Exams / Revision

What Does Revision Really Mean?

“Revision is considered as ‘revision’ by teachers and lecturers, when a lot of the time it is ‘learning for the first time and desperately trying to remember’ for students.” – Rebecca Pickavance [Source]

This is a great insight into what many students don’t understand about revision.

Revision isn’t cramming. Revision isn’t learning new stuff a night or two before a test. Revision isn’t picking up a few essentials so you can pass.

The main purpose of swotting up before exams is to remind yourself of what has gone before. You should already be familiar with the content. As you learn over time, links are made and learning takes place gradually. But some of your knowledge fades away as you spend time on other things.

Revision doesn't have to be stressful.

Revision doesn’t have to be stressful.

To get back to optimum understanding, you revise.

Revision is refreshment. You go over the learning you’ve already done and bring it back to the front of your thinking. You may not have mastered the subject back to front, but you have enough understanding to have clarity and confidence when you need to use what you have learned.

Think of it as switching on a set of lights. You don’t install the wiring and fit the bulbs every time. You’ve done the hard work once and you’re left with the simple task of switching the lights back on. You still have to get out of your seat and press the button, but that’s all. And with enough connections, you’ll only need one switch to turn all the lights on at once.

When you revise, how much is new to you? How much are you properly learning for the first time here? The less it is, the better.

Habits, Emotions & Locations

Not all habits are equal. The harder the task, the longer it’s going to take to form into a habit.

A simple act, such as drinking a glass of water, doesn’t take long to turn into a habit. It doesn’t take long for emotion to drain away from the action. But exercise and anything that requires a bit more effort and preparation will likely bring more emotional issues with them too. No wonder, then, it takes longer to form some habits than others.

Every teardrop is a waterfall (photo by dollen - CC BY-ND 2.0)

Make yoga a habit? Not as easy as drinking a glass of water each morning! (dollen – CC BY-ND 2.0)

Jeremy Dean sums it up nicely in his book “Making Habits, Breaking Habits“:

“…the act of performing a habit is curiously emotionless.” – p.9

This also explains why too much of a good thing can become boring. The more it becomes a habit, the less you attach any sentiment to it.

I was fascinated by another thing Dean had to say:

“…new surroundings don’t have all the familiar cues to our old habits.” – p.12

This could help reignite a drive for old habits in different places, as well as bringing new habits into play.

I have long believed that you shouldn’t limit yourself to a single place of study. Use all sorts of places. Your room, the library (changing seats and rooms too), the canteen, a campus bar, parks and uni seating areas, coffee shops, a quiet public space, a loud public space…

Moving around means you’re not in any ‘usual’ grounds. Your focus is on study and your mind is open to new things. Simply by altering your situation on a regular basis, you can gain mentally.

There’s more! As a bonus, your recall may develop as you build memories with each different setting in place. When you try to remember something, your first recollection may be sitting in the middle of a field when you covered the precise thing you need right now. Because you weren’t fixed to a single place of study, the concepts have another opportunity to come to the forefront of your mind.

While performing a habit dulls the emotions, a choice of different locations could help give a new lease of life to learning methods you thought had gone stale.

Practice or Flawless?

I like Pat Thomson’s comments on academic writing. It’s rare to think of writing as a process you practice and fine-tune before getting the best results.

Instead, you sit down and your internal editor rushes you to be instantly perfect. Sometimes a flash of brilliance comes about straight away, but not often.

Thomson says, “We all assume that we ought to be able to just do whatever writing task comes before us”. However, she continues, “we would never assume this of music for instance”.

Anyone can play guitar... Perfectly? Straight away? (photo by ginnerobot)

Anyone can play guitar… Perfectly? Straight away? (photo by ginnerobot)

Writing a song may start with a few random chords or a stab at some lyrics. As you go along, you get more adventurous, add better chords, change words, and pick away until you’re satisfied. On the odd occasion, a song-writer may strike up a riff out of nowhere and get a song finished in minutes. And, like with writing, that’s rare.

With music, we’re aware that you need to practice. It’s important to practice how to play an instrument and it’s important to practice as you compose new material.

Yet with writing, perfect feels possible. No, wait, perfect feels NECESSARY.

Why?

I talked about 750words a while back. 750words is one way to let a stream of writing happen without getting bogged down with the finer detail. Just get on with writing and edit later.

Writing and editing are two different things.

Writing should be practice, all the time.

Okay, it’s more difficult in an exam. But even exams are best handled with plans. Before you write your answer, it’s handy to make a few notes for preparation and getting an order.

Outside the exam setting, the writing is the practice. The editing is the crafting. The re-writing is a combination of practice and crafting.

Telling you to ‘just do it’ is useful and misleading in equal doses. Useful because you’re getting words out and the practice has started. Misleading because writing isn’t just about random words on a page.

As you practice (i.e. as you write), you should still attempt to be clear. If you don’t know what you’re talking about, you’ll only confuse yourself later.

James Hayton of 3 Month Thesis says “you aren’t doing it wrong if you’re producing work you’re happy with! You are doing it wrong if you end up with a scrambled mess of half-baked chapters to sort out later”.

The take home point is this: Just getting the words on the page is not enough. It needs to be part of your bigger picture plan. Writing is practice, and so is editing. Everything is practice until you’ve finished.

Remember, ‘finished’ doesn’t mean ‘perfect’. Simply writing words doesn’t help you improve. Making use of those words and achieving clarity as you move along does.

Just write, so long as you understand why you’re writing and what you’re trying to achieve. Your inner editor will wince and scream at you, while you tell it to calm down as you’ll deal with that at a more convenient moment. That moment isn’t in a month or two, when you’ve forgotten what you were doing. However, that moment is at a different point to the writing.

Hayton calls advice to ‘just get words on the page’ as “the worst thesis writing advice ever“. That might sound harsh, but he’s right. Without context, the advice stinks. Give it context and know *why* you’re writing like that.

NOTE: I wrote this post without editing. I wanted to get the words on the page.

But…I had an idea of what I wanted to write. There was context. It may not be an academic text, but the same should apply for many types of writing. So long as there’s context!

For this post, the idea originated from reading Pat Thomson’s piece that I mentioned at the start. I considered what I wanted to talk about for a minute or two. In the process, I remembered my 750words post and looked for James Hayton’s piece on writing advice, because I thought it would fit. Thankfully, it did.

Armed with this, I started writing. It didn’t matter what words came out, because I had a purpose and I’d found enough context. The only editing was on the fly, when there was an obvious change in my head, moments after I’d typed the initial words.

I’m sure this post could be re-written and better crafted. But it took very little time and it still makes sense. That’s what I wanted to get across.

I don’t always write in this way, but it’s another way to practice. There is no single way to write and there is no perfect sentence. With that in mind, you should cut yourself some slack and enjoy the writing process. A new sense of calm may well help your writing improve. Win-win!

How You Can Do What You Keep Putting Off

Ah, distractions!

Distractions are a lovely way to do anything other than what you should be doing.

Distractions are plentiful and a recipe for forgetting. You have an ever-expanding list of things that are hard to resist. Then you have Facebook and Twitter (and the rest!) all bringing a steady stream (or a heavy flow, perhaps even a tsunami) of tidbits that can take you to every destination imaginable, and from every direction you care to come from.

Why is it so difficult to get rid of distraction and stop procrastinating?

  • Fear of missing out;
  • Everyone else doing it;
  • No natural end;
  • It feeds your pleasure centres in the brain;
  • It can *feel* useful, even when that’s an excuse.

Sid Savara’s procrastination survey shows that, overwhelmingly, people just don’t feel like doing the things they’re meant to be doing. They put it off because they *want* to put it off.

What can you do to stop this spiral from going further and further out of control?

photo by Bernat Casero

Tick, tock, putting it off… (photo by Bernat Casero)

Set an incredibly short amount of time

Ten or fifteen minutes should do it. Push yourself for just that amount of time and see how you feel. You may be happy to continue after that set time.

Switch off notifications

A beep or a screen notification will stop you from what you’re doing, whether you like it or not. No matter how much you tell yourself to ignore it, you’ve already been alerted to it. The temptation is there, itching away at you at exactly the wrong time. Switch those messages off!

Mindmap

Starting is easier when you have a better overview of what you want to achieve. A mindmap will let you consider ideas and links with ease. It may be what you need to conquer your procrastination. I recently gave mindmapping software, Mindmaple Lite a whirl. It’s free and it’s easy to use, so you can concentrate more on the mindmap than the software.

Outline

If mindmapping isn’t your thing, how about a brief outline of what you want to achieve? Build up your sections and sub-sections to break down your research and writing into smaller tasks. I recently discovered Quicklyst as an online way to create outlines.

Act like it’s a blog post

The pressure of writing an academic essay can lead to procrastination. So treat the writing more casually. A recent post on Lifehack explained that 1,000 words doesn’t have to take a lot of time when you work in the right order.

Try writing a snappy title or headline if the essay question is getting in the way (making sure that you’re still trying to answer the same question!). Then, see if you can rattle off a quick introduction and conclusion to help your own mindset (you may wish to rewrite later, so this is just for you right now). Then make a quick outline of the major points you want to cover throughout the essay. After this, fill in the gaps. Do this with a timer if you prefer, so you challenge yourself to get the bulk written quickly, rather than worrying over every last word and detail. Edit and re-draft later.

Go somewhere different

Location makes a huge difference to your productivity, your attitude, and your outlook. Find places you’ve not been to before and explore where it takes your mind, not just your body.

Watch an inspiring talk or presentation

Find a TED talk and watch it. You’ll be procrastinating (win), and you’ll feed yourself some brain-food that’ll get you more psyched up for work (win).

Well, so long as you don’t just keep watching more TED talks…

Understand what’s stopping you

Okay, so you want to put this off. But why? What is the real reason for your procrastination? Be honest. Are you not interested in the topic itself? Do you have difficulty understanding the subject (time to fire up Wikipedia for the basics)? Have you got loads of friends tempting you away for fun?

If you don’t work out why you’re putting the work off, you’ll keep on putting it off!

Stop expecting perfect

Perfectionism is a recipe for procrastination. When you picture the most amazing coursework to have ever graced this earth, everything you do will be a disappointment. After a while, you’ll feel inadequate and start putting off the work instead of cracking on.

Nothing is perfect. And your first drafts are certainly not meant to be anything other than, well, first drafts. Successful writers almost never finish on their first attempt. They redraft, they edit, they get opinions from others. If established writers need to do this, you can stop beating yourself up over flaws. Even a First Class essay has flaws!

 Believe that you can keep learning

As a child, I was told that I was ‘good at maths’. Children tend to believe what they are told. So I went through school believing I had a good grasp of maths. That was fine for a while, but when new concepts arrived that I didn’t understand, I started to think I wasn’t good at maths any more. I guessed I wasn’t as smart as some people had made out.

The concept of ‘smart’ and ‘clever’ is flawed. Turn the perspective around. We all have to learn. Nobody is born with great wisdom and knowledge. What matters is a willingness to keep learning new things and stop worrying that you’re not ‘smart’ enough.

Don’t discount the future

According to one paper about procrastination:

“…the value of socializing in the present is weighed heavily while the value of getting good grades in the future is discounted. This quirk leads to delays in studying for tests, writing term papers and getting prepared for weekly assignments. As can be expected, students who procrastinate generally discounted future values greater than students who don’t procrastinate.”

The future seems a long way away. No wonder it feels easy to put tomorrow to one side. But the future soon becomes the present and it’ll bite you on the bum if you don’t deal with it in good time.

Forgive yourself

We all fall down from time to time. The occasional lapse is allowed. It’s not uncommon to put something off for ten minutes and then find you’ve put it off for ten days.

So long as this doesn’t happen all the time, you can let yourself off the hook. You’ll probably procrastinate less on the next task if you forgive yourself.

Procrastination can happen when you suffer a delay beyond your control, like when you’re waiting on a crucial library book to be available. Even then, you can find ways to move beyond the initial setback. Sometimes you do just have to wait. That gives you time to spend on other stuff anyway! ­čśë

How will you keep the procrastination beast at bay today?