History Revision Advice Using My *Real* Uni Notes
Hello my friends,
I'm well aware that it is the time of year (especially moving towards summer) when some of you may have exams to take for school, or college, or university. And with that in mind, I want to offer you some tips on how I revised during my degree. I like to think I'd got revision down to something of a fine art by the end of my third year. I knew exactly how my brain needed to be taught information, and maybe the steps I work through can help you too!
Now this comes with a significant word of caution. While I hope these techniques work for you, they might not, just as the way your friends revise may differ from your own. We all learn in a different way and, if you're not sure what works best for your brain, then it's well worth trying out some different methods.
To put it very simply, there are four main categories of learner:
- auditory [prefers to listen and speak when learning]
- visual [prefers the use of colours, charts, images]
- kinaesthetic [prefers to work with their hands, make things]
- reading/writing [prefers to gain information by reading and writing it again]
For me, I've learnt over the years that I'm quite a visual learner. So, you'll see a fair bit of colour and mind maps on my real uni revision. But, the most important advice I'll give is probably around step 5.
And, if you are an auditory person, I'm thinking about recording this in a podcast as well, so do let me know if that would be helpful!
Okay, lets get into the revision:
This will vary from person to person, but for me the basics were:
- coloured pens,
- revision cards,
- a voice notes app,
- mini whiteboard,
Time to go over everything you've got
The first thing I do when starting revision is gather together ALL my notes on the topic. This meant collating lecture notes with seminar notes, notes from reading, from working with primary sources. I'd also take this chance to check through my lecturers' PowerPoints on Blackboard and get all the dates and vital information off those. I'd often have everything spread over various word documents and sheets of paper, so this was a stocktake of all my information.
Cut it down to the good stuff
The next step is to go through and literally highlight the relevant information that you need to know. I'm talking names, dates, events, Bills, laws, battles, sources, etc. If you need to know it for the exam, get it highlighted. This should hopefully cut own all the random notes you've made down to strong, almost bullet points, that will be much easier to manage.
These points can also include primary sources, key historians and quotes.
You can take this step topic by topic, you don't have to do everything at once.
My advice would actually be to start with the topic you like least otherwise, if you're like me, you would probably leave it till last.
OK kids, making revision notes is FUN
Now, I know that's a bit much, and your notes probably won't be fun, but they should always be your notes. It doesn't matter if they're rainbow-coloured flashcards or minimal mind maps, they just need to work.
As I said, I'm a visual learner so mind maps are right up my street as they lay out information in a shape, all over the page, not just in bullet points. Take a look at these:
They start with the main idea in the centre, and then branch off, with each branch presenting a sub-topic. Sometimes mine were really neat with different colour branches and all that (usually because I'd done a practice one before hand!) and sometimes they were hastily scribbled with a biro. All that mattered was information was there and now in more manageable branches, I'd just learn it one branch at a time.
But I also liked to make revision cards, and I'd carry them about with me, and just go over the bullet points whenever I got the chance. They're great for learning a few key facts, I always used them to remember primary sources, historians' arguments and any quotes I wanted to learn. (Do ask if you need to remember quotes, it varies across lecturers).
And never underestimate the humble timeline, a very valuable tool for learning dates:
What you'll see is that I often use pictures in my notes too.
Take the timeline, next to the year of Prince Albert becoming President of the Society for Improving the Condition of the Labouring Class (1844), I've put a (very low-quality) picture of Albert from The Young Victoria. In the scene in question he is passionately sharing his ideas for building better and safer accommodation for workers. So, if I can't remember the text, I might remember the picture and then what it related to; it's a prompt.
You can see a similar things on the revision cards. Obviously there is the A-for-effort Gothic title, but next to the name of historian Banham, there is a little man in a red jacket. That is (supposed to be) The Greatest Showman, aka P. T. Barnham. It's all about prompting.
Using funny prompts has been a trick of mine for years, my A-Level notes were packed with pictures from Sherlock, Wolf Hall, Downton Abbey, The Hobbit and Jane Austen characters. (please don't judge me for my fangirl choices).
But what if you're not a visual or reading/writing learner? Fear not
Another method I used was to make a PowerPoint using the reduced notes I now had. Don't try and put everything on there, just the key words. Again, I'd put in pictures and so on, but then what I'd do is present them. Not to anyone, but just in my room. Go through each bullet point and explain it, tell yourself why that event was important, or why that law was significant. I remember hearing once that the best way of learning was to teach, so imagine you're teaching it to someone. This could be good for those that are kinaesthetic learners!
If you're more audial [you prefer to listen] then record your notes with whatever voice notes app your phone has. Not only will speaking them aloud help get the information in your brain, but you can then listen to them anywhere. I used to do this (and once I got over the sound of my own voice) I could revise as I walked to campus, as I did the washing up or as I travelled on the bus.
Keep on going over your notes
Talk yourself through your mind maps, re-read your cards, listen to your recordings. Really get yourself familiar with the information ready for step 5...
Recall vs. Recognition
One of the most important things I want to stress is the difference between looking at your notes and thinking "ah yes, I know all this" and actually taking a blank piece of paper and recalling the information without looking at any notes. The first is what I'd call 'recognition' and the second is 'recall'. I don't want to sound too serious here, but, once your in the exam room, (chances are) you can't have any notes with you, everything has to come from your memory. Everything has to be recalled.
So this step is not just about testing what you've learnt, but what you can remember.
Once you're feeling okay about a topic, take a blank page, or Word doc., or mini whiteboard and then just write down whatever you can remember but do not look at your notes. It doesn't matter if it's jumbled and messy, or even if you have forgotten things, this is a learning process.
Now you can look at your notes
Okay, so once you've written down all you can, turn back to your notes and see what you missed/got wrong. Write it in with a different colour, highlight it, or circle, make it really stand out to you. These are now the points that you'll try your best to remember next time you recall the topic. You can go for it straight away again, or leave it a few minutes, hours, etc.
Here's what I mean:
The notes are messy, but I can now clearly see what I forgot.
Like I said, this is a leaning process, you might not be perfect first time, but the more you do this, the better you'll get.
Have I said that already?
Keep on reading your notes in your head, read them out loud, listen to your voice recordings, draw out mind maps, you do you hun.
But, keep recalling them! Turn over the notes, and test yourself.
Your time starts now!
The final step in this revision extravaganza is to take past papers. Lecturers usually provide these anyway, and some even offer to mark your practices too. If you can't find any, do ask for them. Getting familiar with the wording of the exam questions is also super valuable! You can take the past papers as seriously as you like. Some people will sit in silence in exam conditions and take the paper as if it's the real deal, some will just bullet point what they'd say. I used to meet up to revise with my friends and we'd often just go through past paper questions and discuss what points we'd make, which historians were relevant, and which primary sources could be mentioned.
It is worth having a crack at all the questions, even if it is just enough to decide your argument. Most topics will have a few key questions or arguments and it's worth knowing where you stand on them and what examples you'd use.
For example, I did a module on Henry VIII once and the question of whether Henry was in control of his court or whether it was ruled by factions was debated since the first lecture, and would likely be brought up in the exam. So it was definitely important to know where we stood on that to save time in the exam.
That's the end of my step-by-step guide for revising. Even if you don't fancy working through all eight steps, hopefully there's something useful for you here!
If you have got exams coming up, I wish you all the best of luck with them. Just like Elizabeth Schyuler suggeted, take a break and don't overwork yourself (look how that worked out for Alexander Hamilton). The most reassuring advice I ever got about exams was that the person marking your paper wants to give you marks. They don't sit there doing a fist pump every time you drop a mark, they want you to do well.
As I said, I'm thinking of making this into a podcast episode too, so if you'd like that, let me know!
Good luck and happy history ramblings,