One of the things that I really struggled with when studying GCSE and A-Level English was knowing how to revise. There were always plenty of tips and tricks for what I call ‘fact-based’ learning suited for subjects such as maths, science and history where you have a lot of information such as dates and equations to memorise, which isn’t always beneficial to English. Whilst on occasion this may come in handy for English, I always struggled to follow these strategies and found them difficult to apply to English specifically.
I would search online for videos and tips, but they always came up rather empty. Now that I am a bit more experienced in English exams through university and A-Level study, I like to think I might have some handy tips to offer. I currently tutor GCSE English students, and one of the first questions they ask as we approach exams is how to begin revising without constantly re-reading. So, here are some of my tips and tricks!
1. Discover how you learn most effectively
There are many different ‘types’ of learner out there, and most people will find that they are a mixture. I am by no means an expert on this, so I do recommend you do some research outside of this blog post if you’re interested! I am predominantly a visual learner but I find listening and talking through things helpful too. Some of the different varieties of learning include:
- Visual (using images, pictures or colours)
- Aural (listening to music or sound)
- Physical (using your body and senses)
- Verbal (using words by writing or speaking)
By establishing which techniques you find most helpful, you’ll be able to identify what revision tasks are worthwhile and effective.
2. Use colours
This is especially helpful if you are a visual learner, but I find it’s great for helping you to recall bits of information. When you’re writing notes, flashcards or posters always put important information or dates in a different colour. I find it incredibly helpful for when you get stressed in the middle of an exam. All you have to do is picture the poster it was on and what colour it was, chances are you’ll find it much easier to remember! It also just brightens up your revision and stops it being entirely black and white.
3. Timelines are your friend
If you really want to avoid having to constantly re-read your texts (which can be rather impossible if you have several bulky texts and a matter of weeks), then making timelines will be a huge help. Don’t just limit this to your contextual timelines with key historical dates – extend it to the plot! Make a plot timeline for each major character detailing important events for them or key themes and where they appear in the timeline. This is especially helpful for GCSE questions focused on one particular character’s involvement in the play. You can also bring those colours into this and colour code your key themes, writing each moment in the appropriate colour!
A lot of questions in English exams are based around themes. It’s how my GCSE exams were structured and it has remained the case ever since. Mind-maps are extremely helpful in prepping for your exam questions and gathering your thoughts around a particular topic. Make multiple maps, one for each theme complete with short and easy to remember phrases from your primary texts (or critics if you need them). Use colours, pictures, diagrams – whatever you need to liven up the page!
5. Go for a walk
Taking a break every now and then will help to clear your head and keep you focused. This can be anything from walking down to the kitchen to make a cup of tea, or walking down the street and back. However, this is also a great tip for those of you who prefer a more physical style of learning. You could try recording yourself reading through some notes or revision cards so that you can listen to them whilst you walk. Or, you could listen to the audiobook version of one of your texts. You might find that listening to something whilst you walk is a great way to consolidate your revision whilst taking a break from sitting at a desk for hours.
6. Make lists, not timetables
Don’t get me wrong, I find timetables helpful. However, something I have realised recently is I find it incredibly hard to stick to timetables. Unless there is something that takes a specific amount time (such as re-watching a lecture), I find that lists work better for me because I am awful at guessing how long it will take me to read something. Instead, making a list of tasks that I want to achieve in a day I more achievable. Not only is it rewarding to cross a task off the list, it means that I don’t feel guilty and defeated if my two hour slot to re-read a few chapters extends to three. By all means block out a chunk of your day, but make small and achievable goals to complete in that time.
7. Explain your notes
If you can explain something you’ve been studying, then you will understand it better. It’s helpful to meet up with other friends studying the same things – talking through things and being able to teach someone else what you’ve learnt is incredibly helpful and will make it easier for you to recall information in an exam!
8. Write summaries
See if you can write short summaries of your books, or if you need to know one book in lots of detail then try doing it for each chapter or character. A bit like making a timeline, this will make it easier for you to prioritise events and themes that recur throughout the book. This is potentially a better technique than making timelines for those of you who prefer verbal learning and writing things down repeatedly! Once again, throw some colour in there!
9. Write essay plans
Use all of those theme based mind-maps and timelines! Pick a theme, or find a past paper question, and plan out an entire essay answer. This is great practice for when you’re in the exam. It will allow you to organise your thoughts and choose specific evidence to support your claims. Use the PEE paragraph system (point, evidence, explanation) to organise each section of your essay, and make sure they all link together and support your main argument!
10. Practice writing your essays
Although this is probably the least appealing option when it comes to revision, it is probably one of the most important. It’s helpful to do timed essay practices, not only to check how much you can write in that time, but to practice writing a well structured essay in timed conditions. It’s also helpful to mark your essays using the mark scheme to see which areas you’re missing and what the examiner is looking for!
I know that to most people this might all seem like common sense, but if this was around when I was doing GCSEs I know it would have been really helpful! It’s hard to know where to begin when it’s your first time sitting exams! Good luck to everyone sitting exams in the next few months, you’ll smash it!