THERE ARE NO SIMPLE SOLUTIONS.
YOU MUST COVER EVERYTHING.
YOU MUST WORK HARD. REALLY HARD.
YOU MUST DO QUESTIONS IN CONJUCTION WITH THE MATERIAL.
YOU MUST KNOW THE INFORMATION.
YOU MUST KNOW HOW TO APPLY THE INFORMATION.
YOU MUST READ THE QUESTION CAREFULLY.
YOU MUST ANSWER THE QUESTION THEY ASK, NOT YOUR VERSION OF IT.
The two phases:
- Phase I: Topics. Go through topic by topic, once or twice. While doing this, briefly revisit topics you’ve already covered, so they don’t get forgotten. Do this until you’re happy with the topics. You should reach this stage at least 3 weeks before your exams start, so you have plenty of time for the next stage.
- Phase II: Mock exams. As often as possible, under exam conditions. Try to replicate the exam situation. Do a whole paper in the same amount of time. As there aren’t many past papers for the new specifications for A-levels, choose your questions in advance, before starting the timer. Mark your questions yourself to understand how the marking works. Identify weak areas and fix them. Then repeat.
First of all, make a list of the topics to revise:
- The specification is a list of everything you can be asked in an exam, and contains so much information, you should have a physical and electronic copy handy at all times. Get sick and tired of reading it.
- You must cover ALL the topics in your revision. Don’t ignore ones you are comfortable with, just to focus on your weaknesses. Sure – give the topics you are weaker in more time, but DO NOT ignore any topic.
- Get a list of every topic, preferably in a spreadsheet
- Record when you have covered a topic in a spreadsheet – just stick a date beside the topic name. Maybe stick a comment or two next to it, ‘Need to cover again’, ‘Feel good about this’, ‘Do questions on the motor effect’, ‘Understand everything but autocatalysis’ for example.
The phases of revising a topic should be as follows:
- Understand the material. You should probably already be at this stage. If you’re not get there quickly!
- Summarise what you need to remember. For making complete notes, don’t bother. Buy a CGP revision guide. For things you need to remember, post it notes stuck up everywhere, or a page or two of the stuff you need to remember is the best thing to do. Most things in science and maths are about applying skills, not regurgitating facts. There are some things you have to remember – colours of aqueous ions, reactions, the rule for when a binomial expansion is valid, trig identities, definitions, what a hadron is. For these things flash cards, anything to help TEST and TEST and TEST again.
- Do questions. The best way to revise isn’t to make notes, or to memorise slabs of information. It’s to actually do the thing you’re going to be tested on. The best way to get better at football is to play football. The best way to learn how to tie your shoes is to keep tying your shoes. For exams, that means doing exam questions. How you do exam questions though, can hugely affect how efficient your time is. Remember – most questions aren’t asking you to spit out a fact. It won’t for example, ask what the formula for fringe spacing is, in a double slit experiment. It wants you to realise the set-up in the question is like a double slit experiment, and the ‘screen’ isn’t a screen. It’s a microphone picking up the intensity/amplitude of the sound waves arriving where it’s positioned. You then need to know you need to know what to extract from the question to calculate the fringe spacing (distance to ‘screen’=perpendicular distance to line of motion of the microphone from centre of speakers, lambda=wavelength of sound waves, spacing of the speakers=slit separation).
Subject Specific Pointers:
It’s useful to analyse every equation in physics.
Know EXACTLY what the things refer to (not mass for example, but mass of the body causing the gravitational field).
Know what things can be calculated from other things (intensity from amplitude, weight from mass, wavelength from diffraction grating angles).
Get used to thinking of things as a tool. You can convert mass to moles ANYWHERE – not just in a question that tells you to. Same with your knowledge of acids and bases. If you’ve added excess sulfuric acid, the solution will be acidic at the end, so you shouldn’t have -NH2 groups on a compound, you should have -NH3+ groups.
Physics and Chemistry:
You will most likely be asked questions based on experiments. If you have to as part of your specification, make a list of experiments you’ve done as you go through topics. In physics, you will be asked to design an experiment, or show how X can be measured. Please refer to my ‘How to answer design an experiment questions’ blog.
Everything in maths is a tool and can be applied anywhere. You can use trig identities in differentiation, integration. You can use partial fractions anywhere.
Formula books are helpful but will SLOW you down. Badly. You need to know most of the formulas because you done so many questions, how could you forget? If you don’t know a formula, you won’t be able to spot that you can use it when doing a question. This is especially true of the trig formulas.
How should I organise my revision?
- You need to pick one topic, and get good at it. You wouldn’t try and learn 4 languages at once. Get one topic done, and move onto the next one.
- Don’t spend more than 4 hours on a topic unless you’re really struggling. You have a lot of topics to do.
- You should revisit topics after a few days/a week. But please don’t over-plan this bit. Almost all of your time should be spent revising, not planning. And detailed plans rarely are stuck to. Every so often just quickly go over topics you’ve already done.
- Keep going methodically through the list of topics. The longer you spend thinking which topics should I revise today, the less time you are actually doing anything useful!
Example Weekly Plan for phase I: Topics.
So take your list of topics to do, with a rough estimate of how long each will take for your 3 A levels. Let’s say you are doing chemistry, physics and history. Note this schedule is just a suggestion, and is pretty intense! Feel free to reduce the number of hours.
- Monday – Thursday: Do 1 hour of each subject. Choose the next topic in the list for each subject. Do 20 minutes of random questions from past papers from any topic, including ones you haven’t fully looked at yet. Do this for each of your 3 subjects.
TOTAL TIME: 4 hours/day.
- Friday: Sit and choose questions from each of the topics you have done, and VERY QUICKLY create a 1 hour mock exam, based on past papers questions (from multiple different years), on the topics you have covered in the last four days.
Don’t overthink the choice of questions. You should already know roughly how many marks a minute for each exam paper, so choose any questions from the topics you’ve done, that add up to 1 hour’s worth of marks.
Do this for each subject.
TOTAL TIME: 4 hours.
- Saturday: Do 2.5 hours of topics from each of two subjects (say physics and history). Then do a 1 hour mock exam for each subject on the topics you have covered.
TOTAL TIME: 7 hours.
- Sunday: 2.5 hours of topics for the remaining subject. Then a 1 hour mock exam on this subject. Then do 1 hour of random questions, from every topic. Do this for each subject. That’s 1 hour for each subject, not in total. The questions here should be from every topic that is going to be in your real exams. Not just ones you have covered.
TOTAL TIME: 6.5 hours.
If you have homework, count that as hours spent doing topic based work if it’s topic based, or hours spent doing random questions if the homework is questions on a range of topics.
Once you have finished doing phase I, phase II: Mock exams, is easy. Simply do as many mock exams as you can. Again without going really insane. You’ll probably go a little bit crazy – make sure it’s just a little bit!
Here’s my suggestion for how to get the most out of doing a question, when you are learning a topic:
- Get a revision guide rather than a text book. The CGP ones are excellent. Buy them now! Print out the specification, or have an electronic version to hand. Text books are far too verbose.
- Choose one topic, e.g. electricity. Go through the past papers or questions by topic, and choose 3-4 questions.
- Now the important bit – you are NOT doing the questions to test yourself. You are doing them to learn more about the topic you are doing, and learning how to apply your knowledge and skills more. So you can look up information to help you answer a question. In fact I encourage it.
- When you look up information to help answer a question, remember that exact question will never be asked again. So have a think about what other questions could be asked, and look at the other information in the revision guide. For example if the question was about calculating resistance in parallel for 2 resistors, have a think about how you could do it for 3 resistors.
- Look in the mark scheme. Understand how the marks were awarded. Marks are really all we are interested in.
- Look in the specification to see where the question came from. Have a quick look at the other things near it, in the specification. Questions will be asked on this, so make sure you know everything.
- Once you’ve finished one question, do the next one. And repeat the whole process – question paper, mark scheme, revision guide, specification. Or question paper, revision guide, mark scheme, specification (if you needed help to answer the question).
- It takes a long time to do one question to start with, you’ll be faster on the 2nd, even faster on the third, and by the 4th question you’ll be up to exam speed. Remember you are NOT doing questions to see how you will perform in the exam when you are learning a topic. You are doing questions to get better at answering questions.
Now get working!