There are lots of you out there revising hard for your IGCSE Biology exams in May/June. I can see because of a graph like the one below showing page views on the blog in every month from August onwards. Let’s see if April and May 2017 can break records on PMGBiology and then with a little luck, your cohort of students can break the record for the highest proportion of A* grades ever awarded.
Sometimes the hardest thing with revision is getting started….. This post is meant to help you think about how best to make the most difficult first steps towards securing your A* grade. I went through this with my Y11 classes before the end of term so this is just a re-cap. There are very few original thoughts here (story of my life….) but perhaps I can inspire you to get started early in the holidays with your Biology revision….?
Most important – have a plan for the Easter holidays
Work out how many days you have available to revise over the holidays. This will not be the same as the total number of days of holiday as you should have rest days where you do no work at all. Ask your parents what family commitments you have coming up, think about your social life and subtract the days when it will be impossible for you to work. This gives you a number of “working days”.
What do you do on a “working day”?
I suggest that you never try to do more than 4-5 hours of work in any one day. Revision is not measured in hours, it is measured in progress and learning. 2 hours of effective work might be better than 10 hours inefficient time at your desk. The aim here is to maximise the benefit you gain from your revision, not simply clocking up the hours.
Here is how I would organise things if it were me….. Divide the working day into three sessions:
- Morning: 9.30am – 12pm
- Afternoon: 2pm – 4.30pm
- Evening: 7pm – 9.30pm
The plan is this. On a working day you always work in the morning session, every day, no excuses…. Ask your parents to be ruthless in waking you up and don’t allow yourself ever to sleep later than 8.30am or so. There will be plenty of time for lie-ins and getting up at lunchtime in the summer holidays. By midday, you will always have done half the work of the day. How happy will that make you feel? Then choose either the afternoon or evening session (but never both) depending on how you feel and what other plans you have for the day.
How to organise a “revision session”
You need a kitchen timer like the one shown above (not to scale as the textbook is quite large and the timer is quite small…..). I bet if you ask nicely your mum or dad will let you borrow the one in the kitchen. For Biology work, you also need your textbook and revision notes. This is how I suggest you work. Set the timer to 25 minutes, switch off your phone and start work. Work at a topic until the buzzer sounds – no distractions allowed…. If your phone beeps, ignore it. Snapchat can wait! After 25 minutes stop and have 5 minutes off. Make a cup of tea, check your phone and repeat.
I suggest that you revise 5 different subjects in one session. (5 x 25 minutes) You must try to make your revision interesting so you don’t get bored. Bored people do not learn anything……
Different people learn best in different ways so do what works for you. What works for no-one is just reading…. Make notes, revision cards, write out definitions of key facts, use IT if that rocks your boat, whatever you like just do not sit and read your textbook. The key thing is to go over ideas as many times as possible, test yourself on your recall of facts and then try to practise some past paper questions. Most importantly, try to have fun! If you are enjoying it, you will be learning and that is the idea I guess.
Finally, the main benefit of having a plan is this….. When you are not supposed to be working (according to your beautifully crafted plan), you can switch off properly without feeling even a teeny bit guilty. You can combine revising with getting on with enjoying your life. The two things are not mutually exclusive!! And with luck you will avoid feeling like Stewie in the picture below. If only he had a proper revision plan…..
PMG tips for half term:
- Don’t do any schoolwork at all for one week
- Do spend lots of time outdoors and with your friends
- Find things to do that are fun.
- Be nice to your family
- Sleep lots……
May 16th was the busiest day on this blog. I wonder if we can beat it before paper 2 comes up after half term……
I will try to put up a few more posts on the remaining topics so keep checking….. And keep working hard! 25 minute bursts of focused, intensive revision is best.
On the back of the document Barbara Oakley used to describe good studying and learning (see previous post) she also described Ten Techniques seen in Bad Learning. These should “all be avoided as they can waste your time even while they fool you into thinking you are learning”. You have been warned…
1. Passive re-reading. Sitting passively and running your eyes over a page. Unless you can prove to yourself that the ideas are moving into your brain by recalling the main ideas without looking at the page, re-reading is a waste of time.
2. Letting highlights overwhelm you. Highlighting text can fool you into thinking you are putting something in your brain,when all you are doing is moving your hand! A little highlighting here and there is ok but so often I see students who have basically coloured their notes in…. Use sparingly to flag up one or two important points per page, but no more than that please….
3. Merely glancing at mark schemes and model answers and thinking you could do it. This is one of the worse errors students make while studying according to Dr Oakley. You need to be able to solve a problem step-by-step (or answer a question one point at a time) without looking at the solution or mark scheme.
4. Waiting until the last minute to study. Well we are less than 18 hours away from the main iGCSE exam so I hope none of you have done this! Would you cram at the last minute if you were competing at an athletics event?
5. Repeating solving problems of the same type that you already know how to solve. I see this a lot in Biology – students repeatedly practising the easy questions on topics they already know they understand. Waste of time!
6. Letting study sessions with friends turn into chat sessions. Revision with friends can be fun as it allows you to check your problem solving, quiz each other and expose flaws in your thinking. But there is a risk and that is that the fun can come before the learning and then you are all wasting your time….
7. Neglecting to read the textbook before working on problems/past papers. I see this a lot too – students dive into past papers from the internet without bothering to read the textbook or try to learn the topics thoroughly. Would you dive into a swimming pool before you learn how to swim? The textbook is your swimming instructor – so pay attention and work at it. Past papers are conning you that you are revising if this is the first thing you do.
8. Not checking with your teachers to ask for help. Teachers expect students to come to ask for help – it is our job to help you prepare for exams after all. The students we worry about are the ones who don’t come in for help. Don’t be one of those students.
9. Thinking you can learn deeply when you are being constantly distracted. “Every tiny pull toward an instant message or conversation means you have less brain power to devote to your learning. Every tug of interrupted learning pulls out the tiny neural roots before they can grow.”
10. Not getting enough sleep. I have written about this several times before and it is a biggy…. I am delighted Barbara Oakley shares my point of view. Your brain pieces together problem-solving techniques and understanding when you sleep. It also repeats and practises what you have put into your mind before you sleep. Prolonged fatigue builds up toxins in the brain that disrupt the neural connections you need to think quickly and well. If you don’t get a proper sleep before a test or exam, nothing else you have done will matter. So please take note and go to bed tonight!
I was lucky enough to hear Dr Oakley speak at the #TLAB15 conference in March. She has written extensively about the neural processes involved in good learning and this list of 10 points is an abridged and adapted excerpt from her book “A Mind for Numbers: How to Excel in Math and Science (Even if you Flunked Algebra)”
1. Use recall. Read a page, look away and recall all the main ideas. Highlight very little, check your recall frequently in different places and at different times. An ability to recall – to generate the ideas from inside yourself – is one of the key indicators of good learning.
2. Test yourself. On everything. All the time. Flash cards are your friend.
3. Chunk your problems. Chunking is understanding and practising a solution so that it can come to mind in a single step. After you solve a problem, rehearse it. Pretend its a song and learn to play it over and over again in your mind so that the information combines into one smooth chunk you can pull up whenever you want.
4. Space your repetition. Spread out your learning in any subject a little every day, just like an athlete. Little and often is the way to deep and full understanding.
5. Alternate different problem-solving techniques during your revision. Never practice learning a particular topic for too long. Mix it up and work on different kinds of problems. Handwrite a problem/question on one side of a flash card and the solutions on the other. Go through tests and assignments, looking at errors and checking why you made them.
6. Take breaks. Some Biology topics are difficult to understand and few people will get them first time. If it doesn’t make sense first time, don’t worry, take a break, work on something different and come back to it. Your mind is very powerful and can work on problems in the background even when your focus is elsewhere. This is also why little and often is such a good rule for learning.
7. Use simple analogies. If a concept is difficult, think to yourself – “how can I explain this so a 10 year old could understand it?” Using analogies really helps. Don’t just think the analogy, say it out aloud and write it down.
8. Focus. Turn off all beeps and alarms on your phone and computer and set a timer for 25 minutes. Focus intently for the 25 minutes and try to work as diligently as you can. When the timer goes off give yourself a small, fun reward. Chocolate works well for me…..
9. Eat your frogs first. Do the hardest thing early in the day when you are fresh.
10. Make a mental contrast. Imagine where you’ve come from and contrast that with the dream of where your studies are going to take you. Post a picture or words in your workspace to remind yourself of your dream. Look at this when you find motivation flagging.
Then students I teach are at an all-boarding school. This gives them a massive advantage in the revision period before exams because it is so easy to revise together. Working as a group is great for motivation as you can all help each other. It is a good idea to revise a topic or two then get together to discuss the main ideas. Why not create a test on a particular topic you have revised and see if any of your friends want to have a go at it? Zondle, Quizlet and Kahoot all allow you to create your own tests….. Or you could be old-school and use a paper and pen.
This picture too has a great message for revision…. Have a go at teaching or explaining a topic to someone else. I can think of half a dozen biology topics I never really understood until I tried to teach them to other people… Everyone is a learner and everyone can be a teacher!
Keep working hard – it will be worth it in the end….. But please get enough sleep. It is the commonest mistake I encounter with Y11 students and working too late in the evening can have a seriously negative impact on your exam performance. However tempted you are, don’t do it!