Why you should revise without any notes 

Once you’ve got the perfect set of revision notes, then you’re all set to revise, right?  You know, rewritten your lecture notes all neat and tidy, and read all the papers that you need to read, and made great insightful notes on them, then you can get started on learning it.  The trouble is, if you’re anything like me, then you never quite get to the stage that you feel that your notes are sorted enough and you’ve read enough to start learning, and suddenly you’re running out of time.

The irony is that you’ve done all this work filing away all this good information, but you’ve rarely practiced retrieving it.  Then you’re sat in an exam, desperately trying to remember all the things you read, and your mind goes blank.  I’m a sport scientist, so let’s think about it from a training perspective.  Most people know that you need to make at least some of your training as similar as possible to the “real” match situation.  You can do all the drills you like, but if you can’t pull the move out at the right moment in the game, then it’s not going to help.

So how do you make your revision as similar to an exam as possible? Easy. You sit somewhere, without your notes or access to the internet, with just a piece of paper and a pen for company.  Pick a topic at random, preferably one you haven’t looked at for a few days, and write down everything you can remember about that topic.  (Just a note before your lecturers’ heads starting exploding – I’m not suggesting that in an exam you just write down everything you can remember on a topic.  This is a specific revision technique to practise recalling about a topic .  In an exam you have to pick and choose what is relevant, but first you have to remember it, which is where this approach comes in).  Once you’ve written down everything you can remember, DO NOT REACH FOR YOUR NOTES YET.  First, think through:

1) is that definitely all I remember?

2) can I remember any studies that might evidence some of these points? what did they do? roughly…

3) can I remember any scraps of bits of memories that I’m vaguely aware had something to do with this even if I can’t remember exactly what it was?

Write it ALL down.  Dredge your memory for every possible partial memory.  This will probably take around 15-20 mins, depending on how big the topic is (if it takes much longer than that, you’ve probably picked too large a topic).

NOW you use your notes.  Check what you wrote, correct any errors, fill in any gaps, add extra detail.  Do this in different colour pen, so that you can see easily what you knew and what you didn’t.  Try to do this mindfully, so that you’re noticing what sorts of things you remember and what things you always forget.  Keep a particular eye out for things that you thought were right but turned out not to be, and talk to your lecturer for clarification if necessary.  Have you got any primary sources in there? Check they’re accurate too, and that you have been critical of them if necessary.  Maybe go read another paper or two if you have a gap that you could use some evidence to fill (see my blog about making notes on research papers).  Are there links between parts of this topic that would help you remember more next time? Maybe indicate this with some linking arrows or similar.  Is there an important point that you forgot? Put a big star next to it. Do what you can to make this memorable.  This will probably take an hour or so, and then put these notes in a folder and don’t look at them again for now.

You can do this for different topics, and in a few days time, come back to this topic.  Don’t look at any notes “just to remind yourself” – just put yourself somewhere with some paper and a pen and do it again.  Really drag it out of your head.  Was there anything you starred last time? Have you remembered it this time? What were those links you identified? Do everything you can to remember it all.  When you’ve definitely run out, compare it back to the notes you made last time.  Did you remember more this time? Are there still any inaccuracies? Any gaps? Same as before, correct them, fill them in, give yourself this feedback on your performance this time.

This works well with my recent blog on using cartoons to remember research papers, and with the upcoming blog on revising with jam jars!

I find this approach much quicker and more effective than reading through notes and highlighting or rewriting them, so I hope you find it useful! The best thing is that you can do it anywhere anytime in just a few minutes, so it’s the perfect way to cram revision into otherwise wasted little slots of time.





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