Expert revision methods

Set yourself up for exam success with the experts’ revision tips.

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As a medical student today, you’re facing new challenges in revising for your exams.

Not only are you potentially feeling overwhelmed by everything you’ve had to learn, but you’re having to adapt to virtual lectures and the loss of vital social and academic activities.

While having good revision skills is always helpful, it’s now more important than ever to find methods that work and will help you manage stress and unexpected distractions. There’s good news though — science is here to help.

For over a century, psychologists have explored which revision methods work best for all different types of learners. And the best part? It’s clear that the secret to exam success is simply being more efficient with your time — not revising longer or harder. 

Everyone knows it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert in something, but the lesser-known reality is that you’ll face 10,000 exam questions before you get there.

Dr Matt Morgan, Intensive care doctor, Clinical Lecturer at Cardiff University and BMJ OnExamination expert.

To help you learn faster, retain more, and avoid stress, try one of the experts’ top 6 revision tips and tricks.

Be kind to yourself

Embarking on a life-long career path as a doctor means that revising has now become an integral part of your life. We know it’s tough but try not to add to your level of stress by placing exam completion and results as a goalpost. It’s important to take your mindset out of the cycle of chasing your desired results — and start enjoying the process of learning (at least a little).

Set up a calming revision space and choose tools that will keep you focused and comfortable. Then, start implementing processes that make life easier. Explore different revision methods, including the two listed below, to find what works best for you. Create a healthy balance between work and revising — and don’t forget to give your mind a break with creative pursuits or social activity.

Power your mind for success

When your mind is happy and healthy, you’re more likely to get the results you want. Revise under conditions that support both your body and external environment to help you learn successfully and retain information. If you’re struggling to concentrate or motivate yourself to get started, try exercising or meditating before your revision session to combat fatigue and increase your energy levels.

Make sure you’re clocking critical sleep and maintaining a healthy diet for optimal brain function and memory formation. Research has also shown that switching up your revision environment can increase recall performance — make sure you’re getting a change in scenery every now and then to boost concentration levels.

Focus better with the 80/20 rule

Did you know that cutting down your revision time can improve your grades? It may sound too good to be true, but being more productive in smaller spaces of time can help you retain more information. As Dr Matt Morgan revealed in last year’s Freshers Festival, the 80/20 rule is the way to go to revise well and avoid feeling overwhelmed by information.

The rule states that 80% of the effects of your efforts come from 20% of the cause — in other words, only 20% of your revising leads to the majority of your results. This applies to the exam content as well, and it will most likely cover only 20% of the lecture material. Whilst revising, focus on the core topics that are more likely to pop up in your exam. Your time revising, therefore, would be best used nailing those particular topics. Leverage tools at your disposal to help you prepare, such as BMA Library, and online practise tests.

Understand more with the coat hanger rule

In his popular virtual session, Dr Morgan also reminded us of a critical concept: “Before you buy an expensive outfit, first buy the hanger.” This might seem basic, but it’s an important way of thinking to apply to your medical studies. Remember that all the information in medicine we have to revise often builds on foundational concepts. Before you try to memorise complex facts or a mountain of flashcards, make sure you understand the underlying foundations of a concept before diving into the finer details.

The idea is to hang fundamental concepts — the backbone of medical knowledge — on a mental hanger, which you can then add to, attaching and connecting more detailed knowledge as you learn and revise. In short, strengthen your understanding of medical facts by focusing on the big picture of fundamental concepts. Learn the structure first, then the finer details.

Mentally map out difficult concepts

The power of revision is all in association. Studies show that if you associate new knowledge with existing knowledge, the new knowledge sticks like glue. Did you know that the structure of a mind map is related to the ways our brains store and retrieve information? If you’re a visual learner, this technique of visually organising information in a diagram is for you.

Start by writing the central concept in the centre of a blank page, and as you write ideas and key information connected to the central concept, other ideas will continue to branch out from the key concepts. This technique teaches you how to retain information — but more importantly, it teaches you how to learn. With practice, you’ll become a stronger, more critical thinker.

Stay consistent

Be sure to create and stick to a clear exam-ready checklist. Then adopt a regular revision routine and consistent habits to manage stress and avoid feeling overwhelmed. Remember that popular research shows it can take 21 days to break a habit and 90 days to adopt a new one. Try implementing just one of these revision tips a week, and as you get more practice, you can add more skills. Don’t be too hard on yourself!

Preparing for medical school exams after a challenging year isn’t easy. When the pressure starts building up, remember that you’re not alone. Your peers, professors and doctors in the BMA are all ready to provide the tools, tips and support you need to achieve success. This is your time to learn and grow as a doctor. Find what works for you and enjoy your year in med school.

Looking for more revision tips?

Get the OSCE guide to start practising your skills.