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Top exam study tips from The Learning Cauldron’s former tutees


Over the years, I’ve had the privilege of working with many amazing, determined and hard-working young people. A couple of weeks before this year’s exam start date, I wrote to ask some of my previous tutees what study tips they would give to this year’s fourth, fifth and sixth years to help them revise more effectively over the coming month. Despite being busy preparing for their own university end-of-term exams, six of them kindly took the time to write back, and here’s what they said!

Learning from others’ mistakes

My biggest slip-up was the exam where I missed out a whole question… So my advice to exam candidates this year would be to read everything properly and to familiarise yourself with past papers so you know what to expect. Just put in the work, prepare, and also try to take responsibility for your own education rather than relying on your peers to tell you what you should be revising!

Benefits of revising away from home

I am happy to share some of the revision techniques I used in school, and have learned in the years since leaving.

Mind maps were always a refreshing way to review topics/themes. However, an issue I had always had with mind maps was that (like a lot of my work!) they were often illegible. A lecturer at uni recommended using a computer program to curate my maps instead. The program I use now is called MindMeister, and it costs around £3 a month, although I’m sure there are probably similar programs which are cheaper/free. I would recommend this to anyone who struggles to make pristine revision notes.

Flash Cards are something I have found very useful for my law exams, which could be easily be applied to English – especially for quotes relating to specific characters or themes. Personally, I feel flash cards are the best way to memorise individual phrases or quotes.

On the topic of things I wish I had known during my Highers, I would recommend to study anywhere other than home, i.e. library, cafe, or school. Although I spent much of my 5th and 6th year study leave sitting at my kitchen table with my books in front of me, I’m doubtful how much work was actually accomplished. Leaving the house to study for a set period of the day has definitely helped me become more productive.

Finally, I would advise 5th years to really make an effort to do as well as possible. This takes a lot of pressure off for 6th year, and keeps your options open if you haven’t decided to what you want to study.

Past papers, past papers and more past papers

My major revision technique I’ve adopted at uni is to go over past paper questions and keep repeating them (especially when maths-based). Then once I feel reasonably confident, I go and discuss/run over what I’ve just done with someone else who is also doing the exam. I feel it helps confirm what you know and what you don’t, and teaching someone else something you’ve learnt really helps imprint it in your head!

When you can’t see the wood from the trees, use the ‘Forest’ App!

I have a revision tip I picked up in university that I wish I was aware of back in my high school years, as one of my biggest problems personally when revising has always been getting distracted.  I now use a mobile app called “Forest” when studying.

The idea behind the app is planting virtual trees that take a certain amount of time to grow (between 10 minutes and 2 hours, decided before planting). While the tree is growing, you cannot be distracted or else the tree dies and your time feels wasted – a bit of psychological trickery I will admit.  The app prevents you from using any other app on your phone to help keep you focused, and a browser-based version also exists if you are using a computer and want to stay away from certain websites. The more revision you do in a day, the larger your forest grows, and it can actually be pretty rewarding once you get started.

Language exam revision – read books and watch films in the language

It’s easy to say, but one of the most important things I have learned is to not leave coursework to the last minute! I would recommend having a look at the course outline on the SQA website at the start of the year and start thinking about the coursework that you need to complete before you start your course. Even if your teacher hasn’t started the coursework in class, formulate some ideas or even write a first draft before starting it in class. The deadlines for coursework for all your exams will all come at the same time if you don’t plan ahead.

During term time I found it challenging to do extra revision as well as keeping up with the class work. Especially for languages, extra learning doesn’t have to mean hours of extra revision. Following language accounts on Twitter or watching foreign films can make a big difference.

I think one of the most important tools that I used during exam time was creating a revision timetable. Firstly, I made a calendar with the dates of my exams that overviewed the coming months of exams. I highlighted the dates of my exams and other important dates such as doctor’s appointments and shifts at my part-time job – pretty much any other commitments that I have that meant time I couldn’t dedicate to study. This calendar is something I still use at uni, so I can have a glance and know where I am in the term and how long I have until holidays or exams.

The study timetable I made overlooked one week. During my Highers, I was lucky that my exams were evenly spread out, so that after I finished an exam I could just move on to revising for the next one. However, for my Advanced Higher French and Spanish exams, it wasn’t that easy. I identified the areas that I needed to work on and which parts of the exam I found hardest. I found that it was very important to have a look at the structure of the exam, so I was familiar with it. For Advanced Higher French and Spanish I divided my time into reading practice, listening practice, writing practice, vocabulary, grammar, inference question and past paper revision. I got hold of all the past papers I could, including ones used for the old Advanced Higher, and even practised A-level past papers – although it was a different exam structure.

For reading practice, I read “The Little Prince” in the respective language and noted down any vocabulary I didn’t know. For listening practice, I listened to podcasts and watched YouTube videos in French or Spanish. I wrote as many essays as I could under exam conditions and gave them to my teacher to mark (who probably hated me for it!).

For vocabulary, I sorted through the topics we had covered in class and made flashcards of the important vocabulary words and learned them. I found that for me, physical flashcards were the most effective way to learn vocab. I worked through past papers and marked them myself and noted down the vocabulary that I didn’t know.

I listened to these Spanish podcasts You can listen for free without the transcript, which is good practice for the listening exam to identify unknown words to be able to look up in the dictionary. It has a good range of levels and is spoken in a very natural way.

Although a timetable can be very useful, you need to be careful that it doesn’t work against you. Make sure you know exactly which past paper you are going to do, or which topic you are going to revise. Otherwise it is easy to not get anything done if you don’t plan exactly what to do.

The Organised Student on tumblr has really good free printable calendars and timetables. I printed these out and stuck them above my desk.

The Advanced Higher language exams demanded more than the Higher exams, so I found it really important to do other language work that was different from the exam, to be exposed to further vocabulary.

One of the most important things to know when going through exams is to keep things in perspective. Exam stress can be very serious and you need to make sure you see the advantage of other opportunities as well as studying. It is important to know that you can work much more productively and effectively if you balance your time with other things.

You feel more motivated to study if you know that when you finish you can go out with your friends or family. I always made sure to eat dinner with my family and during fifth year, I used to go out running every second day before I studied. I know that sometimes exams can feel like the most important thing in the world, but your physical and mental health should always come first.

Find your motivation. Of course, university offers are a massive motivation, but I always found that while I was doing my French and Spanish exams I enjoyed improving a skill for myself that I can use in the future.

Make a study plan then tick each study achievement off the list!

My top tip would be to make a revision plan, as I found if I had a plan written down I was more likely to stick to it. Even just writing a wee list in the morning and then ticking off your achievements throughout the day helps you to focus and to break down the studying into manageable pieces.

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