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What to do when you’ve left revision until the last minute

What to do when you’ve left revision until the last minute

7 min read
  • Study skills & exam prep

Many students fall into the trap of procrastination, significantly increasing the likelihood of last-minute cramming and panic. While it’s better to start revision as early as possible, it’s crucial to understand that it’s never too late. With well-thought-out planning and effective techniques, students can maximise the efficiency of their remaining study time.

In this blog, we will delve deep into strategies that students can employ when they find themselves having left revision to the last minute.

To make it more effective and actionable, we have organised our advice into three main sections, each focusing on a crucial phase of the revision process:

  1. Being prepared
  2. During revision
  3. What to do for last minute revision

The importance of being prepared

Being prepared plays a critical role in enhancing the efficacy of last-minute revision. Even with constrained time, a strategic approach to preparation can significantly improve focus, retention and overall performance. We believe there are three things to prioritise before students start their revision…

1. Quality sleep

Getting sufficient sleep during revision can help students optimise their alertness and concentration. Research has shown that sleep prepares the brain to absorb and process new information more effectively, making the time they spend studying more productive.

Adequate sleep can also help mitigate the stress and anxiety associated with last-minute revision. Sleep supports emotional regulation, reducing feelings of stress and improving mood. This emotional resilience is vital for maintaining motivation and perseverance through challenging study schedules.

The key strategies:

2. Removing distractions

Distractions can significantly disrupt cognitive processes critical for learning, such as attention, memory encoding and concentration. According to Cognitive Load Theory, the human brain has a limited capacity for processing information.

Distractions can take up a lot of space in our brain, leaving little to no room for processing and understanding important information. This can lead to superficial learning and decreased retention of material – a significant issue during last-minute revision as we want total focus and brain capacity to store information.

Research has also shown that persistent exposure to distractions can lead to difficulties in filtering out irrelevant stimuli, even when attempting to focus.

The key strategies:

  • Find a study space that is free from non-essential technology.
  • Use applications or tools designed to limit digital distractions.
  • Set specific goals for each study session to maintain direction and purpose, reducing the likelihood of attention wandering.

3. Effective planning

Time management is key when it comes to last minute revision, but judging how and when to study is difficult. Effective planning allows students to allocate their available time to prioritise essential learning material. This also helps organise information into manageable chunks, which makes the transition of knowledge from working memory to long-term memory smoother.

Research highlights the importance of goal setting for effective planning. By setting clear, achievable objectives, students can monitor their progress and adjust their study strategies as needed, ensuring a focused and purposeful revision process.

Finally, a well-structured plan can help mitigate the stress and anxiety often associated with last-minute preparation, providing a clear path forward amidst time constraints.

The key strategy:

What to avoid when revising

There are several common habits among students that can get in the way of their learning and make revision less efficient. Understanding what to avoid during revision is as crucial as knowing which strategies to embrace.

1. Music

While music can be a source of comfort and enjoyment, lyrics and complex melodies can compete for cognitive resources. According to Cognitive Load Theory, external stimuli such as a music can contribute to cognitive overload, particularly when engaging in complex tasks like studying.

Studies have shown that listening to lyrical music while studying can significantly impair memory performance due to the phonological interference it causes. Furthermore, even instrumental music, if overly complex or loud, can interfere with the cognitive processes essential for learning.

What to do instead:

  • Create a silent study zone. The physical act of moving to the “silent zone” can also mentally prepare you to transition into a more focused state.
  • Schedule in specific breaks to enjoy music, thus using it as a reward mechanism.

2. Multi-tasking

While multi-tasking is often hailed as a mark of productivity, neuroscience reveals that the human brain isn’t equipped to efficiently manage several tasks that require attention simultaneously.

Research challenges the common belief in our ability to multi-task, revealing that our brains don’t do tasks at the same time but quickly switch between them. This “task switching” results in cognitive drawbacks such as mental fatigue and less effectiveness due to the time it takes to switch tasks.

Learning to be truly effective demands deep conceptual understanding, but multi-tasking divides our attention. This promotes a scattered approach to learning, where focus is weakened and comprehension remains on a superficial level.

What to do instead:

  • Prioritise tasks and tackle them one at a time, dedicating specific blocks of time to each subject.
  • Identify potential sources of distraction so that you don’t have to shift attention away from the work at hand
  • Incorporate short scheduled breaks to rest or to do other tasks. This helps maintain focus and prevent burnout.

3. Re-reading and highlighting

Re-reading textbooks and highlighting notes are intuitive study methods; however, their effectiveness is limited. Research found that while re-reading and highlighting can familiarise students with content, they do little to reinforce memory or enhance the ability to recall information independently.

Repeated exposure to material can create a false sense of familiarity, often referred to as the “illusion of mastery.” This perceived understanding does not necessarily mean successful recall or memory of information.

Both techniques also lead to shallow processing – mindless copying or memorisation without understanding the material’s meaning and connections. This makes this material less likely to be retained overtime.

What to do instead:

  • Try explaining the material to someone else. This method, known as the Protégé Effect, can help students check their learning.
  • Create concept maps to help organise and relate information, this encourages a deeper engagement with the material.
  • Try paraphrasing and reflecting. Noting down information in your own words allows time to process main concepts.

4. Cramming

Cramming, the practice of intensive study in a short period just before an exam, is a very common last-minute strategy among students. Cramming can lead to a superficial familiarity with material, but it often fails to support the deep processing required for true understanding and long-term memory.

Furthermore, cramming is typically associated with elevated stress levels, which can adversely affect cognitive functions critical for learning, such as attention, comprehension, and memory recall. This heightened state of anxiety not only diminishes the quality of study sessions but can also undermine performance during the actual exam.

What to do instead:

  • Try spaced repetition Brief study sessions distributed over the available time can enhance memory consolidation.
  • Engage in self-testing or practice quizzes to improve retention. This forces you to check for knowledge and understanding.
We will teach your students to thrive under pressure with key stress management skills. Ideal in the lead up to exams.

What to do for last-minute revision

1. Find effective revision techniques

Given the limited time frame, employing methods that are scientifically proven to enhance learning and retention can significantly enhance cognitive efficiency, reduce cognitive load and improve long term retention. Here are three great ones:

  • Retrieval Practice – Retrieval Practice involves actively recalling information from memory. The process of trying to remember something without looking at the answer improves long-term memory retention more effectively than passive review techniques. This method is beneficial because it strengthens the neural pathways associated with the recalled information, making future retrievals easier.
  • Flashcards – Flashcards are a versatile and practical tool for employing both Retrieval Practice and Spacing. They enable learners to actively recall information (Retrieval Practice) and can easily be organised to introduce temporal gaps between study sessions for different pieces of information (Spacing). By repetitively testing themselves with flashcards over spaced intervals, students can efficiently enhance memory strength and retention of the material.

2. Choose a good study partner

Studying with or in the presence of a like-minded peer can provide mutual support and facilitate deeper understanding through discussion and collaboration. A study partner can offer new perspectives, clarify concepts, and provide motivation.

However, it’s crucial to choose a study partner wisely; while the right partner can enhance productivity, the wrong choice may lead to distraction. Students should look for someone who is as committed to their goals as they are.

3. Ask for support

Remind students that it’s never too late to seek help from teachers, tutors or classmates. Clarifying doubts and discussing challenging concepts can reinforce understanding and confidence.

Beyond academic assistance, expressing your concerns and stress can also provide emotional relief, allowing you to focus more effectively on your studies.

Final thoughts

While the ideal scenario would be for students to start their exam preparations well ahead of time, the reality often falls short of this expectation. However, with the right study strategies, students can still secure impressive grades.

Teachers are crucial during these stressful times, steering students towards effective preparation and away from counterproductive habits, while also promoting efficient study methods.

We can help you maximise your students’ revision effectiveness and foster efficient independent learning – get in touch about our student workshops today to find out more.

About the editor

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch is a Chartered Psychologist and a leading expert on illuminating Cognitive Science research in education. As Director at InnerDrive, his work focuses on translating complex psychological research in a way that is accessible and helpful. He has delivered thousands of workshops for educators and students, helping improve how they think, learn and perform. Bradley is also a prolific writer: he co-authored four books including Teaching & Learning Illuminated and The Science of Learning, as well as regularly featuring in publications such as The Guardian and The Telegraph.

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