How to revise without burning out

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Hi, my name is Sharvari, I’m 19 years old and I’m on a gap year, which I like to call, ‘my year of self-discovery’. I want this article to be used as a guide on how to revise smarter, not harder.

I got all As and A*s at GCSE and A-level, but at a huge cost to my health. It was hard work trying to figure out everything from revision and planning strategies to motivation and self-care; I wish everything had just been in one place. Now, as a tutor on my gap year, I’ve seen so many of my students improve their grades by using these techniques, so I hope you find them useful! 

Planning

I know you want to make an aesthetic plan with mildliners, or maybe a super complicated excel spreadsheet where every hour is accounted for. But, really, I see you that’s just you procrastinating. Yep, called you out on it haha.

There are a couple of issues with this kind of planning:

  1.  You’re not going to be able to realistically be able to stick with it and then you’re going to fall behind, because life happens.
  2. If even if you managed to stick to it for a couple of days you will burn out eventually.

So, try making a plan that isn’t too rigid; write out a rough to-do list for everything you want to revise then break it down into each week then each day. Have a daily to-do list so you can be flexible about when you revise, and more realistic about what you can accomplish in each day too.

Revision strategies 

Reading from the textbook, highlighting with nice, pastel highlighters, making notes and sitting there feeling sure that you’ve had a good, productive hour of revision? Wrong. According to something called the ‘forgetting curve‘, nearly half of what you have revised has already been lost in 20 minutes.

So, short of revising everything just 20 minutes before the start of the exam, how can you remember things you revised a couple of days or even a couple of hours ago? Use active recall. Active recall is when you stimulate your memory to recall something with just a prompt. 

Some of my favourite techniques

  1.  Flashcards became my besties, especially the ones on Quizlet. I used them for literally everything, French vocab, geography case studies, English lit quotes (people have made flashcards on a lot of topics already). 
  2.  Memory mind maps: write down everything you know about a chapter on a piece of paper, or quotes for English, or formulae for maths, then, with a different coloured pen, go back and fill in what you missed by comparing to your notes, so you know where your gaps are.
  3.  Start past papers as soon as possible. Yep, they require a lot of hard work and a ton of concentration, but they’ll help you see your weak points and then you can add those topics to your to-do list.

The way to make the most out of past papers is to really analyse where you went wrong. Ask yourself: was this because I couldn’t remember something or couldn’t apply it? What do I need to remember for next time?

Take these questions that you got wrong to your teachers (if you feel they are supportive) or to friends. Basically what I’m saying is that, don’t let questions or concepts that you don’t understand pile up. Asking for help was something that I initially struggled with because I didn’t want to look ‘stupid’, but the truth is everyone learns differently and everyone needs help on different things.

Study logistics 

Pomodoro technique

This is a technique that I have a love-hate relationship with; it’s like medicine: I know that it’s good for me and that it works but it’s hard to get started. In fact, I’m using it right now to write this article, yep just checked I’ve got 15 minutes left on the timer.

Anyway, this is how it works: you work for 25 minutes without distractions (especially no phone) on one task and you take a five-minute break at the end. 25 minutes, I find, is long enough that you can complete something (and then tick it off your to-do list which is so satisfying)/chip away at it, but short enough that you’re not sitting there for ages like those ‘15 hour study with-me’s – those just used to make me feel really insecure.

Five-minute break ideas that are not checking your phone

  • Yoga/stretching (my personal favourite) 
  • Make yourself a hot/cold drink/a snack
  • Tidy your desk
  • Dance around your room to some throwbacks 
  • Go outside and take deep breaths/sit by a window and do the same

Motivation to study (especially for subjects you don’t enjoy)

Tell yourself you’re only going to revise one chapter from one topic of this subject for five minutes and that’s it. No pressure to do any more than that. This often helps me to get over that initial hurdle because it can seem really daunting, or just really boring.

If you’re still struggling, then it can be really helpful to have people to keep you motivated. This doesn’t have to be a study group with your friends (because we all know how productive that’s going to be). I’ve used real-time study with me sessions or facetime study, with friends on mute to keep me accountable; every time I want to give up I’d look up, see someone else working and be strangely compelled to do the same. This only works with friends who are really willing to work though.

Make your study space aesthetic. Play a cute study playlist. Use nice stationery. Have a hot drink close by. Basically, make it as hard for yourself as possible to not study at your desk.

Left it last minute?

The first thing I want to make really really clear: DON’T MAKE NOTES!

Don’t make notes. You just don’t have enough time.

Effective last-minute revision strategies:

  • Focus on past papers/mock essay plans/past paper questions (don’t wait until you’ve revised everything to do this)
  • Watch YouTube video summaries of your weaknesses 
  • Use quiz questions e.g. end of chapter questions/Quizlet flashcards

Revise around other commitments and self-care

This last one is probably the most important: don’t become a study hermit as I did. It made me feel so burnt out that I became physically ill. In fact, if I compare my A-level exam season, where I did take breaks and do lots of self-care, to my GCSEs I got amazing results both times but, crucially, I didn’t sacrifice my health in the second one. 

When you’re planning, add some self-care to your to-do list so you’ve got to get it done.

So what’s one thing that you’re going to take from this article and change your approach to studying?

Useful resources

Yoga With Adriene – Free yoga videos ( she has five-minute break ones for your Pomodoro breaks).

Physics & Maths Tutor – Past papers and past paper questions for most subjects.

The Mix’s guide to revision.

The Mix’s guide to coping with exam pressure.

Next Steps

  • Student Minds is the UK's student mental health charity. Search their website for information, research, and to see how you could get involved.
  • Mind offers advice and support to people with mental health problems. Their helpline runs nine to six from Monday to Friday. 0300 123 3393
  • If you're under 25 and would like free confidential telephone counselling from The Mix to help you figure things out complete this form and we'll call you to arrange your first session.
  • Chat about this subject on our Discussion Boards.
  • Need help but confused where to go locally? Download our StepFinder iPhone app to find local support services quickly.

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Updated on 28-Apr-2022

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