The brain is the most important organ in the body. And never does it seem more valuable than when it comes to exam time. That is, up until the moment when you’re sitting in an exam hall and a question you’re sure you revised time and again comes up, and that pesky brain manages to draw a blank.
Part of avoiding this dreaded moment comes down to revising thoroughly, but you can also make even more out of your revision time by utilising what we know about the psychology of revision. These revision tips, based on information about the physiology and functionality of your brain, will help you turn those “brain burps” into epiphanies!
(revise then) Sleep
Looking at a biology GCSE past paper with a student recently, I was shocked to see the question:
Which area of the brain is responsible for memory?
- a) the hippocampus
- b) the neocortex.
As a student of psychology, this question is trying. Both parts of the brain are well known to be equally responsible – the former for encoding, and the latter for storage – of memories. Damage the former and you can’t make new memories; damage the latter and you can’t access old memories. When you’re awake, the neocortex is firing information into the hippocampus, but during sleep, their roles are reversed – the hippocampus is free to weave memories into your cortical grey matter.
From this we can conclude that it’s important not to spend 16-hour days in the library and get 5 hours sleep before starting the whole thing again the next day (you can do that when you’re at university). But further to this, recent research indicates that how soon you sleep after learning something can affect later recall. So for an extra boost, get that textbook out in the bath, and then it’s straight to bed!
Spread out your work
Have you ever answered a question incorrectly on a past paper, only to come across a similar question on your next paper and been unable to remember what the right answer actually was? This is a common fatality of the cramming “technique”. Just like making a good bowl of jelly, when your brain takes on-board new facts (or corrects old ones), you need to leave time to let things “set”.
This is due to the fact that the aforementioned hippocampus takes a little while to fully ingrain information into your neocortex, so the longer you can wait before revisiting information, the better your recall will be. This has been demonstrated empirically – a transatlantic research team observed 850,000 players in an online game, and found that gamers who left breaks in-between plays learned the rules of the game just as well as (if not better than) people who had played for much longer, but without any breaks.
This means that if you have a week to revise, it’s better to alternate your subjects, rather than try to finish revising each one in a big chunk.
Practise, practise, practise
Learning the content of what should go into an essay is one thing, and learning how to actually put it down on paper is another. Learning how to impress the examiner is another yet again.
Students can often spend time too much time focussing on learning content, and almost completely ignore their writing technique altogether, because as long as you can remember PEE, you’ll be fine, right? Not quite. You may recall from when you learned to ride a bike (or, if you’re a lucky sixth former or college student, drive a car), that right when you started you had to remember and execute each little movement manually (and it was hard), but that the more you practised, the less you had to actually think about what you were doing.
This intuitive phenomenon results from procedural memory, which turns manual actions into automatic ones with repetition. Once you’ve learned to ride a bike automatically, your brain is free to think about tricks like wheelies and bunnyhops with which to dazzle your friends. And exactly the same principle goes for exams – if you can structure an essay without really thinking about it, you’ve left yourself some brain-space to think about how to dazzle your examiner.
Use your eyes
Caught up in something of an early 2000s fad, I spent a lot of my secondary education concerned with whether I was a visual learner, or an auditory one, or somebody who’d benefit from acting out what I had to learn. Although people do have individual differences in learning preferences, these are largely negligible in comparison to the fact that humans (and in fact most vertebrates) rely predominantly on vision. This results in a much larger capacity for visual memory than any other type.
You can make use of this fact by drawing as much as possible while revising – images and colours are a big plus, as well as anything that’ll stand out in your mind when you’re sitting in an exam hall (although the memory-encoding benefit of glitter has yet to be formally tested). Try not to make drawings super-complicated, as unless you have a photographic memory or are an autistic sauvant, you’re unlikely to be able to recall all of the details.
Human working memory (the type that lets you keep information “in mind”) is estimated to only be able to hold about 6-7 pieces of information at a time. This may sound like bad news, but it’s completely down to you how you’d like to define the “pieces”; for example, you can let the numbers 1, 5, 0, 4, 8 and 7 total six “pieces”, or you can roll them all into one large “piece” (for example, the date 15/04/87). The trick behind this is to form associations between the pieces of information you need to recall.
Even better news for revisers – the same logic holds for long term memory and the facts you’ll need to recall in an exam. The reason this technique works so well is that your brain actually a system of networks, so if you can find a reason to connect pieces of information through a common association, you can actually form new networks. Then, every time you think of one piece of information, the shared network will automatically “activate” the others, making them easier to remember.
You can get as creative as you like with the associations, as long as they make sense to you. In fact, the more unusual the association, the more likely you are to remember it! (Disclaimer: we don’t recommend sharing your weird and wonderful associations with friends on the morning of your exam – you’ll confuse them, and they’ll probably think you’re a little strange…)
With these revision tips, you’ll be well on your way to success!
Written by Sophie Valentine
A MyTutor GCSE Tutor