Smart Revision Tips for GCSE and A-level Arts Subjects

Strategic and astute revision need not be the preserve of scientists: humanities students can benefit from it too. Rachel McCombie, a Classical Archaeology and Ancient History graduate of St John’s College, Oxford, explains how.

Detail of The School of Athens by Raffaello Sanzio

Detail of The School of Athens by Raffaello Sanzio

It is traditionally assumed that humanities subjects are harder to study and revise for than the sciences.

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This assumption presumably arises from science subjects requiring the learning of facts, while humanities subjects often tend more towards interpretation and presenting both sides of an argument. Certainly, it’s true that in most humanities subjects, there’s no absolute right answer you can memorise and regurgitate – and if you try, it’s a sure route to failure. The good news, however, is that it’s possible to be strategic about how you study and revise for a humanities subject, and we’re going to show you how.

Learning techniques

Though the focus is less on ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answers and more on balanced arguments, there is still a wealth of information to absorb for you to do well in a humanities subject. In English, for instance, knowing key passages of literary texts from memory will come in very useful in an exam context. A foreign language requires the learning of hundreds of words, conjugations and so on. History necessitates the learning of dates; law, the learning of influential cases. The learning of this sort of information underpins your understanding of the subject, and is necessary for you to be able to write intelligently and persuasively about a topic in an exam.
Let’s start by looking at a few methods for learning effectively, helping the information go in and stay in, and making your life easier when it comes to revision time.

Organise quotes by theme

Image shows a stack of index cards in black and white.
One way to find useful quotes to remember is to look over any previous essays you’ve written on the same subject, and see if there’s anything you’re quoting repeatedly, or any ideas you keep coming back to that you could support with a quote.

Examiners like it when you can support a point you’re making with a relevant quote. The trouble is, you’ll read so many books during the course of your studies that the number of useful quotes can become quite unmanageable, leaving you struggling to remember any of them. The secret is to organise them effectively. Group them into different themes, so that you have a single place you can go to for quotes to support themes and points you might want to make about a particular topic in an exam. For instance, a theme might be marriage in the poetry of William Blake. To prepare yourself for an essay on this, you would note down and memorise a few relevant passages of Blake’s poetry that support different points you might want to make about the poet’s views on marriage. Don’t bother learning more than a couple of quotes to support each point, as you’ll not have time to include them all in an exam. You’re better off being able to deploy quotes that illustrate opposing sides of the same argument, so for each theme, include a variety of quotes that will help support a balanced argument rather than a load that all illustrate the same thing.
One simple way of organising information in this way is to use index cards, with a card for each theme, and a section for all themes relating to a particular topic or exam paper. This will force you not to write too much, as you’ll need to make sure all the quotes for a particular theme fit on one card. Later in this article, we’ll look at a handy piece of software that enables you to do this on your computer if you’d rather have it in a digital format.

Create a glossary

Even for a humanities subject, there are lots of specialist terms that can easily get confused or forgotten about. To sharpen your vocabulary so that you can confidently use these terms to impress an examiner, try creating a simple glossary containing the terms and a one-sentence definition of each. This will save you having to look up terms or trying to remember which book you found them in, giving you a single place in which you can access all the definitions you might need. Try sticking up your glossary in your room, so that you’re regularly exposed to these terms. You may find that you absorb them without even realising it!

Draw some mind maps

Mind maps aren’t just useful for scientific subjects; for humanities subjects, they can be a great way of breaking down complex concepts or themes into manageable, bite-size one-liners, as well as being a more visual way of presenting your notes that can greatly aid those with a more visual memory (in an exam, you can visualise the mind map and whereabouts a particular point was positioned on it).
Start by putting the theme or topic in the middle of the page, and then draw arrows out from it pointing towards key points, facts or arguments. Doing this gives you clarity about a topic by forcing you to distill your knowledge into snippets, making it easier to remember and giving you a comprehensive overview of a topic all on one page. For instance, if you’re studying First World War history, the topic in the centre might be the Battle of the Somme. The facts emanating from it would be key bits of information such as when and where it took place, how many lives were lost, key players and battle tactics, and the impact of the battle on the outcome of the war.

Build a timeline

Image shows a timetable of Shakespeare's play, by when they were written, printed and performed.
If you’re using a timeline to revise English, remember that there may be a gap between when a book was written and when it was published: for example, Northanger Abbey was first written in 1798-9 (and responds to the climate of the time) but only published in 1817.

Having important dates at your disposal ready to drop into an exam answer will help boost your confidence as well as showing the examiner that you know what you’re talking about. The problem is that dates are notoriously nightmarish to learn. Timelines are a good way of getting to grips with key dates, making them great learning aids. Especially useful for history, timelines are also handy for other humanities subjects. For instance, a timeline for English could cover key events happening in the background of a particular literary period that may have influenced writers of the time, or dates when important works were published.

Effective essay-writing

As essays are a fundamental part of the learning process for the humanities, no guide to strategic study would be complete without a few tips on effective essay-writing. Everyone has their own preferred method of writing essays, but here are a few suggestions that may prove useful.
– Before you start writing, make a brief essay plan, so that you have a structure to work from. This will help you be clear about what you want to say, so that none of the information you write is superfluous.
– If it helps, make notes directly into your essay document as you study towards your essay, so that all you have to do when it comes to writing it is turn your notes into a coherent argument punctuated with your own thoughts, interpretations and arguments.
– Start with an introduction that provides some brief background to the topic and what you will discuss. Finish with a conclusion summing up the arguments and perhaps stating your own position on what you’ve discussed.
– Back up points you make with relevant quotes – as we discussed earlier, your arguments will be much stronger if you’re able to provide evidence.
– Include proper references where you’ve cited other scholarly opinions, either in footnotes or at the end of your document.
Proofread your essay carefully before you submit it. It takes a little extra time, but will spare you the blushes later on!

Revision strategy

Not many people like revision; the amount of information to cover can be overwhelming, and the entire process is underpinned by the stress of looming exams and the pressure of deadlines. However, if you’ve followed the tips above and studied effectively, you’ll have at your disposal a well-organised collection of notes in a variety of formats, which you’ll find invaluable when it comes to refreshing your memory. You may even be pleasantly surprised by how much you remember! Here are some tips to help you revise for a humanities subject.

Create a timetable

Image shows a student fast asleep on a pile of notes.
Letting yourself have regular breaks also means you’ll be at your best when you’re studying.

It’s important to start by having a detailed overview of what material you need to cover, as well as dates for each of your exams. Use a calendar, as this will allow you to see exactly what you need to do, by when, enabling you to prioritise and plan your time effectively. Break your revision into manageable chunks, and ensure you don’t schedule too long on a particular topic or you’ll risk becoming bored. Schedule regular breaks to stop yourself from burning out, and don’t stay up working too late – it’s been proven that sleep plays a vital role in transferring information from the short-term to long-term memory, so it’s a revision aid in itself!

Cover new ground

Don’t just go over the same stuff – try to cover some new material, as this will consolidate and add to what you already know. For example, if you’ve studied Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, read Animal Farm or a dystopian work by a different author. As well as helping to support and cement what you learned originally, this will build on your knowledge and give you extra snippets and insights that other exam candidates may not have.

Reward yourself

Give yourself something to look forward to at the end of each chunk of revision, such as a snack or a check of Facebook. A brief spell away from your desk will refresh you, and stop you suffering from things like back pain or eye strain. You could even try this tip…

Practice papers

Image shows a sheaf of past papers.
Doing practice papers under exam conditions will help with time management as well as making the exam environment seem less scary.

Completing past papers for a humanities subject is just as helpful as it is for the sciences, but for different reasons. In the sciences, answers are either right or wrong, making past papers helpful for learning answers. For a humanities subject, however, there are no right or wrong answers; exam questions will usually expect you to provide balanced arguments and intelligent insights based on your interpretation of material or issues you may or may not previously have studied. This makes them much harder to prepare for. However, the value of past papers for humanities subjects is indirect:
– Exam technique – doing practice papers will help develop your exam technique, ensuring you’re able to use your time effectively and allocate an equal amount of time to each of the questions.
– Quick thinking – you’ll develop your ability to think on the spot, putting together arguments in a limited time period.
– Identify gaps in your knowledge – you’ll soon realise which topic areas could do with a bit more revision, or areas in which it would be good to have a few more facts, figures or quotes to support.
– Identify patterns in question formats – you’ll learn to recognise common patterns in how questions are worded, making you more prepared for the same type of question in future.
Try to sit some practice exams under exam conditions – no phone, no internet, just you, the question paper, your pen and some writing paper. If it helps, get a parent or teacher to act as your invigilator!

Useful study and revision aids

Here are a few of our favourites tools and other things to help you study and revise effectively.

Dark Room

The lure of Facebook can seem an irresistible temptation when you’re meant to be studying, but you should make every effort to resist it, because it will wreak havoc with your thought process and stop you properly absorbing what you’re learning. If you’re finding the internet a distraction, you could try Dark Room, which fills your screen with your text document to prevent you from accessing the internet when you should be working. It’s a great way of creating a distraction-free environment for yourself if you prefer to study on your computer.


Evernote is a handy piece of online note-taking software that allows you to have as many ‘notebooks’ as you like – perfect for each different module of your course. Within each notebook, you can have a new note for each lecture/class, topic, book or essay notes, and you can add tags to each note that you can then search to find what you’re looking for easily. You can even include images and screenshots, making it ideal for capturing relevant information and diagrams from digital journal articles and other online resources.
To make Evernote work as efficiently as possible for you, try tagging each note with a particular theme, so that if you need to find everything you’ve written on one theme, it’s there at your fingertips (it’s like a digital version of the index card system for organising quotes that we discussed earlier). It might work well to copy your essays into notes as well, as this will make it easy to search everything you’ve written even months or years later. Even better, you can access Evernote via a mobile app when you’re on the go.

The humble Post-It note

Image shows a stack of paper with multi-coloured post-it notes coming out from all side, and a dictaphone balanced on top.
You can even use post-it notes to annotate your own essays and past paper answers.

Post-It notes are great revision aids, because they’re small enough that they force you to condense a concept into a small number of words, making them ideal for learning exam-sized snippets. You can put facts, figures and concepts onto Post-It notes and place them around your room in areas where you’ll notice them. You can also use different colours of Post-It note to bookmark pages within a book that match particular themes, with a different colour for each theme and a couple of words on the bit that sticks out at the top so that you know what you’ll find on that page. This is also useful for highlighting key events in a literary work for easy reference.

Work together

Find a study partner and learn together. The chances are that one of you will learn something more quickly and easily than the other, and vice versa, so you can learn from each other and consolidate your knowledge through discussion. You can also set each other quizzes or test each other on what you’ve learned. Learning with someone else is also beneficial for the morale, as you can spur each other on and stop each other from getting distracted.

A final word of advice

When you get to the exam room and read the questions, don’t panic, even if you don’t immediately think the questions look easy. Your studying will have given you a solid foundation and you should have enough knowledge to know roughly what topics you need to cover. Once you put your pen to paper, you’ll be amazed at what you start remembering, and provided you write intelligently and support your arguments with the evidence you’ve been diligently learning, you’ll do just fine.

Image credits: banner; notes; Globe; exam; post-it notes.