How to Study if You Only Have an Hour, a Day, a Week or a Month
To state the obvious: not all study tips are relevant in all situations.
If you’ve just learned that you have a spot test tomorrow, you’d be ill-advised to start writing a revision timetable (though if you do, that’s an impressive level of procrastination). If you’ve got exams in a couple of months, you won’t find it very sustainable to grab your notes and start consuming facts at random. You have to plan for the time you have available to you. Different lengths of run-up appeal to different people’s strengths, and you can’t always count on your preferred revision techniques complementing the time available to you.
Yes, ideally you’d always know when a test was coming and be able to plan for it, but real life doesn’t work like that. It might be that your teacher announces something last-minute, or unexpected circumstances mean that an exam has to be brought forwards. Or – admit it – you might just end up forgetting about the exam until it’s too close for comfort.
Alternatively, you might be someone who tends to opt for last-minute study over the slow-and-steady approach, and you’d like to learn how to make the most of the time you have rather than slacking off and then pulling an all-nighter.
In this article, we’re going to take a look at how to make the most of the study time you have available to you, whether it’s a lot, a little, or scarcely any time at all.
Well. An hour isn’t a whole lot of time to study. If you’re in this position, you might be tempted to spend a good chunk of time getting annoyed with whoever put you in it, whether that’s yourself (by procrastinating) or your teacher (by not giving you enough time to study). And that’s reasonable. But given the limited time you have, it’s probably best to save that annoyance until after the test is over, and take the time now to concentrate on some hardcore cramming.
Start with the essentials. If you’re revising for a science subject, are there any formulae you need to know? Equations? Do you need to remind yourself of what the graph of a quadratic function looks like? (It’s a parabola, in case you found this article by googling that). Do you need to remind yourself of what a parabola is? (Like a smoothed-out V shape, ditto). If it’s English Literature, time to remind yourself of the names of authors and their characters; you will be deeply embarrassed if you end up writing about the great nineteenth-century novel Charlotte Bronte, by Jane Eyre. If it’s History, checking dates and monarchs for the relevant time period is a good place to begin.
This should take you maybe 10 minutes. If looking over the essentials takes you longer than that, then forget the rest of this and commit the hour just to relearning the basics, as you clearly don’t have the knowledge easily to hand and at least then you’ll have some bare bones to bluff with.
Assuming you can refresh the bare necessities reasonably quickly, it’s time to think ahead to what you might be asked. You don’t need to write anything down here, unless it helps as a memory aid; just think through what kind of questions you’re expecting will come up. Chances are there’ll be some that you’re comfortable with, some that you’re lost on, and some that you think, “hmm, I wouldn’t be delighted if that came up, but I’d give it a shot.” It’s tempting to cram wildly for the things you’re lost on, but resist: it’s too late for that an hour before the exam. Instead, focus on the things that you could do, but aren’t comfortable with. If you have any freedom to choose between questions, this is likely to reward you because it increases the pool of questions you’re comfortable with. Focusing on the things you really struggle with will a) only increase the number of questions you’re only borderline happy with and b) leave you feeling panicked that you don’t know anything, shortly before you go into the exam.
Read over the material you’re a little unsure of, making mental notes of anything that strikes you (as this will be fresh in your mind in the exam, and therefore likely to make an appearance in your answers). With ten minutes left, go over those essentials once again. Then drink some water, make sure you have enough working pens, take a deep breath, and go for it.
A day might feel like far too little time for proper revision, but there’s actually quite a lot you can do with it. This is enough time that it’s worth planning what you do with it.
First of all, remind yourself that a standard working day is eight hours long. Unless you’ve been slacking off all year until this point, it’s best to stick to eight hours of work and take the rest of the time to eat, sleep and relax, or fatigue and hunger will undo all your good work by the time you get into the exam hall. Give yourself regular breaks, and a solid chunk of time for lunch. And switch your mobile phone off.
As with just an hour to go, start by going over the essential facts. But this time, take the time to write them down, neatly, so you can glance over them again in the morning. Then write out the list of topics you might be expected to tackle, and grade them: green are the things you’d be comfortable with, yellow is so-so, red is scary.
With a whole day to spend, you can take the time to familiarise yourself with the exam, not just the topics. Your next step should be to find a past paper (or in the case of subjects where this works, write yourself an essay title) that consists as much as possible of yellow topics; as with an hour of study, these are the ones where you have room to make gains. Do the past paper under proper exam conditions, mark it, and adjust your green/yellow/red scoring accordingly. The next steps will vary according the style of study that suits you. You might want to do this a couple of times over to work through more of your yellow topics (this works best for exams that are an hour or less), or you might want to go over all of your yellow-topic notes.
Even if you have a full day, however, there’s not much point in tackling red topics unless you’re certain you can’t afford them on the exam. If that’s the case, aim low; you’re not going to get full marks in a red topic on a day’s study, but you might be able to get yourself to passing level. There’s no point in piling the pressure on at this stage.
You’ll probably be tired and fed up of studying after lunch, so for the hour straight after you’ve eaten, pick something more dynamic to do than just reading and taking notes. This could be another past paper, or it could be getting someone else to quiz you – just so long as it’s hard to doze off while you’re doing it.
And if you’re feeling particularly nervous, round off the day by going over the essentials again, and then doing half an hour of work on a green topic (especially if it’s one that’s very likely to be on the exam). A day of intense study can be disheartening, but finishing it by reminding yourself how good your work can be will put you in the right, confident frame of mind ahead of the next day.
This is starting to feel like a useful amount of time for studying. You might have a week’s revision time between two exams during your GCSEs or A-levels, or perhaps a particularly unkind teacher has scheduled an internal exam for straight after you get back from half term. Either way, you can make some real progress in a week.
You know the drill by now: start by making a note of the essential things that you cannot go into the exam without knowing. Given you have more time, instead of just writing down whatever comes into your head, try to fill one A4 page with this information, at a reasonable size font or handwriting (i.e. don’t try to cram everything in there). Reread this at the start and end of every day, then cover it and try to rewrite it. By the morning of the fourth day, you should have it memorised.
Then list out your topics, and colour-code. If you have a relatively short number of topics, you’ll be tempted to make it straightforward and spend a day or half a day focusing exclusively on each topic before moving on to the next, but this is a recipe for becoming exceptionally bored. Instead, use your colour-coding, and try to achieve an even balance of focus on green, yellow and red topics each day. Use past papers and similar forms of revision that are directly relevant to the exam for green and yellow topics, and structure your day so that times when your concentration is good are dedicated to red topics, and times when you might struggle to concentrate (at the end of the day, or just after lunch) are when you look at green and yellow topics. And you should be spending about twice as much time on red topics as green ones.
As with a day of revision, make sure you stick to a reasonable working day (eight hours is good), with proper breaks, regular meals and lots of sleep. A week of just revision is very hard work, so try to relax in the time when you’re not studying.
It’s rare ever to get a month of solid study, at least in the British education system until you reach university level. Over the course of a month (even if you only have a couple of hours every evening, rather than a whole 30 days) you can make a serious dent in most subjects. In fact, it’s long enough that one of the main problems you might face with this study period is that by the time you get to the end of it, you’ll have forgotten what you learned at the start.
Here’s how to avoid that. Don’t think about your month of study as thirty equal-sized days. Think of it as three weeks + one week. For three weeks, you work like a scholar, trying to get a true understanding of your subject. For one week, you work like someone who has an exam in a week’s time.
Start with (surprise, surprise) writing out a list of the topics you’ll have to cover. No colour-coding just yet (that comes later) but instead, spend time compiling a factsheet on each of them. This should consist of a couple of lines of essentials, and then one or two A4 pages of notes in as much detail as that space allows. Let yourself take time over this, and explore beyond what you might find in your textbook. What ends up on the eventual factsheet should be a reflection of what you find interesting and relevant, not just what you think will be key to top marks. Once you’ve done a factsheet for a particular topic, do past paper questions focusing on that topic and amend your factsheet depending on the marks you got.
This work – creating useful factsheet summaries and working on past papers – can take you most of the three-week period. But only do this exclusively if you’re not finding it dull. With a month to play with, you can expand your study into the things you enjoy. For instance, if you’re studying a book by a particular author, you might also want to spend some time reading other books by them, to expand your horizons and stop yourself from getting bored by going over the same material repeatedly.
Then in the last week of the month, look at those topics again, rate them green, yellow and red (ideally, after three weeks’ work, there will be very little or no red) and focus hard on the yellow and red topics, by doing more past paper practice and reread the relevant factsheets at regular intervals. Once a day, quiz yourself (or get someone to quiz you) on content taken from all of your factsheets, so you don’t forget that work. And on the last day of the month, reread your green and yellow factsheets, rewrite the essentials from each factsheet, and feel satisfied with all your hard work.
Image credits: clock; desk; owl; glass of water; traffic lights; avocado; notebook; sleeping puppies; astronomical clock; exam hall;
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