So far we’ve talked about the three stage model of studying and what to look for in a textbook. Now I want to take a little time to look at the actual process of revision.
How should you get started? What do you actually do when you begin to revise?
Whether you’re already broadly familiar with the subject of your exam or the topic is new to you, the first priority is to gain in-depth exposure to the material as quickly as possible, highlight any areas where comprehension is a problem, and start the memorisation process. With this in mind, the ideal candidate for your first pass through a chapter is an active reading technique such as SQ3R. This kick-starts memorisation and ensures that you’re actually engaging with the material, not simply skimming it.
It’s common for textbooks to have quiz questions at the end of each chapter that gradually increase in complexity. Attempting some of these on your first pass is a good idea but I would ignore any tricky exam style questions entirely to begin with. You’re unlikely to progress from complete novice to expert in the time it takes to read a chapter. It’s better to give the material a little time to percolate, otherwise you’ll be demoralised when the exam style questions trip you up. This can send you off down a rabbit hole, when you should be more concerned with establishing a good understanding and committing the fundamentals to memory.
Authors tend to load up the end of a chapter with a ton of questions, which is good, but it gives you the impression that you should attempt all those questions in one sitting. All that is going to achieve is a level of frustration more commonly associated with self-serve supermarket checkouts. Unexpected item in the baggage area? Unexpected yelling and threating gestures with unscannable vegetables.
“SELL ME THIS AUBERGINE BEFORE I SHOVE IT UP YOUR COIN SLOT, YOU ROBOTIC WEASEL.”
I’m never shopping there again*, but I digress.
Feeling that you’re making progress is important for morale, so, when you reach the end of a chapter with SQ3R, work through a few questions to consolidate what you’ve learned (applying knowledge helps lodge it in your memory), but don’t burn yourself out. There isn’t a great deal more to be gained from doing ten questions in one session rather than five. It’s more important that you review the material again the following day and do another few questions then.
This approach works well with straight-forward material, but stalls when you encounter a topic that you don’t immediately understand. If you can’t make sense of it after a couple of read-throughs, don’t continue to re-read the same thing – seek out alternative explanations in different textbooks or online. If you can’t get to grips with a topic within an hour, resolve to revisit it once you’ve been through the other chapters.
Out of morbid curiosity I used this technique to revisit a topic that I could never get to grips with at college: mathematical differentiation. It was only when I read the fifth explanation that it made sense – but then a topic that I’d struggled with for years suddenly became clear. All it took was a little perseverance and the belief that I could understand it, if it were explained in the right way.
- Work one chapter at a time
- Use an active reading technique on the first pass to quickly develop a basic knowledge
- Seek out different explanations for tricky concepts
- End the first pass of a chapter by attempting a few of the more straight-forward questions
- Review the key concepts the following day and attempt a few more questions
*This is not entirely by choice.
My book is now available! You can read about it here.