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Study Skills

Wolfson College Academic Skills: Exam and Revision Tips

Help with finding, managing and using information from the Wolfson Library Team.

school suppliesPreparing for your exams can be stressful, but we have compiled a list of top tips and resources to help you prepare and succeed in your exam revisions. Below we have organised areas for your preparation into four sections:

  1. Time Management
  2. Revisions strategies and tools
  3. Wellbeing
  4. On the day of the exam.

Time Management

pile of clocksOne of the key skills you will be exercising during the revision period will be good time management skills. Below are some tips to consider as you prepare to revise:

  • Start revising early and create a revision timetable that works backwards from the day of your exam. This will ensure that you give yourself enough time to cover all the topics you need to in your revision and provide you time to write practice essays.
  • Once you have established a revision timetable, treat it like a full-time job. While at first this may sound a bit scary, upon reflection, you’ll see that it is less scary than it seems. Treating your revision time like a job means marking off blocks of time that are protected from outside distractions. This also means that you will schedule in times for regular breaks, and after you have finished your revising for the day, plan some time for socializing or relaxing as well.
  • Thinking of your revision time as a job also helps to keep your timetable realistic. Just as it would be unreasonable for you to work all day and all night on a job, it is also unreasonable for you to revise in the same manner. Working 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, will not only leave you physically but mentally exhausted as well.
  • Don’t be afraid to revisit your revision timetable and make adjustments if something is not working for you. Just because you have tried one revision technique or tried blocking off your time in a particular manner doesn’t mean you need to stay with it if you discover it is more counterproductive than helpful. Being attentive to what works for you will be key in helping you make the most of your revision time.

Revision Strategies and Tools

Two important principles that will help increase the efficiency of your revision are active recall and spaced repetition. Active recall is a study method where you retrieve information you have previously learned by testing yourself throughout the revision process. Spaced repetition involves the repeated review of previous material at various intervals throughout your revision process. 

spaced repetition graphIf you read books on memory (such as Foster, J. (2009). Memory a very short introduction (online). Oxford: Oxford University Press) you will come across spaced repetition as a method of revision.

The reason behind practising spaced repetition is to counteract what German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus (1850-1909) identified as the forgetting curve, or the amount of information that is lost as time passes. While the shape of this curve varies for different types of events, it is possible to stop ourselves from forgetting things if we revisit the information and relearn it. If we successfully recall things a short while after studying them, we are more likely to recall them later.

Spaced repetition is seen as an optimal way to revise. It builds on the idea of leaving a gap between relearning. What is perhaps novel is that it suggests increasing the gaps of time between each session. Each time is supposed to be at the point when you are just about to forget something. This way, the brain has to work hard to retrieve the information rather than repeating it when readily available. And like a muscle, it gets stronger when it works harder.

This graph for spaced repetition (also called distribution of practice) shows how we can boost our memory over a series of revision sessions set apart by several hours, 1 day, 3 days, a week, 3 weeks and so on, should we have time.

Before you start revising, you need to scope out what you need to learn.

Revisit your curriculum

List everything you have covered in the year. Then take into account any specific instructions from academic staff: if you know something will definitely come up on the exam then highlight it, are there any optionals, or anything unlikely to be included?

Look at past exam papers

Past exam papers are an incredibly valuable resource for your revision. If you can, try to get a hold of the last 4-7 years of exam papers in order to get a sense of the topics that have appeared and to begin to get a sense of how previous examiners have thought about the subject.  We have papers from 2015 in the Reading Room of the Library. As you go through the previous exam questions, pay attention to the wording of the questions. Is the wording asking for an explanation (by using words such as 'Why', 'To what extent' 'To what degree', etc.), or are there key action words that appear frequently ( 'Discuss' or 'Comment on')? Looking at how previous examiners have phrased their questions can help you as you create your own practice exam questions. 

Use the KWL technique to help guide your revision sessions.

The KWL technique stands for Know, Want to Know, and Learned. Before revising, and checking your curriculum, assess what you already know and write in the Know section. In the Want to Learn section, you can set a list of questions you would like to know by the end of your revision, and this will help you to focus your reading and revision planning. There may be gaps, things you didn't understand, supervisions that didn't go so well. In the Learned section, write down some key takeaways from your session. Note what you learned and why it is important. 

                                             Know, Want to Know and Learned Table

Be honest

These tasks help you identify parts of the course that you feel comfortable with, which you can revisit less often. They also flag up problematic topics. If you really didn't understand something, don't shy away from it but start with that section of the course. Do some more reading, speak to peers, asks academics for support. The sooner you start, the more time you'll have to revisit the information during the weeks leading up to the exam.

Below is a video from Ali Abdaal, a former Cambridge student, in which he covers how he used flashcards, spider diagrams, and a retrospective revision timetable to prepare for his essay-based exams.

Notes form the basis of revision. Existing notes remind us what we have learned in the course of the year. New notes help us synthesise and play an active part in memorisation. Re-reading and copying out isn't enough - we need to repackage what we have learned to help us apply it in different conexts (the exam).

The key with notes is to think about what you want to get from them, make then active by engaging with the material, make clear what are your ideas and interpretation and which belong to an author, and organise them so you find them again easily. We have more information on our our separate Note Making LibGuide tab, but here are a few tips:

Mind maps

These are a great way to learn information in a simple and visually appealing way. Mind maps can help you simplify complex information, in effect checking your understanding of the topic, as well as help memorisation.  The great thing about mind maps is their flexibility; they have no heirachy and lots space for you to make new connections and add in new points or readings.

You can create them by hand or use software such as CoggleGitMind or Canva to create editable and distinctive mind maps. If you have to memorise your notes, make them distinctive with colours and shapes, which will help you picture them in an examination. Even if you have an online exam, a distinctive map will be easier to find quickly.

Structured notes

These are good for summarising key texts or for clearing delineating between the views of an author and your reaction to them. Look at 'Structured notes' in the 'How to' section of the Note Making LibGuide to find out about the Tower or Cornell method.

Free-flowing or linear notes

These are notes recorded in the order in which you read or hear something. They always need interpreting as they will be long and won't be relevant to the question you are trying to answer in an exam. If lots of your existing notes look like this, try using a mind map or structured template to synthesise and overlay your thoughts, connections to other topics/reading material, and to help you break away from the heirarchy imposed on the material by the lecturer/author. This doens't mean you have to dispose of these notes, but at least aim for a cover sheet so you know what is in them and don't waste time reading them again and again.

Create Flashcards

Flashcards are a great way to test yourself and incorporate spaced repetition in your learning. Anki and Quizlet are two great programs that allow you to create your own flashcards or download flashcards other students have already made to test your learning or understanding of a topic.

  • Tip: While you may be tempted to make flashcards for everything, try to make them only for information you need to know. This will prevent you from making an extraordinary amount of cards that will then make it difficult for you to go through. 2. Hold off on the urge to begin making flashcards right away. Go through your notes first and then assess what you might need to make flashcards for

The Feynman technique

When learning something, test your understanding of the topic by trying to explain it to a friend or to someone who may not be familiar with the topic you are revising. When doing this, don’t use over-complicated language and try to drill down the topic to its essence.  Using the Feynman technique can help you test your understanding of a topic in a simple and clear manner.

Need a break from studying on a computer screen?

Building off the Feynman technique, try creating a Pocketmod. This fun app lets you create small paper booklets in which you can condense topics down to essential themes, dates, and information, print them out and carry them with you wherever you go.

Practise, practise, practise

There is no replacement for imitating the sort of exercises you will have to complete in the exam. So if you have to write essays, then practise planning lots of of them, and writing a few. If you have to recall facts from memory, test and check. If you will have to solve problem-based calculations, try out past papers.

Below is a video from Ali Abdaal, a former Cambridge student, in which he covers how he used flashcards, spider diagrams, and a retrospective revision timetable to prepare for his essay-based exams.

Make use of your library’s resources

  • We have lots of study skills books, which can help with writing, revision techniques and time management strategies.
  • Book a 1-2-1 appointment with your College librarians or your faculty librarians.
  • Need templates to help get you started? Look around the Wolfson College Libguide for templates related to time management, literature searching, and much more.


It is easy and natural to feel overwhelmed and stressed as you revise and your exams draw nearer.  Please know you are not alone, and there is nothing wrong with having these feelings. It is important to be kind to yourself during this time. Below are some tips and resources that may be helpful during this time.

  • Timetable your breaks and time to socialize in your revision timetable. Two students working at a computerThis returns to the idea that your revision timetable must be realistic, and it is equally important to be aware of your self-care as you revise. This includes scheduling time to sleep, to celebrate special events and time to socialize with your friends.
  • Study in groups. Studying in groups can be a great way to utilize the power of positive peer pressure to help keep you focused. In addition, you’ll also have some great company during your study breaks when you step away from your revision materials. If you need to find a space that can accommodate group study or even find a different space to study for yourself, you can use Spacefinder to search for available study spaces across the University. Spacefinder even allows you to search according to the type of environment you are looking for, such as silent study or cafes within the University.
  • The College Nurse. The College Nurse can offer confidential help with a range of health problems, this includes assessment, advice and support for minor injuries and illnesses. Wolfson students can find further information about the College Nurse and the support she offers by visiting Wolfson's Physical Health or Illness Support page.
  • The Student Wellbeing Advisor. Wolfson employs a dedicated Student Wellbeing Advisor (SWA), Dr Kiran Bhatti, who can support you with any mental health, wellbeing, or stress-related difficulties. Dr Bhatti can offer short-term interventions and therapeutic goal setting, as well as signposting you to additional services both inside and outside the university. For further information, Wolfson students can visit the Mental Health and Wellbeing Support page.
  • The University Counselling Service. Sometimes it can be helpful to speak to someone if you are feeling overwhelmed by the stresses of academic life and the exam period. The University Counselling Service (UCS) provides free access to Counsellors and Mental Health Advisors for students at the University of Cambridge, and the service aims to offer every student an initial 75-minute appointment within ten working days. For further information on how to book an appointment, please see their webpage Individual Counselling​​​​In addition to the University Counselling Service, you can also access confidential support through ​​​Nightline and the Samaritans
  • ​​​The day before the exam. You may feel tempted to try to hold one last cramming session the night before the exam. However, try to avoid this. Think of your exam as an athletic event; you wouldn’t want to run a practice marathon the day before you have to run the real marathon. Instead, do some light revision, and most importantly, try to get a good night’s sleep. This will be especially important in setting you up to start the next day off well.

On the day of the Exam

On the day of the exam, it is important that you give yourself plenty of time to get to the location your exam will be held or to set up your space if your exams are online. If you have an in-person exam, you may want to visit the location beforehand so that you can get a sense of the space. If you are unsure where your exam is being held, you can use the online University Map to search for locations at the University of Cambridge. You might also time how long it takes you to get to the location to avoid a stressful trip on exam day. 

Think about the things you will need to take in order to take your exam. 

  • Your University ID Card
  • Materials to take your exam such as pens, pencils and calculator (if necessary) 
  • Will you be allowed to take a non-carbonated drink?

If you have an online exam, make sure your environment is conducive to taking the exam. Below are some questions to consider as you prepare for the day:

  • Do you have a quiet space free of interruptions?
  • Are your desk and chair adequate for your to sit for extended periods of time?
  • Do you have adequate lighting, cooling or heating to feel comfortable during the time you are taking the exam?
  • Do you have a reliable clock to keep track of the time available for you to complete your exam?
  • Do you have the login instructions and your blind grading number to take your exam?

Further guidance about exams can be found on the University's Examinations homepage Information for Students.

Each type of exam will require its own unique strategy to plan and manage your time during the exam effectively. Below are some general tips to help you begin to draft your own strategy. 

  • Length and type of the exam. Prior to the exam, find out how long you will have for the exam and how the exam will be divided. Will you be required to answer multiple essay questions, or will you have to answer a number of short answer questions? Once you have discovered this information translate the exam's total length into minutes and begin to decide how you will allocate the time. Some questions you will want to consider are: How long will it take to decide which questions you will answer on the exam; how long will you give yourself to draft an essay plan; How long will you dedicate to writing each answer; and how long will you allow yourself to review your answer?  
  • Simplicity can go a long way. This idea will be helpful if you have to draft an essay plan for your exam. It can be tempting to create a very detailed essay plan when you are brainstorming, but be careful that this drafting stage doesn't go too much into your writing time. Sometimes being able to provide a simple and to-the-point answer to the question can help you organise the information you really need to answer your exam question.
  • Make 'Am I answering the question?' your mantra. While you will have created numerous essay plans and answered a variety of practice questions in the lead-up to the exam, one of the common mistakes students can make when answering an exam question is attempting to fit in a previous plan or essay they wrote while they were revising. Remember, you must make sure that you answer the question in front of you. This means ensuring that you have considered all aspects of the question; focusing on the precise task you have been asked to do; keeping to the point; and making sure you answer all elements in a multi-part question. 
  • Answer the question fully. According to McMillan and Wyers in How to Succeed in Exams and Assessments (2011), the following are some reasons examiners may mark answers down:
    • Not providing enough in-depth information
    • Not thinking critically about a topic- or, more likely, not providing evidence of your deeper-level thought
    • Not setting a problem in context or not demonstrating a wider understanding of the topic.
    • Not giving enough evidence of reading around the subject. This can be corrected by quoting relevant papers and reviews.

             As you practice answering revision questions, make sure you are developing these skills as well. 


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