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Physical Sciences: Revision and exams


Hand holding a pencil completing a multiple choice test sheet.No matter how many exams you've taken so far in your academic career, anxiety about the process is completely normal. This may be the first time you're sitting exams at university and this will inevitably feel different to your previous experiences. The revision process for university level exams is also likely to be different. In the same way that much of your learning at this level will be self-directed, you will have to take more responsibility for your revision.

On this page you will find some revision strategies you can try as well as advice on to how to prepare for the big day. If you are concerned about any aspect of this process it’s a good idea to check directly with your department. Exam timetable information can be found on the University webpages.

Revision strategies

One of the most obvious places to start your revision is your own notes. Over the course of your studies you will have made notes from a variety of sources including lecturers, supervisions and your own reading. Now is the time to bring all of these together in your revision toolkit.

  • Condense your notes down to the key points that you need to focus on. Record facts, figures and the main arguments in the area. You can start this process by reviewing your notes but as you get further into your revision you might want to see how much you can do from memory. This process can also help to show you were you have gaps in your notes that you need to address. 
  • Always write notes in your own words unless you are recording a direct quote. This can help you to avoid accidental plagiarism but it also helps you to understand the concepts you are writing about. If you find you have copied a lot of your notes you can take the opportunity to rewrite things in your own words to test your understanding. 
  • You can also annotate your existing notes. What have you learnt more about since you took them, where can you see connections and what do you need to know more about? Using a template such as the Cornell Method can help with this as it offers space for annotations and extra notes.
  • Be creative. Use coloured highlighters to pick out the main points or write using different colour pens. This can help your notes to have visual appeal and start to draw connections between topics. Whichever technique you use be consistent - you're trying to make your revision easier not more complex!

Reading your notes or other materials is one strategy for revision but it can also be quite a passive activity. Active reading techniques help you engage with the material which aids processing and retention of the information.

  • A good first step is to determine whether the material is actually worth reading as part of your revision. You will be under pressure to get through as much revision as you can and it's important to stay focused. Use the headings in an article or chapter to assess whether it's on topic and useful to you. You can also take a glance at the contents page of a book or do a keyword search in an online article to look for relevant content.
  • Think about where you can draw connections between this reading and other materials you have read. Make notes in the margins to highlight these connections and pull out any themes.
  • Try and highlight any evidence presented to back up claims made in the material. Consider what you think of this evidence and how it is related to other things you might have read.
  • Test your understanding of what you are reading as you study. Try reading for 20 minutes and then putting the material to one side and noting down the key points without referring back. This will also help you to determine where you need to spend more time reading.

It can sometimes help to translate your notes into a different format. Not only does this make them more visually appealing but the act of transferring your notes can help them to stick in your memory.

  • One of the most simple visual techniques is to keep your notes visible. Write a short list of key points on the topic you are revising and put them somewhere you will keep seeing them - the side of your laptop monitor, the bathroom mirror or above the kettle.  
  • Create a mind map to show connections between ideas and concepts. Sometimes called spider diagrams, these maps start with a main topic in the centre and then branch out into headings and sub-headings. They can be particularly useful if your topic is complex with lots of interconnecting areas and you need to get an overview. You can draw these diagrams yourself on paper or use one of the many apps available to help you create one.
  • Use sticky notes to create a moveable outline of your topic. Use one note per sub-topic and attach them to a surface like a wall or table to create a map. Unlike a mind map you can easily reposition these notes as needed.
  • If you're feeling artistic you can use sketch notes. These visual notes combine words and images to create visually appealing notes. As well as looking good, this process helps you to think about the information in a new way and remember key concepts.

Although a deep understanding of the material is crucial to exam success, sometimes you just need to remember facts or theories. Re-reading your notes or rewatching recorded lectures can help but why not try some of the techniques below?

  • Use mnemonics to help you remember strings of information. These are memory aids with a phrase where the first letter of each word represents the word you want to remember - for example the phrase Naughty Elephants Squirt Water can help you to remember the order of points on a compass. You can use existing mnemonics or make up your own, whatever helps to jog your memory.
  • Tell yourself a story. Revision stories help you to think about information in another way and it's often easier to remember a narrative than a string of facts. Imagine that you want to remember a set of theories and how they interact with each other and what might happen. Think of a story where each theory is represented by students in a class or passengers on a train. Thinking about information in this way will help your recall in an exam situation. 
  • Have you ever found that you seem to know the lyrics to songs without actively trying to remember them? We subconsciously absorb information and you can use the same technique in your revision. Try recording yourself reading your notes and listen to them like a podcast. Repetitive listening whilst doing every day tasks can help you to remember the information.

Looking at past papers in your subject helps you to familiarise yourself with the format of the exam and gives you a chance to complete model answers as a revision tool.

  • Use past papers to test your knowledge at the end of a revision session. You don't have to write a complete answer, just note down the points you would cover to test your recall. You can find a selection of links to past papers in physical sciences on this guide. 
  • Try completing the past paper in a timed scenario. This will allow you get used to exam conditions and help you to plan your time ahead of the big day.
  • Go through your answers afterwards and give yourself a mark. Try to be honest in your assessment. If you can get hold of the grading system used in the actual exam this will be a useful guide to demonstrate where you need to improve.
  • Practice question types that you struggle with. This will give you a chance to get used to the format and identify any gaps in your knowledge you need to address. For example, if you struggle with essay questions then past papers give you the change to develop your strategy.
  • Although very occasionally exams contain questions that have been asked before, memorising answers is not the aim of this revision technique. The point is to use them to test your knowledge and become familiar with the language used. If you try to commit answers to memory you run the risk of answering the question you think is being asked rather than the one that is actually on your paper.

Revision can be a lonely activity but it doesn't have to be. There are lots of ways you can get together with friends to do effective revision and offer each other some moral support.

  • Forming a study group can help you to stay on track with your revision. You can share revision tips and keep each other motivated but it can also be a really useful way to gain a deeper understanding of a topic. Everyone will bring different interpretations and knowledge to their studies and learning about these can help you to get a new perspective on topics.
  • Do a quick fire quiz on core topics, taking turns to ask each other questions. You can use ready prepared flashcards for this or just ask questions at random. This is especially useful to test your recall of key facts and figures that you might need to use in an exam. It's important to vary the order of the questions you ask or you run the risk of just learning the order rather than the actual answer!
  • Try teaching your topic to a friend or a group. Explaining the concepts to them will help test your understanding and how you can communicate beyond listing facts. You might find this method especially useful if you struggle to articulate a response in writing as it offers a different way to revise. If you find long explanations challenging try the 'Just a Minute' format where you have 60 seconds to talk about your topic with no hesitation or repetition. 
  • As with individual revision it's important to build in breaks but make sure that you don't get sidetracked by conversations with your study group too much. 

Preparing for your exam

Understand your exam

Make sure that you are familiar with the format of each exam you will be sitting and prepare accordingly. Different types of exam questions need different types of knowledge, for example you need to look at your essay writing skills if you will be required to write long form answers. You should also be aware of what you can or can’t take into the exam itself so that you can plan your revision accordingly and avoid any surprises on the day!

Check your eligibility for special arrangements

If you have a disability or specific learning difficulty you may be eligible for access arrangements for your exams. You can speak to your College Tutor about this or see the Disability Resource Centre for more information. 

Bring supplies

Make sure that you have everything you need for your exam packed before the day. This will help avoid last minute panic! Is it an open book exam, are you allowed to bring a calculator, do you have a water bottle? Put together everything that you will need and have it somewhere ready to go on the day.

Plan your revision schedule

Take some time to plan what you will revise, when and how. Look at both the subject and format of the exam and work this into your schedule using the most appropriate method for the topic. Make sure you plan enough time to study for each subject and any other work that you might have to do alongside revision. Be sure to factor in regular breaks. Being realistic in your revision panning will help you set achievable goals. Try using a planner like the one below to structure your revision.

Past exam papers

Looking through past exam papers can help to familiarise you with the format of the exam and any instructions as well as giving you a chance to draft practice answers. If you want to get the full experience you can answer the questions yourself under simulated exam conditions. You can find past exam papers for many subjects at the links below:

On the day


It can be tempting to try and cram every last second before the exam with revision but it's important to take a break. Make sure you've had plenty of rest and something to eat before you go into the exam room. Making sure you are prepared mentally and physically for the day is almost as important as your knowledge of the subject itself.

Time management

As well as managing your time when revising it's important to think about how you will use your time during the exam itself. When you first see the paper take a look at the marks available and try to divide your time up according to this weighting. Make sure you factor in time to plan your answer if necessary as well as time to complete the actual question and review it afterwards. Try to stick to this plan even if you get stuck on a question. Trying to gain multiple marks across different questions is a better use of your time than spending a lot of time trying to get full marks for a single answer.

Read the questions

Yes, we know this sounds obvious but exams are stressful and in stressful situations it can be easy to become confused. Take some time to read the questions through and work out what it is you are actually being asked to do. Different exam formats will have different instructions and it's important that you do what is asked of you. 

Treat yourself

Plan for some type of post exam treat. Watch a movie you've been wanting to see, order a takeaway or arrange to meet up with friends. Whatever you do it's important for your mental wellbeing to take some time after the exam to relax and give yourself something to look forward to. You've earned it with your hard work!

Post exam reflection

Although exams are there to test your learning they can also be a good learning opportunity. Reflecting on what went well with the exam and why this might have been can help you to replicate this another time. In a similar way, thinking about what went wrong and the reasons for this can help you to avoid the same problem in the future. Perhaps you tried a new revision strategy for the first time and found this realty helpful or maybe you found that not getting enough sleep the night before impacted your performance?

Take some time post exam to think about how things went and how you can translate this into an action plan for the future. Use the questions below to guide you:

  • What happened?
  • Why do you think this happened?
  • How will this change your actions in the future?

You can find more information about reflection on our Reflective Practice Toolkit. Try and avoid comparing exams when talking to other people. Everyone will have had a different experience of the exam and just because someone else says they found it 'easy' doesn't mean that they actually did!

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