Practising for your exam

Practising for your exam: Working on your notes and practising memory finding when revising

Spring cleaning your notes:

It is useful to make vivid in some way what you need to cover in this time, by doing a course review using the syllabus to check whether you have notes on all the essential topics . Some people find it helpful to do the equivalent of a spring cleaning of their notes, handouts, photocopies, read and unread, material, and put their course materials in piles to see how the notes relate to the different topics. Often this is the point where you see overlaps more clearly between the different topics you have studied.

Most people review their notes at this stage to identify which topics they have covered in detail, and which are sketchy. If all your notes are sketchy, you will have to do some sustained work to review the course material, unless you have an excellent memory.

You may notice some reluctance to review topics of least interest to you. Check with your supervisor how crucial they are. If they are not, focus your energy elsewhere! If they are essential, make sure you tackle them early on and get support from the supervisor or another student who understands and can help you to work on the material. . Don’t struggle on your own – if you feel daunted. Get help.


Generally, though, it is useful to think about how much time you need to work on your notes of all the essential topics ,allocating roughly equal time to topics of equal length, and more proportionately for the bigger ones. Save time for making notes to help you with questions which cross single topics .

Some students get to the revision point without having made any notes. They will be at a disadvantage, but better now than never. Even with existing notes, this is a time to play with them; synthesise them, order them to promote your thinking now you have completed the course material.

Ways to extend and improve your notes:

Good note taking should reflect the purpose for which the notes will be used. Revision notes are an aid to memory, and a method for condensing a substantial amount of material to help you to learn it in a form that is readily usable in an exam.

– Make summaries, condensing material from several sources

– Make lists of key words, definitions or trigger words to remind you of complex arguments.

– Use your own words to help you assimilate the course ideas

– Choose and record a few quotable quotes to memorise.

– Use your notes to unclutter your mind and create a sense of order as you study. Simplifying down to the key ideas and vivid examples helps you to recall them.

To get your notes into a useful form for revision there are three key instructions:

–   SIFT-through what you know

– SELECT what is relevant for different questions

–   ARRANGE your notes for easiest review .


Many study skills books encourage students to use index cards to summarise notes, for practise in planning answers and for recall of key themes.


Practising memory finding:

All exams do require some memory of ideas or facts. There is a skill to remembering when you have that ‘it is on the tip of my tongue’ sensation, that you know something but just cannot get it yet.

The knack is to allow your mind to play around the item, and search for related thoughts or information, till you can recall it.

There are numerous memory tricks, and you can discover which ones will work for you , so that you manufacture associations to help you recall ideas and facts in the exam.

Pause for thought: Try this out by recalling what you had for supper last night. Then trace the process you went through to remember this:

One method is to ask yourself a series of questions if the answer does not just pop immediately into your mind. eg for supper it might be:
What day was it yesterday?

Who was I with?

When did we eat?

What had just been happening?

Few people fail to find their memory of yesterday’s supper. Notice how much more difficult it is to recall what you had on the first Sunday of last month unless it was a very special day for you. This fading of memory if it is not deliberately fixed by your efforts is why it is so important to set a couple of hours a week aside all through the course for sorting and reviewing notes, and beginning to fix the ideas from the week’s work; and why rehearsal of what you have learned pays dividends in the week before an exam!.

Some people have very visual memories , others are much more likely to remember something they have been told than something they have read. A third group have strongly ‘kinaesthetic’ memories, and are likely to remember because of how they were feeling on that day, whether or not the supervisor was interesting them, or even by associations with what else was happening at the time.


If your memory is visually strong you might say: ‘ I can picture it on the page: It’s on the left had side, half way down! ‘ You can imagine bringing that bit of the page into focus; or putting it in bold, or into colour if it is in black and white. If this is your strength it is useful to learn to use your capacity to visualise your notes by making visually memorable ones.

If your memory is stronger when you hear speech than when you read, you may ‘hear’ your supervisor’s voice telling you about the topic; Revise by making yourself audio tapes of your key notes and playing them to yourself.

Often your memories are anchored by what else was happening at the time. ( Called kinaesthetic memory). If this is useful to you, ask yourself, what was happening when I was learning about this?


The same principles of asking yourself questions till you can get hold of a fact or a quote can often be useful during an exam.

But if this does not work, let it go, if possible, go on to something related or use a general descriptive word instead of your preferred one until it pops back in. You may pencil in something to jog your memory when you come back and look at it at the end of the question.


All students can benefit greatly from working with other students, ‘testing’ each other, talking over what you believe to be the meaning of key terms, and so on. For those with a strong auditory memory this is a particularly successful way to do your revision. It has the extra bonus of mutual encouragement and support, and motivation, knowing that you have undertaken to work with someone on a topic can keep you at your revision when the sunshine or urge to lie down and sleep beckons…

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