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Why You Can’t Remember What You Revised

If you’re getting ready for your GCSE, A-level, or uni exams, you know the stress of revision. You probably have a bunch of concerns about motivation, the correct way of studying and finding great resources. There is one thing that frustrates students more than any other, though: why can’t you remember the things you’ve learnt?

If you struggle to keep all the information in your head, you’re not alone. I had the same problem myself! I could spend hours and hours studying, but it would leak out of my head straight away. It’s a frustrating experience that makes you feel like you’ll never crack the revision thing.

I’m here to tell you that there’s nothing wrong with you. Struggling to remember things you’ve learnt is completely human and normal.

The good news is that there are things you can do to help you revise easier. You’ve just got to learn how your brain learns things. Once you know that, it will be easy to find strategies to help the revision stick.

So, stick around and let me explain why your revision isn’t working. Then, we’ll work out what you can do about it!

Note: This blog post is about why you can’t remember things well and strategies to make memorisation easier. If there are other reasons why you’re struggling to revise, I have a separate blog post that you should check out.

How We Acquire New Information

If you want to become a master reviser, you need to learn how the human brain works.

It’s something my uni tutor spent a lot of time talking about when I was training to be a teacher! To be honest, I wish I had known about this memory stuff sooner. It’s something they should teach you before you sit your exams. It would save a lot of time and heartache.

There is some good and bad news when it comes to learning new info. The bad news is that you can’t brute force the knowledge into your brain. No matter how hard you try, it will just bounce straight out of your brain again. You might remember learning it, but you’re not going to keep the info in your head. That’s why cramming never works in the long term.

The good news is that your brain capacity is huge. In fact, it has so much storage that we haven’t actually figured out its limit yet. There has not been a single person in recorded history who has run out of terabytes in their brain. It didn’t matter how many languages they learnt or useless facts they absorbed. They could always acquire more.

If you want to unlock the brain’s full potential, you’ve got to take care of it and learn the right way. This is going to take you time, motivation and hard work. Once you start learning properly, though, everything will be much easier for you.

Here’s a guide to how the brain works. It will set you on the right path to revising like a pro.

The Working Memory and the Long-Term Memory

Your memory is made up of a few different parts. When thinking about revision, though, there are only two we need to look at: the working memory and the long-term memory. Understand the difference, and you are on the way to unlocking the brain’s true power.

Long-term memory is like the final vault where we store information. The info you keep in it can last a few days or the whole of your life. It just depends on how you use it.

On the other hand, the working memory is where we keep the information we’re currently using. This kind of memory is very limited. In fact, you usually can’t even hold 10 pieces of information in there at once! We originally thought that the limit was around 5-9 pieces of info. However, if what you’re learning is completely new to you, the capacity could be as small as 4!

So, if you’re learning a new word or grammar point for French class, that’s one slot ticked off your working memory capacity. No wonder I sucked so much at vocab tests!

Every time you solve a maths problem or write an essay, your brain is pulling important information out of your long-term memory and putting it in your working memory for you to use.

Information can only stay in your working memory for a short period of time. Once you stop using it, your mind is going to drop it, so it can focus on something else. So, you need to make sure that new information goes to your long-term memory as soon as possible.

If you’re a computer nerd, you might say that your working memory is your RAM while your long-term memory is your storage.


Putting Information in the Long-Term Memory

But how do you move information from your working memory to your long-term memory? Well, it’s all about how much you use and engage with the info.

As an English teacher, I’ve seen way too many students try to remember new subject terminology by reading glossaries. This isn’t going to help you very much when it comes to storing this info in your long-term memory.

Don’t get me wrong: glossaries are great! I started one for this site 2 years ago that became a mammoth project I’m still working on. Clearly, I love them. However, if you’re reading them like a book, you’re not going to keep the info in your head.

If you want to move the term “metaphor” to your long-term memory, you’ve got to do something with it. Identify 10-20 examples of metaphors from other people’s work. Sort similes from metaphors. Explain why some non-examples aren’t metaphors. Create 10 of your own. Maybe even explain metaphors in your own words to someone else.

The more of this you do, the more the term will inch its way into your long-term memory. That’s why the best way to learn is to teach. You’re taking an active role by using the information. That makes it easier for you to remember down the road.

It also explains why my maths teachers made me do 500 quadratic equations for homework. I hated it, but it helped me remember!


The Forgetting Curve

However, it’s not enough to just use the information the first time you learn it. You’ve got to keep going back to it.

Once a piece of info is in your long-term memory, it will stay there for a day or two. Then, it will start to decay until you can’t remember it anymore. That’s why revision can sometimes feel like you’re learning the info all over again. It’s because you are. You took too long before you used it again, so it disappeared. Think of the scene from Inside Out where Riley’s old memories fade.

A guy called Ebbinghaus noticed how our memories slowly decay over time. After lots of research, he came up with a theory called the Forgetting Curve. His work helps us to understand why it becomes harder and harder to remember a piece of information when we leave it for a long time. The curve looks a little like this:

Ebbinghaus's Forgetting Curve

Basically, you forget up to 90% of something just a week after learning it!

All isn’t lost, though! You won’t need to remind yourself of the same piece of info every day for the rest of your life.

This curve only drops so quickly the first time we learn a piece of information. Every time you use a piece of information, the time it takes before it decays increases. Eventually, once you’ve revised it enough, you can remember it for years without needing to remind yourself regularly! Decay will still happen. It will just happen over years, not days.

What Ebbinghaus's forgetting curve looks like when you remind yourself of information in between.

The more you remind yourself of a piece of knowledge, the more firm it is in your mind.

To get the best results, you’ve got to space out each reminder. Plus, increase the amount of time you leave between the reminders as time goes on.

Background Knowledge and the “Stickiness” of Information

Reminding yourself of the same information over and over again isn’t the only way that you can make sure it’s firm in your mind. There are other factors that contribute to how much you’ll remember it! One of the biggest factors is something called “schema“.

Schema is all the background knowledge you already have in your mind. Things in our long-term memory that we’ve learnt, noticed, experienced, heard or seen in the media add to our schema. We use this schema to make judgements about new ideas, knowledge and experiences.

This is an important part of English! Writers draw on our schema when they create characters and situations. However, the term is mostly used by teachers and academics talking about how we learn.

When we link our schema to new knowledge, it makes it easier to remember and harder to forget.

For example, let’s say that you have already learnt the word “window” in French. You’re confident that you’re unlikely to forget it! It’s one that you’re sure you’ve got down. “Fenetre”.

Then, in history class, you learn about the Defenestration of Prague. Your mind might make the connection there! “Fenetre” means “window”. So, “defenestrate” probably means something about a window. You might also recognise the prefix “de”. So you get a sense of what the word means. Throwing someone out of a window! You get it!

You’ll remember the Defenestration now. Whenever you start to forget, your brain will tell you “window in French,”. Plus, it helps you to practice your French vocab, too. That gives you an extra reminder on the Forgetting Curve.

More connections between ideas mean less forgetting. Plus, it helps you to have a deeper understanding of how different subjects are connected.


Retrieving Information From Your Long-Term Memory

So, you know a bit about putting new info into your long-term memory. You know you need to keep revising until it sticks there. However, how do you use the information once it’s there?

Well, when you first start using a piece of information, you have to pull it out of your long-term memory and put it in your working memory to play with. We call this process “retrieval“.

The more you revise and use a piece of info, the easier it will be for you to retrieve it. If you don’t retreive it enough, it will take time and brain processing power for you to retrieve it again when you need to.

So, you want to make sure that your knowledge has been retrieved over and over again before your exam. That way, when you’re sitting in your exam hall, retrieval will be easy as anything! It will save you time and energy.

Plus, it means you can use more processing power to figure out how to use the knowledge, not just to try to remember it in the first place. You’re not clogging up your brain by forcing it to scour the vault and look for a dusty memory.

The more you have revised a piece of info, the easier it will be for you to find it in your long-term memory and pull it out again. It’s like a librarian who’s been working in the same library for 30 years! Or you walking to the bathroom in the dark and knowing exactly where the light switch is. Like muscle memory.

Thinking hard makes you tired. So, you want to do brain exercises that make retrieval easy. That way, you won’t become exhausted halfway through the exam. Basically, good revision makes you less tired on the big day.

Overloading Your Working Memory

As I said before, the limit of your working memory could be so small that it only holds 4 pieces of knowledge at one time. Of course, this is going to depend on how complex the info is and how often you’ve recalled it. However, you can’t expect yourself to be able to remember everything all at once.

It isn’t just new information that takes up space in your working memory, either. It’s also the things you’ve pulled out of your long-term memory. Plus, there are other factors that could clog up your working memory, such as:

  • Long, complicated sentences.
  • Big blocks of text.
  • Archaic or convoluted writing styles (like Shakespeare).
  • Low-frequency vocabulary you aren’t used to.
  • You trying to retrieve the information.
  • You solving problems and answering questions with your retrieved knowledge.
  • Solving problems in a different language.

That’s a lot for a brain with so little RAM to cope with!

The problem is that we don’t know our own capacity. We try to cram as much knowledge into our brains as possible and hope for the best. I know I used to do that when learning lines in drama.

When our brain is overloaded with information, it messes with the learning process. New information bounces right out of your head. You start to get confused with the information you do understand. It makes you stressed and frustrated. You might even get physical symptoms, such as fatigue and headaches!

So, you’ve got to find ways to reduce your cognitive load when revising. Splitting up revision and learning in small chunks is a great way to do this. Plus, make sure you start with “easy” knowledge and layer the harder stuff on top of it once you’re confident. There are more strategies later in this post.

Bypassing Your Working Memory

So, if everything you do takes some of your brain’s processing power, how can we even talk without the cognitive load becoming too much? I mean, surely every single word is a piece of knowledge that you need to retrieve from your long-term memory, right? So, how can you remember and use it all without smoke coming out of your ears?

An image of memory on a Mac to compare how it links to the human brain and remembering information.
Brains are not too different from computers! Don’t let that memory pressure get to high!

Well, the brain is a beautiful thing. It has ways to make sure this doesn’t happen. Otherwise, we’d all be zombified by knowledge by the time we turned 2 years old!

If you practice and use your knowledge enough, you reduce the strain it takes on your working memory. The amount of processing power it takes will be so small that you won’t even notice it. Eventually, you might even bypass the working memory completely!

It’s like learning how to speak. At first, you have to use so much of your working memory to figure out meaning. It’s no wonder little toddlers can only string together 1 or 2 words! However, as they get used to the words and their meanings, they don’t need to spend energy on that. They can use their working memory on other things – like sentences or being cheeky!

In order to do this, you need to:

  • Practice a piece of knowledge over and over again in all different contexts.
  • Use the knowledge in lots of different ways to solve lots of different problems.
  • Keep adding to your schema and linking the knowledge to your other experiences.

You might have noticed there are things you do by muscle memory without even thinking about them. With time, your brain can do this for pretty much everything!


The Same Information in New Contexts Can Fool You

When I first started tutoring, I couldn’t understand why my students struggled. We spent ages going over metaphors. They gave me amazing examples. They could sort similes from metaphors. Even analysing metaphors was a breeze. However, trying to make them spot one in a poem was hell.

Then, I sat down to watch a YouTube video. It was a video on dog training, of all things. It’s not exactly where you’d expect to have an epiphany about teaching human students, but it taught me a whole lot.

In the video, Victoria Swilwell explained that asking your dog to “sit” in the quiet and comfort of your home is not the same as asking them to “sit” in the park where there’s a lot of noise. You have to teach your dog that the command means the same thing in those different contexts. They just haven’t made the connection yet.

That triggered my schema. My students were having a similar problem! They couldn’t recognise that a metaphor in the comfort of a lesson was the same as a metaphor in a poem. It wasn’t their fault. I just hadn’t taken the time to help them make the connection. Thanks to that schema, I’ve never forgotten what Victoria said or what I learnt from it.

When we remember a piece of information, we can’t just apply it to a new context straight away. We have to train our brains to notice that it’s the same info. It’s just wrapped up in a different box.

When someone points out to you that it’s the same knowledge, you might feel silly. It’s not your fault, though. It’s just about training yourself.

If your revision isn’t training you for different contexts, that’s why you’re struggling to remember what you need to.

Taking Care of Your Brain

So, we’ve established the science behind why people generally struggle to remember what they’ve revised. Now, it’s time to look at the factors that might stop you personally.

I’ve spent a lot of time in this post comparing the human brain to a computer. Just like a computer, you have to look after it! Otherwise, it won’t work properly for you.

It isn’t your fault if you can’t remember 600 facts in one day. You can’t cram that much revision into such a short amount of time and expect it to stay in your head. It just isn’t going to work! That’s not on you. It’s normal and human. Anyone would have that problem.

However, there are mistakes you could make that would be totally on you. If you’re not giving your brain the conditions it needs to do well, you’re never going to revise as well as you could.

Every brain has a limited amount of processing power. But what are you doing to make sure the power is as high as it can be?

Here are some of the things you need to take care of if you want to revise well.

Eat Nutritious Food and Drink Lots of Water

Your brain is an organ. Like other organs, it needs a lot of good fuel if you want it to work at its best. The best way to fuel your brain is with a good, nutritious and balanced diet.

Now, I know the temptation to eat like crap. I sure did throughout my whole time at uni. Now, I regret it because it stopped me from being the best student I could be.

At the moment, it’s Ramadan. I can always tell which fasting students are eating well and which aren’t. The ones who eat well are tired but alert. The ones who eat junk can barely keep their eyes open in class. They don’t remember a whole lot, either!

That’s really no good this close to exam period. You’ve got to fuel your brain with the right stuff – if you can! It’s going to save you a lot of stress and disappointment in the long run.

A good revision diet will include lots of healthy protein from sources like eggs, nuts, beans and fatty fish. You’ll need food that gives you the full range of vitamins, too! So, fresh fruit and veg are a must. In the middle of a revision session, try snacking on something healthy rather than crisps. My go-to is edamame beans!

Make sure you’re being healthy with what you drink, too. It’s no secret that you need to keep yourself hydrated so you can focus better. However, those Monster energy drinks really aren’t doing anything for you. Stick to water as much as you can. If you need a caffeine boost, try green tea!

If you’re fasting, make sure your food releases energy and water slowly. You might also want to do the hardest revision soon after your meal!


Don’t Drink Alcohol Before Revision

Look. I don’t want to be a buzzkill for all the uni students out there. I know you’re enjoying your freedom. and going out with your friends often. It’s great! If you’re studying for your exams, though, I highly recommend you cool off on the alcohol for a bit. Wait until after you’re done revising!

If you’re doing your GCSEs, you definitely shouldn’t be drinking alcohol, anyway. Stay away from it until you’re legally allowed to drink.

Now, you might have seen studies flying around the internet that say that small amounts of alcohol improve memory. While that is true on a small scale, you lose these benefits completely if you drink too much. If you learn stuff while drinking, the fact that you were drunk will become part of the memory. When you remember it, you’ll associate it with drinking. You might even need to drink again to remember the details! Plus, the negatives outweigh the good.

I don’t feel like I need to say you shouldn’t get black-out drunk and then try to revise. That’s terrible. for your brain in the short term and the long term. However, there are other reasons why you don’t want to be drinking while studying:

  • You are less likely to make good choices when you’re under the influence.
  • Alcohol is a depressant, which means it slows down the messages going around the nervous system. Sure, it calms and relaxes you. It also reduces motivation and concentration! Not great for revision.
  • It slows your thinking. Not so good when you have so little time to revise.
  • Alcohol can disrupt your sleep. Sleep is another thing you really need for effective revision.

And hey! If you’re old enough and you drink responsibly, a night out can be a great reward for finishing your exams!

Get Enough Sleep

Have you ever wondered why babies sleep so much? Well, part of it is because it’s tiring work to grow so quickly! Another part is that it helps them to process everything they learnt in a day.

If you want to have a productive day of revision, getting a good night’s sleep really helps with that. I’m sure you know what it feels like to go to class tired. You feel like it’s 10x harder to understand everything! Your brain works slower. You struggle to concentrate. Nothing makes sense. And that’s if you can even keep your eyes open!

When you go to sleep, it also helps you to strengthen and sort through your new knowledge. The REM cycle, in particular, seems to play a big part in connecting new memories to your schema so your knowledge sticks better.

So, basically, a good night’s sleep bookends good revision. It should come before to put you in the right state of mind to learn. It should come after to make sure you actually keep all the knowledge in your head. That way, you can remember it down the line.

Personally, I struggled with sleep when I was at university. No matter how much I tried, I couldn’t not get to sleep. The tiredness gave me tension headaches, which made sleep even harder!

If you’re like me, you might want to go to the doctor’s and chat about that. They’ll be able to give you some suggestions to help you sleep. If things are really bad, they might even be able to prescribe you something to help! I have allergies, so my doctor prescribed me a drowsy antihistamine to deal with both problems at once!

Now, I get myself a nice chamomile tea before bed. Works so well!

Keep Your Learning Space Uncluttered

There is a quick win for reducing cognitive load and freeing up space in your working memory. You’ve got to declutter your learning space.

When you’re revising, your brain isn’t just focusing on trying to remember the content. It’s processing everything going on in your surroundings. You’ll hear the noises around you and notice things out of the corner of your eye.

All of the noise and clutter around you uses up way too much of your working memory’s power. That’s power you could be using to understand the content better and work on getting the knowledge into your long-term memory! It’s stopping you from being the efficient learner you could be.

That’s why it’s so hard to focus when there’s a lot of noisy stuff happening around you! It’s also the reason why I can’t listen to songs with lyrics when I’m working. I end up writing or typing the lyrics instead. Or, I just get completely distracted and end up in an internet rabbit hole.

You’ve got to declutter if you want to study well. It will help you to engage with information in your working memory, which will help you to remember and recall it later on. To declutter, you should:

  • Clear your table of any unnecessary items.
  • Close any tabs you don’t need on your browser.
  • Keep any unneeded stationery in your pencil case.
  • Put books from other subjects away (or behind you).
  • Hide or remove items with lots of text you don’t need to read.

Do yourself this favour. The time it takes you to declutter is nothing compared to the time you’ll lose if you don’t. It really is worth it in the long run.


Accept That Memory Will Be Harder on Some Days

I’ve been learning French for quite some time now, and I’ve developed a bit of a love-hate relationship with the language. Sometimes, I feel like I get everything! It all makes sense to me. I fly through my lessons. Other times? Well, it feels like my French knowledge is sinking in quicksand. I just can’t seem to remember it very quickly. It’s so much effort.

I know that this isn’t because I just randomly lost a bunch of my French knowledge. Sure, some of it might be to do with the Forgetting Curve. That’s not the whole story, though. My state of mind and context play a big part in how well I do at studying.

Some days are just going to be harder than others when it comes to revising. There are many factors that can affect your ability to revise well. Here are a few:

  • Illness or allergies.
  • Not sleeping well.
  • Arguments with friends or family members.
  • A news story or post that upset or angered you.
  • What and when you eat.
  • The time of day.
  • What you have planned after studying.
  • What you did before you started studying.

There are a lot of things there that you have the power to change. However, not all of them are in your hands. I remember I had a massive argument with a family member while I was doing my dissertation for my M.A. It affected my ability to think properly and made me make silly mistakes. I couldn’t control them coming in and picking a fight with me, though!

So just accept that it’s going to be harder to revise on some days. Don’t beat yourself up about it. Don’t stop revising completely, either. Recognise your struggles, validate your feelings and take things slow.

Strategies to Help You Remember Revision

Now you know a little bit more about how the brain works. You understand what you can change to make sure you remember your revision better. Let’s look at some practical strategies you can use to achieve your revision goals.

In my time as a tutor and a teacher, I’ve seen many different study methods. Some of them were better than others, to be honest. There were some real stinky ones out there – and students would swear by them! They would insist that this was the best way for them to revise. I’d know they were shooting themselves in the foot.

Believe me – I’ve been there! I used to highlight every single line in a textbook while I was reading because “it was all important” and I “needed to learn it all”. The only plus side to it was I always knew where I got up to last time. It wasn’t nearly as effective as I wished it was.

If you want to remember more knowledge for your exams, you’re going to have to take a long, hard look at how you revise. It’s up to you to make some changes!

Here are my suggestions for effective studying. Try out as many as you can. Adapt them to suit your needs and environment. Revision is a personal thing, so personalise them!

Revise As You Learn

The sooner you can start revising, the better.

Many students leave their revision until late in the game. This is terrible for their exam results in the long run! Even if you’re doing really well with that strategy, you could have done better and used less energy to ace your exams if you had started revising sooner.

This is because it doesn’t give you much time to make recall a breeze. You might remember all the knowledge you need for your exam, sure. However, can you pull it out of your long-term memory without too much brain effort? If not, trying to remember all the facts is taking up energy you could use to answer the question or solve problems.

Plus, it means that your revision isn’t as efficient as it could be. You’ve left it so long to look at these things again. You might be looking at a topic for the first time in a year and a half! You’ve forgotten so much of it that you’re basically learning the info from scratch!

Instead, start revising as soon as you can. There’s no such thing as “too early” when it comes to studying. The sooner you start, the less you have to do before your exam. Plus, you only need to do small chunks of revision earlier on.

When you learn something new, try to sum it up in your own words a week after you learnt it. In fact, why not summarise it in a blog post and make a bit of money from it on the side? Other students will eat up the revision nearer exam time, so you can lap up the ad revenue or sell your notes.

If you started late this time, don’t worry! Just take it on board for later.


Spaced Repetition

Education app makers have known about the Forgetting Curve for quite a while now. So, they’ve developed their products with this in mind. They developed a method called “Spaced Repetition”, which uses science and maths to remind you of important knowledge before you forget too much.

Apps like Memrise and Anki are great for this! Both take care of the spaced repetition for you. They make you regularly review old content so that you don’t lose the knowledge you learnt. With the Forgetting Curve in mind, they slowly increase the time between each reminder to make sure the info gets stronger in your long-term memory. Plus, they show you the things you got wrong more often to make sure you learn from your mistakes!

Both apps have their positives and negatives. With Memrise, I like the visual representation of the knowledge. Each fact is a flower that you watch grow and have to water regularly! That helps me to remember how the brain works and why I’m doing the same stuff over and over. However, you can only make a course for yourself on the website. You can’t do it on the app.

Anki gives you a lot of freedom over how you learn. It looks uncluttered when you’re using it, and lots of people have great decks online you can use. You take control of your learning in whatever way suits you. However, making your first deck can be confusing. If you’re close to your exams, it might not be worth it to take the time to learn.

You could also use a flashcard app like Quizlet or a quiz app like Kahoot. However, it would be up to you to keep going back to look at the content again. You’d be in charge of your own spaced practice.

Don’t Try to Remember Too Many Pieces of Information at Once

One of the biggest mistakes that students make is trying to learn too much information in one sitting.

That just isn’t going to work if you want to remember anything in the long term! Thanks to your limited working memory, there’s only so much that you can take in one sitting. Once you start piling on too much knowledge, your brain just isn’t going to process it. You’ll just waste your time revising stuff you won’t remember.

That’s where chunking comes in. Basically, you need to split your revision up into small, bite-sized pieces that you can cope with in one sitting. That way, you’re not overloading your working memory, and you can be sure you’re being as efficient with your studying as possible.

Let’s say you’re doing your GCSE and you want to revise for English literature on Monday morning. You want to revise Macbeth. That’s a whole lot of content to look at! You’re never going to be able to revise it all in an hour or two.

So, you should think about what you can revise in that time. You might decide you want to look at a particular scene and consider how Shakespeare makes the audience feel in the scene. So, you can spend time writing down some quotes and the literary devices he uses. Or maybe you’re going to look at the theme of ambition in the play and come up with the best quotes to back that.

Both of the things I mentioned would be considered a chunk. It’s more than enough content for you to get on with in your revision. However, it’s not so much that you’d be overwhelmed and unable to remember.

Chunking is about narrowing down the learning and taking things one step at a time.

Set Yourself An Achievable Revision Plan

It can be quite hard to stick to revising effectively if you don’t have a good idea of what you’re going to do.

That’s why it’s a good idea to have a revision plan before you start. It will help you to have revision goals, space out the things you’re studying, and force you to take regular breaks. A good revision plan will include the following things:

  • A timetable that is split up into 1-hour or 2-hour slots. No more than that.
  • Breaks of at least 5 minutes between each slot. Personally, I work best with 15-minute breaks.
  • A checklist of no more than 5 things you want to cover per revision slot.
  • Each revision slot covers a different subject or topic, so you’re spacing out your practice of the same topic.
  • Rewards for ticking off an acceptable number of things in your checklist for that day or slot.

A good plan forces you to be accountable for your own learning because you’re giving yourself goals you want to achieve. These goals should be achievable and time-bound so you’re not just floundering. Basically, you want to set yourself SMART goals.

It might take time to get right when you start. I know I used to overestimate how much I could get done in an hour. If you notice that you are never ticking off the 5 things on your checklist, don’t beat yourself up. Pause and ask yourself why it’s not working. Are you giving yourself too much to do? Are you getting distracted? How can you fix the issue?


Don’t Read Information – Use Information

Another big mistake I see students make is just sitting there and reading their textbook over and over again. This isn’t going to help you much with your exams for a few different reasons.

For one, you’re not going to just get a bunch of “regurgitate the textbook” questions. You’ll be asked to use the information you learnt to solve problems.

Secondly, things don’t stick in your long-term memory so easily if you just read the definition or process over and over again. No matter how many times you read what a metaphor is or how photosynthesis works, it’s not going to be that effective at helping you remember for your exam. Instead, you need to come up with your own metaphors or analyse them in other people’s work. Explain photosynthesis in your own words.

For my A-level English students, I recommend my “notice, predict and plan” method of revising. This works really well for essay subjects like English and History! It has 3 parts to it:

  1. Notice: Look back over the past papers in that exam. Notice how the exam questions are formulated. How is the same question number similar in each paper?
  2. Predict: Come up with all the possible questions you could be asked on each topic in the style of the exam. Write them down.
  3. Plan: Create colourful plans on A3 paper for each of those questions, using your textbooks and notes to fill in the information you need.

For Macbeth, you might notice that the questions are always “How does the writer present [theme]” or “How does the writer present [character]”. So, you make a list of all the themes and characters in the play. Then, you write a plan for each one!

With this method, you plan before the stress of your exam and remember easier.

Use the Same Information Until You Can Do It in Your Sleep

If you want to make exams easier, you need to keep on revising the same point over and over again. Get to the point where you’re so used to revising a piece of info that it bores you. Once you get there, you’re going to find that it will come out of your head much easier when you need it.

That goes back to what I was saying about bypassing the working memory. The more you pull a piece of info out of your long-term memory, the less strain and time it will take you to do it. That means it will just pop out of your head when you need it.

Instead of sitting in your exam and trying to think back to the important knowledge you need to remember, you’ll be able to dedicate your brain’s processing power to actually figuring out how to use it.

But how do you get there? How can you get to the point where you don’t even need to think about retrieving the information? Well, it’s all about how often you use it.

If you revise personification once a week for 8 weeks you’ll be able to recognise it with ease during your exams. Noticing personification will become second nature to you! You’ll be writing about that literary device in your sleep!

Even when you think you know a piece of knowledge, keep revising it! Don’t stop until it takes you literally no effort to remember it.

So, when your maths teacher makes you do Pythagoras’s Theorem 123,000 times, they’re doing it for your benefit. It means you won’t need to use too much of your brain’s processing power when it really counts.

Learn the Information in Many Different Ways

I cannot stress this enough: there is no such thing as a “learning style”. The idea that some of us are naturally auditory learners while others are kinesthetic learners was debunked years ago. However, that doesn’t mean we can’t take some strategies from back when we thought learning styles were real.

The truth is that seeing the same piece of information in lots of different contexts is a great way to make it stick in your mind. Just reading about a piece of information is fine. So is seeing a diagram about the knowledge you’re learning. However, combining the two can give you much better results! They complement and explain each other nicely.

Plus, it’s helpful to access the same information from lots of different resources and teachers. They’re all going to tell you the same piece of information in a slightly different way. One of them is personally going to stick for you better than the others. Then, you can use the other explanations to deepen your understanding.

That’s why I recommend that students go home and watch videos on the topic we’ve learnt in class. Video is an audiovisual medium. It stimulates your eyes and your ears at the same time. You’re learning information in both ways, which helps to make your brain make sense of it easier. Images to back up what you’re saying will always help it to stick.

It also goes back to what I was saying about schema. If we make links between new knowledge and stuff we already know, it makes the new stuff stick better. The more we see the info in different contexts, the easier it is for us to make these links.


Look for Cross-Subject Connections

I always make my students think about a new English point from the lens of film and TV. Whenever we learn a new concept in English, I ask them to think of an example of it from something else they already know.

Over the years, I’ve used Eminem to look at metre in poetry. I showed students how writers draw our attention to things using examples from film, TV and photography. I’ve even used Rishi Sunak’s NHS interview blunder to talk about Grice’s Maxims.

I also make sure I think about the subjects they’re doing elsewhere in school. Can I make any links to history or geography or religion? Is there a way to bring a little bit of maths into this?

It really is the best way to study. Here are some of the reasons why:

  • You get to revise two different subjects at once.
  • It gives you a deeper understanding of both subjects.
  • It will give you a wider picture of how each subject fits into the real world.
  • You are less likely to be thrown off guard by an exam question because you’ve already thought outside the box.
  • If one of the subjects is easier for you, it will improve the “stickiness” in the other one.
  • If you’re wrong about the link, it helps teachers to know where you’re confused and how they can help you.

If you ever find yourself thinking, “this is like biology” or “I’ve seen someone on TikTok do something similar”, run with it. It will help you with your revision so much!

In fact, write these links into your notes! Always be on the lookout for them. They’re everywhere.

Get as Many New Experiences as Possible

Have you ever wondered why it’s so much easier for some people to remember and learn new information than others? Why do academics seem to be able to use new information and remember it immediately? Are they just better at this learning thing than you?

No, they’re usually not better. There’s nothing wrong with your mind.

It’s just that the more experiences you have, the more schema you have.

Academics in a subject find it easier to learn new knowledge because they already know so much about the subject. They have 500 schema links that they can make between the new info and what they already know. That’s usually 499 more links than you.

The good news is that you don’t have to sit around and read dusty books to gain more schema.

Let’s say you go to the Science Museum and there’s an exhibition on electricity. You get to play around with circuits and figure out how to turn them on. You might not know how it works yet, but that’s a memory that will stick in your head for later.

Then, you learn about electricity in science. You can think back to the Science Museum when you figured out how to turn the light bulb on. Your brain will say, “So that’s why it didn’t turn on when I did that!” Well done! You have a schema link!

The more you read and experience, the easier it will be for you to learn new info.

That’s one of the reasons why students at private schools do so well. They have more chances to get new experiences that will increase their schema.

There are plenty of free and cheap ways to build up your schema, though. The more you do, the better!

Start Easy and Get More Complex as You Go

The interesting thing about knowledge in most subjects is they layer on top of each other.

If you know how to do basic algebra, you already know 50% of how quadratic equations work. If you know what a metaphor is, you already understand 75% of how allegories work. It is very rare that you’ll find a topic in a subject that doesn’t require you to know and understand the basics, first. Unless we’re actually talking about the basics, of course!

Since the basics help us to understand big chunks of the more complicated knowledge, it’s important that you start there. You need to make sure you know those simple things like the back of your hand first. Then, you can layer new information on top of it.

If you don’t know the basics very well, you’re likely to make mistakes with the more complex knowledge. You won’t remember the complex ideas as well because you won’t have the basic knowledge in your schema to make links to. Plus, it slows down your studying speed because it means you’ll have to stop to look things up or clarify the confusing points.

You’ve got to learn how to walk before you start to run. You need to learn how to work out a circle’s radius before you can find its area.

A similar thing is true for a more narrative subject like history, too. If you want to know how and when events happened, it’s useful to know what came before it. The chronology will help you to remember what happened easier because we tend to think in stories.

Make Revision Fun and Interesting

Did you know that you’re more likely to remember information if it’s attached to strong emotions?

This counts for any emotion: happiness, sadness, anger… anything! You just need to be feeling it intensely when you learn or revise the knowledge. Your mind will tie the emotion to the knowledge to keep it in your long-term memories more securely.

I reckon this has something to do with evolution. If we feel a strong emotion while learning a piece of knowledge, it probably means it’s useful for us to know it in order to survive. So, our brains hold onto it way longer.

It also explains why we tend to remember insults more than compliments. They trigger stronger emotions in us.

You can actually use this to your advantage when you’re studying for an exam. Make it fun by putting on some music or arranging a study session with your friends. Make revision a memorable experience. That way, what you learn will stick for longer.

Of course, the knowledge is always more important than having fun. Sometimes, you have too much fun and you can only remember the activity, not the knowledge. Make sure you put the revision at the front and centre of whatever fun thing you choose to do. Maybe a Kahoot tournament or something?

You also learn better when you are slightly uncomfortable! So, the stress of trying to win Kahoot will help you along the way!

Now you have a good understanding of how we remember (and forget) things. Use that to revise properly! Good luck!

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