this will then give you enough time to address your mistakes then have another go at the questions you struggled with.

When it comes to doing past papers, you want to try and complete them without any material. So no ‘open book’ exam. Treat the past paper as if it were the real thing, you wouldn’t have your textbook or notes next to you. When you do a past paper without any material then you are using active recall which we have already established to be the top study technique.

As you get close to your exams, you should start doing practice questions under timed conditions. This is a very important step because you don’t want to do an exam for the first time under time pressure in the actual A level exam.

Doing a past paper under timed conditions can be very difficult because you really need to give yourself a whole 2 hours (or even more) if you are going to do a full paper; without any distractions that is. The fact here is that you need to take the initiative and find a location that will allow you to sit and complete a whole  paper under timed conditions- just like the exams.

Time pressure is hard to simulate but running out of time in the exam is a major problem in the A level exam which I myself have experienced. In order to do this, you need to have sufficient practice and planning before hand so you no exactly how much time you need to spend and especially what you should do if you are running out of time.

Using examiner’s reports to your advantage

It is absolutely worth the time to look at examiner’s reports before you’re exams. Examiner’s reports are basically a review of the exam done by the lead examiner and it is important because it highlights the key mistakes students have made from the past. This is essential for any subject whether it is calculation and number heavy or focused around essay-writing.

Examiner reports wil definately give you a better idea about exam technique but not as much content. Sometimes examiner reports do talk about some misconceptions students generally have which is great thing to clear up on.

You should ideally complete the past exam paper, mark the paper and then check the examiner’s report. You should then summarise the examiner’s reports specifically to you- have you made a mistake that is mentioned in the examiner’s report? What should you do next time.

It is highly recommend that you keep a piece of paper, diary or online file that contains all these “gold dust” tips that people who mark the papers tell you about!

In the following section you will see how important it is to learn from your own mistakes. But imagine how effective it is to learn from other people’s mistakes! Examiner’s reports need to be reviewed- especially for a question or paper that you struggled on.

 

Making a question database- Learn from those mistakes

When we do past papers- we have to make mistakes. Because this is where we learn from. However, sometimes we don’t learn from our mistakes at all. I remember a few times when we did poorly on a question (in a class test) and that same question came in the mock exam and nobody in class scored higher marks! Some people even did worse. Why?

It’s simple. We did not give enough time to go through our mistakes and actually re-do the question. That’s why whenever you do past papers, take screenshots of the question you got wrong and then attach the markscheme to it as well.

You can easily store questions you got wrong on your device so when it comes to revision, you know what mistakes you made in the past. You could also make flashcards for the questions you got wrong or what I did was used a spreadsheet software (Google Sheets or Excel) to write the question I got wrong in one column and the answer in the next column- I would then just blank out the answer and test myself.

 

However, it’s important to note that not all your revision should just be on past papers because if you are doing a new specification, then perhaps there are no questions on a specific topic. It all comes back to how well you cover the specification.

Sometimes there are topics which just come out all the time- for these topics and questions you should just be able to whizz through them because they are so familiar.

Specific topic practice

When it comes to revision, you want to focus down on what topics really worry you. There is little point in practicing a topic that you know really well if you are struggling with another topic.

Before going into the exam, you should feel that you are prepared for just about anything the examiners can throw at you instead of saying “I hope that topic doesn’t come up”.

This is why when you are revising, you need to plan. Planning is essential. Make sure you start revising the hardest topics first because you are most likely going to need the most time to go through them. Also, some topics will have lots of content or memorization and so you will need to start revising those as quickly as you can so you can get several re-visits to that topic.

How to make a study timetable that works for A levels

“Those who fail to plan are planing to fail”.

Imagine that you set yourself two hours to study from 2-4 pm. You sit down and then wonder: what am I going to study? You then open all of your textbooks, take the specification out, flick through past papers and by the time you decide what to do, the clock is already at 2:30.

Making a timetable can help you save your revision time because you already know what to do. And plus, if you don’t know what you are covering, you will most likely procrastinate; when we don’t plan something or have anything in mind, we will just switch our attention to doing something much easier (i.e procrastinate).

Making a study timetable can take time and lots of effort. If you do make a timetable- following it is another major problem.

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