Why is Revision So Hard?
We all face exams at some point in our lives. Depending on your age and where you live, they’ll be different. No matter when or where you do them, though, there’s one thing that you’ll always have to face: revision.
Usually, it’s a boring and stressful activity. After all, you don’t get the thrill of learning something new or interesting. You don’t get the satisfaction of understanding an idea you struggled with before. Instead, you just sit down and remember old information that you stored in the dusty attic space of your brain. No wonder most of us find it difficult!
Some people out there do well even if they don’t open a single book during study leave. They rely on a mix of remembering details from class and being good at exams – with a tiny bit of luck sprinkled on top. I was one of those students back in secondary school. The problem is, you look back and think: could I have gone to Oxford or Cambridge if I chose to study?
What if I told you that it doesn’t need to be so difficult? It doesn’t! I promise you! It’s just that most of you don’t have the tools to do it right. Sometimes, that might be because you ignored your teacher’s helpful tips. Most of the time, though, no one sat you down and explained what works and why.
So, let me correct that! Allow me to explain why revision is so hard and what you can do about it.
Table of contents
- Why You’re Struggling With Revision
- Not Taking Care of Your Mind and Body
- Relying on Last-Minute Revision
- Forgetting to Take Regular Breaks
- Not Prioritising
- Trying to Memorise Huge Chunks of Information
- Neglecting a Topic Once You’ve “Got It”
- Overly High Expectations of Revision
- Revising in Boring Ways
- Isolating Yourself
- Getting Distracted
- Doing Everything the Long Way
- Letting People Judge Your Revision Style
- Forgetting to Reward Yourself
- How to Revise Instead
Why You’re Struggling With Revision
There’s one thing I want to get out of the way before we start: if you’re struggling, it’s not your fault. So, don’t beat yourself up about it! It’s not going to do you any good to dwell on what you didn’t know. You can’t change how you revised in the past, and stressing about it is going to do nothing but harm.
The truth is that there are hundreds of reasons why revision is so hard. The biggest issue is that we teachers just don’t explain how you learn and remember new information. It seems a bit silly to me, as we spend so much of our PGCEs learning about all this.
A good example of this is Rosenshine’s Principles of Instruction. Basically, some guy came up with a bunch of things teachers should do to make new knowledge stick. Some of the things he suggests are actually perfect for good revision.
So why is it that no one has told students about this? Why has no one said, “don’t study the same topic for 4 hours straight”? Why has no one explained why that doesn’t work? It makes no sense to me that we blame students for not remembering info they learnt weeks ago when no one gave them a chance to review it. Spaced repetition, people!
Maybe some teachers out there do these things. Mine sure didn’t, though. They just told me to take breaks and have a revision schedule. No telling me why or showing me what a good schedule looks like. Great. Thanks.
So let me go through why your current strategies aren’t working for you.
Not Taking Care of Your Mind and Body
Ignoring your mental and physical health is one of the worst things you can do at any point in your life. It doesn’t matter what you’re doing: you should make sure you try to be as healthy as possible. It’s obvious when you’re neglecting your health during study season.
Our bodies and our minds are deeply connected. If you’re hungry, you won’t be able to study well. If you don’t get enough water or sleep, the facts just aren’t going to stick the same way. And don’t even get me started on stress, anxiety and depression!
Staying up all night to revise is not very effective or useful at all! A tired person can’t store as many facts in their long-term memory, and they don’t write their best exam answers! So, you’re just lowering your own study efficiency. The same is true for neglecting any of your basic needs.
Let me make this clear, though: you can’t see someone’s health. You can see the effects of it, sure! However, you don’t need to be a gym rat or a marathon runner to be a healthy student. Just make sure you do the following things:
- Eat well.
- Sleep well.
- Get regular fresh air.
- Be aware of your own mental triggers and limits.
Plus, if you can exercise regularly, that’s a massive help, too! It helps you to think and sleep well.
So many students find out that they’re neurodivergent or have a disability shockingly late, too. It’s actually infuriating for me. Those two things will affect your needs and revision strategies. If you don’t know you have ADHD or dyslexia or a visual processing disorder, how can you account for it? Please make sure you check!
Relying on Last-Minute Revision
Cramming sucks. It’s just not a sustainable or helpful way to keep information in your head.
I’m serious. Trust me: I’ve been there. When I used to act, I’d forget to learn my lines. Then, I’d try to cram them all in my head hours before the performance! I’d remember everything for the first scene or two. Then, things would start to go sideways. There’s nothing worse than a mind blank in front of hundreds of people!
The same is true of exam revision. You’re under so much pressure at that moment. You can’t expect yourself to remember details you barely understood 3 hours ago. You won’t do as well as you deserve.
There’s a scientific reason why it doesn’t work, too. Basically, we can only deal with around 4 chunks of new information at one time. Any more than that and our brains get overloaded. If we want to remember and deal with more information than that at one time, we have to store it in our long-term memories.
Then, we have to “overlearn” it until we can pull it out of our long-term memories without any effort. That way, you’re not putting any strain on your brain to remember it and your mind can focus on other things.
That’s not going to happen hours – or even days – before an exam. It takes weeks of practising and remembering the same fact for it to become second nature to you.
Plus, even if you remember the fact, that doesn’t mean you’ll use it right. Your brain is spending so much energy just trying to remember it properly. You don’t have enough mental space to apply or analyse it well.
Cramming is the worst way to revise. Just don’t do it.
Forgetting to Take Regular Breaks
Lots of us out there ignore regular breaks in our revision schedules. For me, it’s because I feel bad about wasting time. For some of you, it might be because other people think you’re “slacking” and judge you. There are plenty of other reasons! They’re all just ruining your study sessions, though.
Regular breaks are good. According to Cornell University, they help to:
- Refresh your brain, so it isn’t overloaded.
- Refresh your body, so you don’t get cramps or feel drowsy.
- Increase your energy.
- Improve your productivity.
- Help you to refocus.
From my experience, they also help to reduce frustration. Sometimes, I get so stressed and anxious when studying. I just don’t get something I’m reading! So, I’ll take a break and go out for a walk. Maybe I’ll listen to some music! Often, I do something completely unrelated to my revision, like knitting or talking to a friend (who isn’t studying).
Then, when I return to study, things will be much clearer to me! My mind is refreshed, which helps me to look at the problem from a different angle. Plus, I don’t feel so emotional about the whole issue. I can ask myself if I really need to know this right now or if I can come back later.
Breaks can help you so much. You just need to learn the difference between a break and procrastination.
I remember when I first tried revision. I just opened my textbook on the first page and did my studying in that order. It didn’t occur to me to set my own order. To be honest, I didn’t see why it mattered.
It really does matter. In fact, I will go as far as to say that it can make or break your study schedule! Why is this? Well, you’re an individual with your own strengths and weaknesses.
For a teacher, it helps to teach their lessons in a certain order. They want to organise the scheme of work so that they start with the easier things. Then, they can build the harder things on top. This is great – especially when you need to understand the easy stuff to get the trickier concepts.
When you’re revising, though? Well, it’s not going to help if you follow that order. Here are a few reasons why:
- If you had to understand the easier topics to do the harder ones, you were already revising a little.
- You might already feel comfortable on some topics. So, why waste too much time on them?
- Most people revise best at the start of their study period. You don’t want to leave the harder topics for when you’ve lost momentum.
- You don’t want to ignore that hard topic until ages after you first learnt it. You might forget it altogether! Then, you’ll have to relearn it from scratch!
So, focus on the areas where you struggle the most. Then, sprinkle in the easier topics, so you don’t forget them.
Don’t just guess, though. Look back at your teacher’s feedback. What did you struggle with the most? Do some quizzes to see what you need to focus on. Use that to help you prioritise.
Trying to Memorise Huge Chunks of Information
If you learn too much info in one go, you’re not going to remember it for your exam.
This all goes back to the whole thing I was saying about overloading your brain. The technical term for it is “Cognitive Load Theory“. Part of it tells teachers that they need to break down information into little bite-sized chunks and let students learn them one by one.
Have you ever wondered why the school day is split the way it is? Why do you need to walk between classes every hour or two? Well, there are multiple reasons! One of them is about helping to naturally chunk your lessons.
Teachers can’t and shouldn’t pack loads and loads of info into an hour-long lesson. If they did, classes would become more like uni lectures, and you wouldn’t have a lot of time to practice your new skills.
Between those lessons, you usually get 5-10 minute movement breaks. This gives you a chance to walk to your next class, stretch your legs and refresh your mind.
You need to do the same thing with your revision. Sitting there for hour after hour and trying to digest 200 facts just isn’t going to cut it. The only difference is that you don’t have a school timetable to do this for you. You’ll have to arrange it for yourself.
Remember you can only work with around 4 bits of new information at a time. So, make sure you stick to that. Overloading your brain isn’t going to help you learn more. Switch things up! Let your brain rest for 5-10 mins before you try to revise again. Plus, keep coming back to the info just to see if it sunk in.
Neglecting a Topic Once You’ve “Got It”
Once you understand a topic, it’s tempting to put it away and focus on something new. I don’t blame you! You’ve mastered it, right? Why waste your time on it when you know what you’re talking about?
The problem is that loads of people drop a topic they understand way before they should. They feel super confident about it, so they move on. Then, when they do a test on it later in the year, they are shocked. They thought they had this! How could they struggle so much?
This issue has a lot of research behind it, too! A guy called Ebbinghaus came up with a concept called the “Forgetting Curve“. We, teachers, spend a lot of time talking about it because it helps us to understand why students don’t remember what we taught them 2 weeks ago.
It’s all about how our memory of a fact gets weaker over time. In fact, the average person forgets around 90% of what they have learnt within a week. However, if you keep reminding yourself of the fact you learnt, you are less and less likely to forget it. Eventually, after enough revision, you’ll be much more likely to remember it than to forget it!
That’s why it is so important to keep coming back to old information that you think you already know. The more times you deal with the info, the easier it will be for you to use it in an exam. Also, you won’t have to use your brain power to try to remember the fact. You can use that brain power to analyse or apply the info, instead.
Overly High Expectations of Revision
The people who work super hard in school often set expectations that are way too high.
I’ve seen it happen time after time. They know that the exam is super important and they want to do well. They know they’ve worked hard for their homework and other important tasks. So, they feel like they can get everything done very quickly.
I know it can be tempting – especially if you’re on study leave! You’re sure you can make the most out of every waking hour, right? That way, you’ll be extra prepared for your exams.
But the human brain just doesn’t work like that. You need to take lots of breaks. There’s only so much new information that you can store in one go. Revision also makes us feel physically tired. If you try to do too much, you’ll end up burnt out. Then what? You’ll lose even more revision time!
On top of that, you’ll end up beating yourself up. You’ll wonder why you couldn’t just learn that whole textbook in 2 weeks. That will make you feel so bad, which will also lower your productivity. Remember: good mental health improves your studying.
If you have an idea of how long your revision will take, double that time. So, if you think you can go over similes and metaphors in one hour, give yourself two. That way, you’ve accounted for way more buffer time. If you actually finish in an hour, that’s great! You have an extra hour to use. If it takes two, you won’t be behind on your own schedule.
Revising in Boring Ways
It doesn’t matter if you’re a good student. Studying in boring ways isn’t going to help you in the long run.
You’ve got to find a revision strategy that works for you! It should engage you. Heck, you might even find ways to make it downright fun. The work will keep your attention for way longer if it isn’t dull.
I love to read, right? That doesn’t mean that I enjoy staring at a dusty textbook for hours on end, though. I’ve got to find a way to spice up my studies, too. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be so prepared for my own exams.
Fun looks different for each and every one of us out there. Some of us might want to play a game that uses the info we need! For others, you could want to start a study group. You’ve just got to find what works for you and run with it.
As long as you don’t lose sight of the fact that you’re revising, a little fun will do wonders!
Here are some of the fun things I did to make studying a little more enjoyable:
- Make mood boards and playlists for literature characters based on quotes.
- Revise by creating essay plans.
- Start a revision blog.
- Create a board game out of the things you need to learn (like literary device Charades).
- Pick up the audiobook version of a book you need to read.
- Time yourself doing exam answers. Try to beat your time.
- Watch documentaries.
- Do online quizzes (like Kahoot).
- Watch YouTube videos (like Crash Course).
- Try out some of the resources from my homeschooling blog post.
For Study Buddy members and above, I’m going to make a forum thread on fun ways to revise. Check it out and add your own ideas!
When I was revising for my A-levels, I became such a shut-in. People I knew called my room “Shani’s cave”! I barely ever escaped – unless it was to grab armfuls of snacks. I know loads of other people have been there, too.
This is not healthy, though. Humans are social animals, and we need to talk to each other. Plus, it helps to speak to people who are in the same boat as you! When you work alone, you can feel like crap if you don’t understand a particular concept or fact. If you have other people telling you that they don’t get it either, you feel less alone and more intelligent.
Then there’s just being able to vent to other people. Share your thoughts and fears with people who care about you! If you’re struggling with your mental health, letting people know can lead to you getting the help you need.
Being social can be a huge help with your revision in other ways, too! People are less worried about asking their friends “silly questions”, which is great! I find that 90% of silly questions are actually very useful and could help everyone improve.
You just need to make sure you choose to study with fellow students who care about their work. Otherwise, you might get distracted and end up talking about other things.
Speaking of getting distracted, that’s a huge issue with revision that loads of people struggle with.
Let me make one thing clear: it’s normal to get distracted from time to time. After a while, your brain will want to do something else. Your mind will wander. It’s only natural. This is even more true if you have ADHD or ADD. Don’t get angry with yourself for it.
The important thing is that you don’t let the distraction go on for too long. Give yourself 5-10 mins of grace. Watch that YouTube video that caught your eye. Look up that random fact that’s barely related to your exam. Just don’t let yourself fall down that rabbit hole of endless googling. Give yourself a limit.
This helps you to strike a nice balance. You’re being nice to yourself. You won’t feel incompetent for letting your mind wander. However, you’re also holding yourself accountable by getting back on track within 10 mins.
When you first start doing this, it will take a lot of skill to realise you’ve become distracted and get back to your work. Soon, though, you’ll be self-regulating very easily.
I personally needed a little bit of help from technology to get used to self-regulation like this. I’d have regular alarms on my phone that said “get back to work”. I also created a revision schedule with 1-hour study sessions and 10-minute breaks in between.
I knew that I could procrastinate in those breaks, so I’d just write down my idle thoughts in my “procrastination notebook” to come back to during my breaks.
So, don’t beat yourself up, but regulate. If you need a friend or family member to drop in and remind you to get back to your work, ask them!
Doing Everything the Long Way
When I was in school, some of my friends would rewrite their notes for revision. For some of them, it worked very well. Great! For others, though, it was just a waste of time.
It would take them hours and hours just to write up the notes. That’s hours they could have spent on quizzes, exam practice and other useful things! It wasn’t a very effective strategy, and they didn’t feel like they learnt a lot by the end.
I did something equally time-wasting, to be honest. I tried to make all my revision notes look super pretty! There were 10 different highlighters on my desk – each of them had a purpose. I’d write in black pen and then trace over it in different colours. The problem was, that made my perfectionist side come out. If I made a typo or used the wrong colour highlighter, I’d rip out the page and start again.
In reality, I could have used so many shortcuts to create these notes. I eventually just wrote on a whiteboard and scanned in the stuff I created onto a notes app. It was a much better use of my time!
The truth is that we don’t have all the time in the world to revise. So, don’t get caught up in doing everything the long way. Don’t feel too much pressure to make everything look pretty. Focus on finding ways to work smarter, not harder. Work more efficiently, not longer.
Otherwise exam period will come around the corner, and you’ll feel like you’ve worked hard and got nothing done. It’s not worth it.
Letting People Judge Your Revision Style
I remember I was in a GCSE science lesson and a teacher spotted my textbook. She scoffed at it and called me out in front of the class for studying in a ridiculous way. I was completely humiliated! I stopped using the revision method I’d used in that book for ages afterwards.
It’s such a shame because that method worked really well for me later on in my life. I’d stumbled on a strategy that worked for me. I was only avoiding it because of someone else’s judgement.
What was the strategy? Well, highlighting all over my books. I’d colour-coded the information in the textbook based on how confident I felt with it.
Red/pink meant I was confused and needed to look over the paragraph again. Green meant that I was confident with that paragraph and I didn’t need to spend much time on it. Orange and yellow were somewhere in between. I was prioritising my revision just like I mentioned above.
The funny thing was we paid for those textbooks. They were literally ours, so it’s not like she could stop me from doing what I wanted with mine.
That teacher had no clue what worked for me. I’m not saying that this teacher was bad. I’m just saying that there was a method to the colour explosion that she didn’t even bother to ask me about.
Mind you: this was during the time when people still thought learning styles were a real thing. We’ve come a long way since then.
Don’t let someone else dictate your revision strategy like I did. Do what works for you. Just make sure you can explain why you’re doing what you’re doing.
Forgetting to Reward Yourself
All of us can be so self-deprecating. We focus on all the things we don’t like about ourselves and forget to mention the good things. That’s not good for our mental health in the long run.
Sure, it’s good to be able to critique your work. It helps you to see what you can do better next time! It’s a skill that will help you to go far in your life. However, it’s important that you can pick out the things that went well, too.
If you don’t know you’ve done something good, you might stop doing it! Then, you’ll lose the positive things about your work. That’s not good! You should keep up the good things even if you have areas to improve. That’s how you’ll get the best results.
Then there’s validation. That’s just as important as making sure you produce the best work!
If you aren’t praising and rewarding yourself for what you did well, you can become demotivated. During your revision period, that can be really damaging. I mean, this is a time when you have to work all by yourself. If you don’t feel motivated, how can you do that?
Plus, rewards give you something to look forward to, which makes it easier to focus. “If I finish this chapter, I’ll give myself a little chocolate.” What a fun and motivating thing!
So, give yourself little rewards often. Plan them into your study schedule, if you can. Find ways to give yourself little treats to keep your spirits up when revising.
How to Revise Instead
There are plenty of ways that you can make revision much easier for you. I have a new blog post coming out very soon that will give you a detailed list of my top tips. Be on the lookout for that! In the meantime, make sure you ask yourself “which of those study mistakes apply to me?” Use that to help you improve.
If I had to give myself some advice on how to study well, this is what I’d say:
- Don’t leave it to the end of the school year. Start as early as you can!
- Try out Kahoot and other fun study tools.
- Listen to educational YouTube videos and podcasts on the go.
- Study with friends.
- Create essay plans instead of just rereading notes or books.
- Make sure you take regular breaks.
- Keep hydrated and have some healthy snacks nearby.
- Don’t study in bed. Find a comfortable place to sit and separate work from leisure.
- Prioritise longer and more important topics.
Also, don’t be afraid to get your teacher involved. After all, they are the expert! They’ll be able to tell you which topics to prioritise when you’re making your schedule.
Plus, they can build short, 5-minute recall quizzes into their lessons that will help you to remember and overlearn topics you did in the past. You can see an example of me doing just that in the picture below:
If you are interested in joining my GCSE English course, please let me know in the comments! If I have enough interest, I’ll make sure to speed up the process.
Good luck with your revision!