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Revision tips 1: Learning is training

Learn from the mistakes of others … You can't live long enough to make them all yourself!” - Oliver Wendell Holmes

Over the last 8 weeks we have looked at why we learn, how to create curiosity and intensity, how to make things more memorable and what we mean by learning, in terms of breadth, depth and neurodiversity.

The next couple of blogs were requested to me by parents with children who are taking exams. This is for you and if you take away one thing, it is that learning is so much like physical training. Today is putting a study plan together.

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You can only really learn from things where you try hard. It will be little consolation later that you 'didn't make too much effort'. We feel truly alive when putting ourselves on the line, and that is when can we truly feel our potential. The prize for all this work is a great sense of accomplishment and confidence when we approach what is next. This also keeps at bay the dark shadow of regret of not giving it your all. Before we start, let's highlight the most common and damaging revision sins.

The 5 cardinal sins of revision

1) Starting too late. Starting revising a week before your big exam robs you twice i) you end up not having enough time to cover the material and ii) your brain does not have time to organise the information. The organising is done when sleeping and happens slowly over time.

2) Reading and highlighting notes rather than testing yourself. Once you have understood a subject, testing is far more effective than re-reading notes. Re-reading is inefficient in three ways: i) Re-reading becomes familiar and that fools people into thinking they know it, ii) it does not strengthen your recall because you are constantly feeding the brain information iii) it does not help you be objective with what you actually know and don't know. Understanding and feeling comfortable with something is very different to knowing it.

3) Working on things you enjoy rather than your weaknesses. We all sometimes avoid what we are least comfortable with and that is the worst thing you can do with revising. Take that subject you are scared of and get going, you will be amazed how good you feel to start.

4) Getting distracted. Even before devices were everywhere, people would get distracted by listening to their favorite music or finding someone to chat to. Now of course, we have a highly addictive device glued to us. Tell whoever needs to call you and get rid of any devices, wearables etc, whilst revising.

5) Not having a plan. In any goal that takes time, having a plan that can help you to organise your time, know what to do when is a really valuable investment of time. It will also help you know whether you are on track or not.

Learning is training

I think physical training is an excellent analogy for learning. They both require focused sessions, rest days, sleep, and repetition. Also more subtly we need to get ourselves a little warmed up and cooled down.

As with training, it is not enough to just want to run 10k. You need to make sure that your habits get you there - 40-50% of our actions are driven by habit. Consistency beats intensity every time. Once you have a set of ingrained habits, learning will be easier.

4 steps of revision hygiene

Step 1: What do I need to know and in what depth?

When you are looking to revise for an exam, let's say Chemistry, to know what you are aiming towards, you need to have a sense for the whole subject so you can get your arms around it. The best way to get your arms around a subject is to look at:

i) The syllabus

ii) Past papers

It is truly amazing, how many people do not use this. I would take the syllabus and split it into 4-6 large topics, and then split it again into 6 or so sub topics. This can be the skeleton you use to put together a mind map. I would physically draw a mind map for each subject.

Next I would look at past papers (without trying to answer them) and try and split using my large 4-6 topics, how many marks are allocated to each of the large topics. This will give you without too much effort, which ones are the most important subjects.

Step 2: Get a central to-do list

A to-do list will be essential whilst you are revising. A to-do list is the place you get distracting thoughts about other impending deadlines out of your head and onto paper. It should include everything you need to do, and it is likely there will be non-learning priorities too like family events and coursework.

Step 3: Put together a working pattern

A working pattern makes once the decisions about where you work, how long you work for and under what conditions you work.

i) A place where you can maintain uninterrupted focus. This is hard at the best of times, so making sure it is a place you are unlikely to bump into anyone is helpful. I would have my phone on silent out of arms reach, and any connected wearables off. I would also avoid using music to work to. Whilst 40Hz and low wave music or white noise is likely to help focus, it will not be available to you in the actual exam, so you do not want that as a crutch without which you cannot perform. Music you can recognise is a completely non-starter, there is no need for it.

ii) Work earlier in the day. Most of the information I have read suggests that working earlier in the morning is the most time-effective. You are freshest then which helps you avoid procrastinating. Starting late in the evening, can cause the vicious spiral of lower productivity. Some people however do seem to pull this off successfully if they are clearly of the 'night owl' chronotype but that is less than 30% of the population.

iii) Starting and ending work in a consistent way. Your habits help you know when it's time to start and stop. I read about a chess player that would have a certain way of breathing just as he was about to start walking to the chess board. He found that at the start it took him 5minutes to get in the zone, but soon it was within 60 seconds. Having a consistent 'warm-up' let's you know you are about to do some work. The same goes for ending. Cal Newport who is famous for his productivity work, says the same about ending a working day. He suggests spending 5mins reminding yourself what you went over through writing a learning journal and then another 5 minutes of planning what you are doing tomorrow. Then simply say the words 'shutdown complete'. He find he can relax after this, now he is officially 'off duty'.

iii) How long for? I think this is the one people get most wrong. I think the rule of 100 is a great way to revise. That is 45mins, a 10mins break and 45mins more. Whilst each person will have their own optimal timings, you want to be able to go deep, knowing a rest is coming soon. The chart below shows what happens when people do not take a break between meetings. Their stress levels go up a lot. This can be avoided by undistracted working and then frequent breaks.

v) Start work immediately. This is hard particularly on a subject you are less enthused about. Breaking through procrastination is very satisfying though, and people find once they get started, motivation follows. If you are really struggling, writers and academics have wrote about how they write on a blank piece of paper anything they know about the subject to try and get the train in motion. Others have said how they will not allow themselves to get up or get distracted and bored themselves into getting started.

vi) Schedule revision time. The time will not just appear you have to carve it out. That carved out time will be better protected than a vague 'at some point today I will...'.

Step 4: Sleep, rest, food&drink, and exercise

i) Sleep plays a pivotal role in learning. In practice there are late nights and early mornings, but if you truly want to learn, you need to get sleep. Sleep is when your brain takes what you have looked at during the day and makes it learning. Without wishing to state the obvious, 7-8 hours is important to be able to keep it sustainable, and better quality sleep is achieved when you are not working until late at night. If you get into a good sleep groove your circadian rhythms will help you switch on and switch off like a light bulb, which will lead to more wakefulness during the day, and sleepiness at just the right time at night.

ii) Whilst everyone rests differently, I think it is important to do things that you enjoy. This could be sport, music, socialising or locking yourself away with a movie, that is fine as long as you are getting all your work out of the way at a reasonable time. It is counterproductive to be in work mode all the time, in the same way people who spend 12hours a day in a gym will not get good results.

iii) The revision period, is probably not the best time to go on a drastic weight reduction or weight gain. It does however lend itself well to food that suits physical training too. Learning is energy intensive. It will need energy, oxygen, vitamins, iron, iodine and fatty acids. Snacks of bananas and almonds and meals that contain fish, chicken, avocado, olive oil and plenty of vegetables, will help you retain information. Heavy meals before or during revision are probably going to give you a food-related slowdown. Better leaving your favorite heavy meals until dinner. Drink lots of water. Hydration takes away some brain fog, conversely (unfortunately) a few too many alcoholic drinks the night before, will likely take away lots of productivity the next day. One or two coffees a day is fine, late night coffees to keep revising is of course fine in emergency circumstances, but certainly not great for your sleep and might take you away from working productively the next morning.

iv) Exercise is often the first thing to get cut when revision starts building up. This is a mistake but clearly heavy exercise before studying might leave you lacking in energy. The best answer I have heard to this question, is to do a small amount of exercise every day. Preferably at the start of the day. A 10min run or cycle or something which gets your blood flowing will help boost your brain activity. Exercise also burns off nervous energy, reduces stress and helps sleep quality, all essential when trying to learn.

So what:

  1. Revision can be hampered by the 5 cardinal sins of revising: starting too late, re-reading notes, focusing on strengths rather than weaknesses, getting distracted and trying to wing it with a learning strategy.

  2. A good learning strategy should be put together before you start opening your textbooks and notes. Firstly, have you syllabus and past papers ready, this will give you the scope, feel and priority of the subjects you need to revise. Secondly you need to be organised and get a to-do list and a calendar ready. This will help you prioritise and carve out time to revise.

  3. Finally you need a working pattern. This is not just where you work, when you work, and for how long you work, but also how you start, how you feed yourself and how you keep yourself physically well throughout the period.

Thank you for joining. "Revision tips 2"coming next week. Sign up to the subscription list on Blog | Deciders ( Follow me on twitter: @HBSingh_uk

Other blogs in the learning series:


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