A Personal Study Plan – Personal Training for Your Brain

study

Last year I qualified as a personal trainer. It was a six week full-time course in a top gym. We spent a few hours each day doing physical activity but also spent lots time learning about the psychology of motivation and getting clients to stick to plans. After all motivating your clients is part of the trainer’s job. Motivating your students is part of your job as a teacher or tutor. Motivating yourself is a huge part of physical training or academic study. You need your own personal best-ever study plan.

 

Here I am posing with my fellow trainers after we finished the course.

There are big similarities between training your body for sports and training your mind for exams. You have a goal in mind, some strengths and weaknesses, various actions you can take to get stronger or faster in key areas, a timescale over which you need to train and set hours a week you dedicate to training. It makes sense that all the information out there about how to train your body can be carried over to form a great study plan to train your brain.

With this in mind, here is my Personal Trainer guide to study.

So Why are You Here? What is Your Study Plan Goal?

One of the first things a trainer needs to find out from a potential client is what they are hoping for. So what are your academic goals? Are you clear on that? Do you want to score over 80% in your final exams,  to get B,B,C and secure that university place, a level 5 in your maths GCSE to get accepted at sixth form? These are the sorts of concrete goals that you can structure a study training plan around. Wanting to please your parents or do better than your cousins is not a particularly good goal, we’ll discuss intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation later. These latter two goals also lack definite measures of success. Exactly how well do you have to do to “please your parents”?

Once a goal is identified, trainers try to match what they specialise in and what can realistically be achieved with what the client wants. This often involves a discussion about setting realistic expectations.

A 50 year old couch potato who last did exercise at secondary school will not be able to run a marathon in six months no matter how hard they want to. Likewise a D grade 18 year old who has no study routine and has bluffed their way through their A Level course is not going to get a A after six weeks private tutoring. You need realistic expectations.

What are realistic expectations for study? I was once employed to improve the performance of the physics A Level students in a school. The Year 12 students were underperforming according to their expected grades and they needed some help. In 12 months I brought up their grades by an average of 1.5 grades per student. One student went from an E to a B, one from an E to a C and so on. The two hardest working students stayed as they had been. So with one whole year of intensive help an underperforming student can pull up their grade to equal to or just above their expected grade. That is realistic.

If you have never been an A grade student and your teacher predicts you a C grade then you will most likely get a C grade. A B grade may be possible with a lot of extra coaching and work on your part, week in week out. You will not get an A*. Learning, much like training is a cumulative process. You don’t become a top gymnast or deadlift twice your bodyweight overnight, you need to have spent years doing the ground work. Logically we all know this when applied to physical skills but somehow people think it doesn’t apply to study: it does.

So step one of developing your study training plan is to set yourself a realistic goal with a realistic timescale.

 

How Much Time do You Have?

Now you have an idea of the client’s goal, as a trainer you must think about how much time the client has to devote to achieving it. People who work long, very involved hours, like a doctor or teacher, and have a long commute and family commitments cannot spend 2 hours a day training. You’ll be lucky if they have two hours a week.

Someone with a less demanding job, who works locally and is single, no kids could spend 2 hours a day training if they wanted to.

How about you? Full-time attendance at school is 8.30-3.30pm on average. You get 45 minutes lunch break and an evening free to do what you want. You aren’t finishing at 5pm with a 50 minute commute on top. Do you have a part-time job? This will take out some time. What about hobbies? I used to do 3 hours of dance a week all through primary and secondary school. It took 30 minutes to walk to the dance studio. All these sorts of things add up.

Work out exactly how many hours you could physically do between the end of school and your normal bedtime and then take off some hours for rest and relaxation. The remainder is the time you could realistically devote to studying, if you wanted to.

 

Are There Obstacles to Your Study Plan?

Believe it or not overcoming obstacles is an important part of a personal trainer’s job. We find out if the client has significant financial, emotional, practical problems that could interfere with their training plan. It is really important you think about this when preparing a study plan, not just to help write the plan but so that you can go easier on yourself. I wish I had known more about this as a young person. I had a horrendous list of obstacles to my studying which I only slowly became aware of as I got older. Here was my list (it looks bad, I’m warning you),

  • My family were financially hard up
  • My father had a drink problem, violent temper and mental health problems
  • There was no history of higher education in my family
  • I developed severe clinical depression at 16 and tried to kill myself
  • The antidepressants I was given affected my motivation and memory
  • I was bordering on anorexic and couldn’t sleep properly
  • Years of abuse had left me with PTSD
  • I spent most days numbed out in a state of dissociation
  • I had no access to books or tutors outside of school
  • My parents had very low expectations
  • I was in the early stages of developing an incurable autoimmune disease
  • No one in my school knew any of this

I told you it was bad. For years I beat myself up because I didn’t achieve my predicted grades at A Level; I got a A and 3Bs instead of 4As. I feel stupid typing this because as a woman in her 40s looking back on this I am bloody amazed I got anything at all. So yeah, there can be all kinds of significant obstacles to you being able to study effectively. Money, abuse, racism, disability, lack of role models, low family expectations, lack or resources, no room for you to work in, noise in the house, babysitting responsibilities, illness, medication, mental health problems, relationship problems, eating disorders, local economics, unemployment of a parent, etc, etc. Go and look up Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), white privilege, male privilege, straight privilege and educate yourself in the ways our society can personally and structurally disadvantage some people.

That doesn’t mean give up! It doesn’t mean loose hope and throw in the towel. I was the first person in my family to graduate university which I did with a first class honours degree despite having been rushed to hospital three times over four years with complications to the autoimmune disease I developed.

But it does mean be realistic about what obstacles you face, because then you can find ways to tackle them and get on with your goal.

 

Making a Personal Study Plan

You know what you want, how much time you have a week until your goal needs to be achieved and you have a handle on what might get in the way. Great! Now you are all set to plan away.

Do you know what a Gantt chart is? It’s a project management plan used by engineers. Here’s an example:

Example of a Gantt chart – BBC Bitesize Revision

You need to construct a week by week plan like this which says what you are going to train that week (maybe practise rearranging equations) and when you will do it. Here is a marathon training plan:

Example personal training plan for a marathon – ActiveEdge Fitness and Sports Performance

Do you see how they are similar? Personal training plans assume that you have a dedicated time slot, Tuesday and Friday afternoons for example, and then describe what exercises or practises you will do each week for a few weeks, 6-12 weeks usually. Then progress gets checked and the next block of weeks have harder or different exercises. Do this. Choose your dedicated time slot. Work out the intermediate steps topic-by-topic towards your chosen goal.

Use your teachers to help you if you are finding it hard to figure out what the steps should be. Textbooks are set out in a way that puts the basic concepts first then slowly builds on them. Use a textbook to help you breakdown a subject into smaller pieces. Start with the basics first. Be realistic and don’t timetable 6 hours a week if you have difficulty doing 30 minutes homework a night. Just like training your body, you have to build up to longer times. Start with 10 minutes a day if that is more then you are doing now. Add 5 minutes more a week. Soon you are doing 30 minutes a day every day and that is fantastic!

 

Checking Your Progress Along the Way

Maybe you want to get better at answering GCSE electrical circuits questions. How will you know if your plan is actually working? You need to measure yourself against your personal best like an athlete would.

Choose a set of past paper questions from a website (here or here for example). Test how much you score at the start of your chosen time block, let’s say a fortnight long. Then study this subject. Retest yourself on a new set of questions two weeks later and see how you have improved. Mark schemes are available on the two websites I linked to. This is how a trainer would work with a client but with barbells and squats not questions on resistors in series.

Work out what % of questions you are getting correct. Now you have actual measurements and you can follow your progress. You could even plot them on a graph and stick it on your wall (motivation, right there) with a horizontal line at the level you want to reach so you can see yourself get closer and closer. Maybe your goal is a B grade and 60% correct is a B, so draw your line there.

 

Reward Yourself for Progress

This is so important. Studying for exams is hard, emotionally draining work. It involves a daily struggle with self-belief and disappointment and setbacks when you just can’t get a particular topic right. You must reward yourself along the way. Little treats can make a big difference. You can reward a treat for reaching a certain number of hours studied, reaching a certain mark, finishing a particular topic. How you set a mini-goal or checkpoint is up to you.

A CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) practitioner I worked with once had a sliding scale of rewards that matched an increasingly demand scale of goals. Start with an easy step on your study plan and reward yourself with a little treat. For each harder step, increase the quality of the treat. Have something really special saved for achieving your final goal.

Here are some examples of ways you can reward yourself.

Little treats:

  • 30 mins of favourite computer game
  • chocolate bar
  • watch favourite movie
  • new bath bomb and 1 hour in the bath listening to music
  • football down the park with your friends

Medium treats

  • trip to the cinema
  • buy the new top you’ve had your eye on
  • download a new album
  • weekend trip into town with friends

Big treats (may require adult agreement)

  • big night out with friends
  • sleepover with best mate
  • shopping trip with bank of mum and dad
  • few days away on a mini-break
  • new phone/game console/”desirable gadget of choice”
  • driving lessons

OK so you get the idea. When you meet a target, go ahead and treat yourself, it really boosts motivation.

 

Overcoming Obstacles

You remember my horrible list of obstacles to studying which sort of f***ed up my GCSEs and A Levels. Yes, we need to talk a bit more about how to overcome stuff like that.

Pick an obstacle to your study plan that you could have some success with (getting my father to change was not something I could have had success with). For examples; not having access to textbooks. Now think about how this could be overcome. Brainstorm it. I could have asked my teacher to borrow one over the weekend or asked the school librarian for a copy, if they didn’t have one I could have requested they buy it in. Maybe I could have borrowed a friend’s over the weekend. I could have looked in local charity shops. These days you can find textbooks on line. I’m not advocating stealing copyrighted content (maybe a little bit). If you are a poor student from a disadvantaged background, downloading a pirated PDF of your school textbook is hardly the worst thing you could do IMHO. Ahem, moving on.

Maybe you babysit younger siblings until your mum gets home from work. Explain to them what you are doing. Show them your study plan. You’d be surprised how this can work, small children do respond to sincere emotions. Or bribe them with sweets. If they sit and watch My Little Pony for 30 minutes without disturbing you eating Haribo then you get 30 minutes of study done. Make sure you give them the little packets though, not the big family sized ones.

Not all your obstacles will be surmountable. As a young woman going into a male dominated area of science, I couldn’t overcome decades of structural sexism. I could and did read all about women who made successful careers in science and I educated myself about the ways sexism showed up and how to tackle it by reading books by famous feminists. I enlightened myself and underwent a huge shift in how I saw the world. These books and the ideas inside gave me language to describe, understand and vitally, to separate myself from the circumstances I was experiencing. It wasn’t me. It was society. If you are Black, LGBT, disabled or female the emancipation of your mind is a crucial step to overcoming internalised oppression. Get woke.

 

Setbacks and Disappointments

I am training for a pole showcase in October. I am going on stage in front of an audience in a small theatre and performing a routine for 3 minutes. Right now my goals are shoulder mounts and a secure extended butterfly. This is an extended butterfly:

The Extended Butterfly Pose

Seriously, I am trying to do that. I can do the splits, that’s not the problem. The issue is my bottom hand, or rather elbow as mine are hypermobile and flex way past 180 degrees. I have to keep the arm straight and not lock my elbow out to ensure the line of force is straight through the joint. This means I have to use far more muscle strength than someone with normal elbows. It is hard. Some days I can do it, some days I can’t and I get so frustrated I feel like crying.

Shit happens. My strength can vary because I have had a disrupted night (six year old had a nightmare at 2am), because I was stressed (running two businesses and applying for jobs) or maybe I skipped lunch and don’t have enough energy. Day to day fluctuations occur and just because I have not got it down today doesn’t mean I can’t get it sorted by the end of October. I keep practising the intermediate moves and use my pole instructor each lesson to help me practice.

You will find you can’t make the progress you want. Sometimes you will spend weeks struggling with the same topic and make no obvious progress. This is normal. It is to be expected. Here is one of my favourite cartoons for these moments:

Just keep going. Stick with your study plan. Every step you take in the right direction is one more than the person who gave up.

 

I hope you can see the benefits of devising your own personal study plan and tackling your revision like you would training for a competition. You need a goal, a timescale, dedicated segments of your week, in-between steps to aim for and rewards along the way. I can’t guarantee you spectacular results but you will do much better than you otherwise would have done. This is so much better than nothing. As the sign on my gym wall states; you are lapping everyone still sat on their arse. Good Luck.

 

 

Memory and Recall – Top Revision Tips

Mind like a sieve? Can’t get those last few facts to stick? Are you daunted by the sheer volume of information you need to learn? Do not despair. Memory, like any other cognitive skill, can be developed and strengthened. There has been a lot of research done on the most effective ways to recall information. I’m sure your teachers will have shared this information with you. But are you actually taking their advice?

Let’s clear up one important obstacle to memorising things before we start. You don’t know better than your teachers, educational psychologists or neuroscientists. If they have told you to use certain techniques that are known to work well THEN USE THEM.

Unless you happen to be one of the tiny percentage of the population who was blessed with photographic memory, you will have to adopt some strategies to encourage your brain to load up and regurgitate the facts you need to pass your exams. Just accept that and stop fighting it.

The Science of Forgetting

Memory is a three step process; information has to be encoded, stored and retrieved. The information could be about past events; we remember a favourite book or an exciting holiday. But is also future directed in that we have to remember to take our dog for a walk or to go to a doctor’s appointment.

Memorising things doesn’t take place in isolation. Your memories are placed inside a framework built from your prior knowledge and understanding. If you always take your dog for a walk after dinner every evening it becomes a habit and is harder to forget. If you rarely visit the doctor and someone else made the appointment for you it will be easier to forget. You need to encode your memories within your existing framework.

Memorising gibberish is much harder than memorising things that make sense because your brain is less able to put the nonsensical things into the wider framework of your understanding. Nonsense can’t be placed alongside similar facts and your mind will find it harder to accept it.

Memorising things for school exams is more difficult if you don’t understanding the topic because it feels like you are cramming gibberish into your head.

Hermann Ebbinghaus did a study of how well people would retain gibberish in 1885. The results are not good for anyone who thinks forces and motion is just gobbledygook. Ebbinghaus memorised different made up words such as “WID”, “ZOF and “KAF”. He tested himself over and over again after longer and longer times had passed to see how much he could remember. Being a scientist, he plotted the results in a graph, which is now referred to as Ebbinghaus’ forgetting curve.

 

It’s an exponential decay curve. You can recall 100% of gibberish immediately after cramming it, but then the amount you remember drops very rapidly. If you revise a subject you don’t understand well the night before an exam, only about 30% will still be in your head at 9AM the following morning.

We need to find a way to beat this dramatic drop in fact retention. Fortunately scientists nowadays have a much better understanding of how to do this than they did in 1885. It is all to do with remodelling neurons and synapses. The stronger the synaptic links the easier it is to store and retrieve information. It all boils down to encoding memories in your neurons.

 

The Science of Memory

Eric Kandel, a neuroscientist at Columbia University in New York shared the 2000 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine for his work on how memories are made in the brain. Prof. Kandel has shown that short-term memories, like cramming for an exam when you aren’t sure of the facts, involve relatively quick and simple chemical changes in the brain. These changes occur at the synapse which are the nodes that link neurons together. These simple chemical changes don’t last long, they are a bit like a plastic cup, use it once then throw it away.

Fortunately Prof. Kandel also found out how to build a memory that lasts much longer. For this to occur the whole structure around the synapses have to change to be more efficient. New proteins have to be made and neurotransmitters must work more efficiently to connect the small groups of neurons involved in making a particular memory.

The more often a particular bundle of neurons is triggered, the more efficiently they communicate with each other and therefore the easier it is to recall something. Repeated use of a neutron bundle will lead to the remodelling that is necessary for long term memories. Once the remodelling has occurred the change is pretty much permanent, or consolidated in psychology-speak.

 

How to Stay Ahead of the Forgetting Curve

By putting these bits of information together and you can see how we beat the drastic drop in recall from cramming facts into our heads. You need four crucial things; time (you cannot do this overnight), understanding (you remember things which fit into a sensible framework), repetition (the more often a bundle of neurons is activated, the greater priority your brain gives to remodelling it) and sufficient stimulation (the variety of ways in which a  group of neurons is activated will also encourage remodelling into a more efficient and long-term structure). Your brain adapts to the specific demand you place on it by strengthening certain synaptic links. Its like the SAID principle in sports training.

Let’s look at each of these in turn.

Time

You can top up the amount you can recall by regularly reviewing what you want to remember. This second graph shows what happens if you look back over your work at regular intervals. 

At first glance this seems to be a great thing! But then you realise its not just the components of a circuit you have to remember, but all the energy stores, the parts of an atom, the life cycle of a star, and then there’s biology, chemistry, French, maths…It’s not too long before you realise topping up alone will take up every hour of the day unless something else kicks in to help. Something else does, you can relax.

The amount you can remember steadily increases and holds at a higher position. You are not Dory from Finding Nemo, you don’t go back to zero each time. The rate at which you forget the facts gradually slows down as your brain starts to expend energy remodelling these neurons. You are using them a lot so your brain figures they must be important.

Look at that green line! By topping up your knowledge at regular intervals you can keep the amount of data remembered at an impressively high level. This means revision starts the second your lesson finishes and is a process which should be on going throughout the year. If you haven’t looked back over your notes since you wrote them you are going to need a month to six weeks before your exam to get retention up to >80%. Did anyone say revision plan? That’s what they are for.

 

Understanding

You cannot recall things which make no sense to you, your brain is very reluctant to waste energy trying to fit nonsense into your head. Understanding the material you are trying to memorise is the cornerstone of your revision, it must come first. This is VITAL. You cannot correctly encode a memory from a poorly understood concept.

How do you improve your understanding? Firstly identify what it is you don’t get. Is it how the wire conducts electricity, you don’t get the concept of current? What the heck is potential difference? No idea how to carry the amount of gravitational potential energy from a fall over to a calculation of kinetic energy? Using your specification will help you identify your weaker areas of understanding.

Now see if you can solve this problem by reading through a textbook or reliable science webpage. Often reading about the same topic from several different directions can make something click. You need to find the explanation that sits most comfortably within the framework of your brain and what you need to do that may be different to your friend or different to your teacher’s style.

Try asking another teacher within the science department, they may have a way of explaining it which makes sense. Try asking an older student or relative who has done this subject at a higher level. Hire a tutor, maybe just for one or two sessions to work through problematic topics. Watch videos on You Tube of animations or demonstration of the science bits you don’t understand yet. All these resources are available to you to track down a suitable explanation. You do have to do the leg work though because it will not be delivered to you on a silver plate.

 

Repetition

This is pretty self explanatory, you have to revise each topic more than once. As little as 10 minutes a day is sufficient to start the remodelling process. Working too long on one thing will actually tire you out and stop your brain working efficiently. Take lots of breaks, maybe every 20 minutes, and chunk things up into pieces. Once you have spent a week revising 10 minutes a day you can start to leave longer intervals between revision periods on this particular topic. Revision timetables or plans allow you to divide your course content over a sensible timescale (a few months) and ensure you can cover all the material you need.

 

Sufficient Stimulation

This is the final important stage to memorising effectively. It is easy to do this well but frequently ignored by students who believe they have found the one and only method which works for them and refuse to ever try anything else. That is silly. Even if you aren’t a “diagram” person, your brain will pay way more attention to a subject you have tried to draw a diagram of BECAUSE you don’t normally do that.

The path of least resistance in studying is the path of least progress. Remember that!

Multisensory learning is most effective. This means you have to stimulate several senses and try various modes of retaining information to get the brain to wake up and take notice. Read, highlight, annotate and then transform into something else. A picture, comic strip, timeline, diagram, mind-map, memory prompt card, summary table, story, recording on a dictaphone perhaps even deliver a presentation to your bemused cat. Try 3-4 different ways to encode facts you are struggling with. Link things together. I remembered the key code to get into a secured door by realising it was in the form of a date and looking up to see what happened on that day in history. It was a famous historic battle. I never forgot the door code after that.

 

Multisensory Examples

Using Sound

  • Write lyrics to a song you know that summarise the key facts.
  • Revise to the sound of a song you like and only use that song when revising that topic, then hum the song (quietly) in the exam room. You will remember more.
  • Recite things out loud to a rhythm: “kinetic energy is half mass times speed squared” ki-ne-tic (pause) en-er-gy (pause) is half-mass-times-speed-squared.
  • Read your prompt cards out loud.
  • Get someone to quiz you and answer verbally.

Using Images

  • Pinterest a topic.
  • Create a mood-board to summarise something including drawing or printing out images that fit and sticking them on.
  • Build up a mind map using colour codes for specific topics.
  • Make charts and posters and pin them up in your living space.
  • Use little cartoon images on prompt cards or notes.
  • Use colour when writing your notes to highlight, underline or write out specific things. All definition can be blue, all equations red etc.

Using Actions

  • use hand movements to shape out what you are revising. A clenched fist for a nucleus, the other hand pointing to knuckles as protons and neutrons.
  • Walk around as you read or recite your notes.
  • Writing is an action, moving your hand across the page encodes movement memories.
  • Use plasticine to build little models, while you recall collisions and transfer of momentum for example.
  • Try acting out experiments or demonstrations from your course.
  • Check out Dance Your PhD to see how far you can take designing your own movements to go with a topic.

 

For more information on memorising techniques you can look up the following articles. Now go forth and revise.

 

Further Resources

Ed Cooke is a memory competition winner and has written several articles in The Telegraph about how to develop memory techniques.

https://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/educationadvice/9900341/Revision-techniques-how-to-build-a-memory-palace.html

https://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/educationadvice/9888492/Revision-techniques-how-to-learn-complex-concepts.html

https://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/educationadvice/9826494/Revision-techniques-How-to-learn-boring-facts.html

 

Several universities have revision guides online to aid students

https://intranet.birmingham.ac.uk/as/libraryservices/library/skills/asc/documents/public/Short-Guide-Memory-Techniques.pdf

https://cdn.southampton.ac.uk/assets/imported/transforms/content-block/UsefulDownloads_Download/3F82D0A1F6F34D62AC4DDBFF3A4BAFDE/Memory%20revision%20and%20exam%20techniques%202014.pdf

 

Some articles from the Times Educational Supplement and Guardian on revision

https://www.tes.com/revision-tips/fail-safe-memory-recall-techniques-exam-students

https://www.theguardian.com/education/2016/may/07/the-way-youre-revising-may-let-you-down-in-exams-and-heres-why

 

Teaching Resources on Revision – mostly free

https://www.tes.com/teaching-resources/blog/revision-tips-and-techniques-gcse-students

Make the Most of Your Specification – Top Revision Tips

It is good practice for teachers to share the content of the examination course with their students. Each year the exam boards print the content of the exams you are taking. This content specifies precisely what you are expected to learn, hence they are called the specification. Here in the UK the main exam boards are AQA, OCR and Edexcel.

If you aren’t sure which exam board your exams are with the first thing to do is ask your teacher. The exam boards also publish textbooks and revision guides to help you with learning and revising the course content.

Getting Hold of Your Specification

If by some oversight your teacher hasn’t given you a photocopy of your specification, don’t worry! They are all freely available on the internet for anyone to look at. Past papers, markschemes and examiners’ reports are also available.

Here are links to the major exam boards’ different GCSE and A Level physics specifications.

AQA GCSE

AQA AS/A Level Physics

Edexcel

GCSE Combined Science and Physics  – use the tabs to find the single GCSE physics specification

AS/ALevel Physics

OCR GCSE

OCR AS/ALevel

The specifications are large PDF documents over 100 pages long. Most of it is irrelevant to you. Tedious details of how each exam paper is arranged and assessed fill many, many pages. Go to the index and find “subject content”, this is the bit you want. In a combined science GCSE there will be separate biology, chemistry and physics sections. Most specifications have useful internal links which allow you to jump straight to the physics content from the index.

Be careful, the page number in the index rarely (if ever) coincides with the page numbers on the PDF reader you use to look at it. The document may say physics is between pages 59-74, but if you type those pages into the printer dialogue box and hit print the wrong pages will print out. Select the correct pages from the sidebar thumbnails and print the selected pages. I print the pages back to back and two per sheet to save paper. It’ll look something like this:

 

Understanding Your Specification

Let’s assume you have printed your own copy or been given a copy of your course content. You will find it is conveniently divided into sections by topic. AQA Trilogy which is the example given above, has all the physics content in chapter 6 of the specification and individual topics are numbered 6.1, 6.2, and so on.

Generally speaking, these topics aren’t taught in the exact order that they appear in the specification. This is not a teaching plan. Your teacher can divide up this course content however they like. So don’t be surprised if you were taught topic 6.4 before 6.1.

Your exam questions can be on anything in the first column. The second column lists key experiments, science skills or maths and ICT skills. It gives details about how to use equations and the sorts of data/graphs and typical experiments. Ignore the codes like WS 1.2, 4.3 etc.

At the end of the physics chapter is a short summary of the key ideas that cover the whole subject. This is surprisingly helpful and condenses the content down to overarching principles which you should always have in mind when tackling questions.

Using Your Specification

There are so many ways you can use a specification! I could spend a whole morning showing what you can do with this document. Here are my 5 top revision tips for making the most of a specification.

1 – Definitions and Equations

Go through section by section and write out the definitions the examiner provides you with. For example “A system is an object or group of objects”. There will be definitions for all major physical quantities like current, pressure, momentum etc and for qualities such as insulator, conductor, solid, liquid, gas etc.

Examiners often set one mark questions which ask “What is the definition of X?” and you need to be able to correctly write a short sentence which answers that. Writing out definitions is a good way to get used to concisely answering these questions.

Quantities are often stated as relationships between other quantities, e.g. current is the rate at which charge flows past a point in a circuit and is measured in Amps. These relationships lead naturally to equations; current = charge/time or I = Q/t. The specification includes all of these.

At GCSE all the formula are given in a data sheet which you can refer to in the exam. However they DO NOT give you the units that these quantities are measured in. You have to remember that current is Amps (A), charge is Coulombs (C) and time is seconds (s). The specification lists all the quantities, their units and symbols. Grab a highlighter pen and highlight every equation in your chosen colour. Then you can make a quick and easy list to test yourself make sure you have learnt all the units correctly.

2 – Examples and Scenarios

The specification gives the examples that are asked about on the exam paper. In the pages shown above the section on energy starts with a bullet point list. These are the common situations where a student should be able to describe energy changes.

When revising the topic you can use these examples to check that you can indeed describe the energy changes in an object moving upwards or a vehicle slowing down.

Here it is useful to use the specification to test yourself. Get some paper or a notebook and write out the answer to each example as if it were a question.

3 – Key Facts to Learn

Each section includes the key facts that students need to use to solve problems and answer questions.

There are three parts to this subsection, the last two clearly relate to possible exam questions. Show the directions of the force, current and magnetic field using Fleming’s left-hand rule. List that factors that affect the size of the force. Can you do this? Anything that starts “students should be able to…” is obviously something you can be asked.

Note how they don’t actually give you those factors that affect the force or describe Fleming’s left-hand rule. This isn’t a textbook, it’s a what you should know guide. You’ll need to look these things up in your notes, a textbook or on a reliable science website.

So what do we do with the first paragraph? These parts of the specification are key key pieces of understanding which you should be able to reproduce in answers asking for an explanation. For example “Explain what happens to a current carrying wire in a magnetic field  – 3 marks” could be answered by the first paragraph. You should be able to write these ideas in your own words.

4 – Ticking Off Your Revision as You Go

I encourage students to systematically read through their specification and tick off every sentence, equation and definition that they are sure of. Then go back and put a star or double line next to the bits they need to go over because they don’t remember it or aren’t sure. Using a pencil is helpful because you can rub out stars and tick off bits as you work through each section.

Ticking off the content as you go allows you to be systematic and cover every section completely. The specification is better than your notes from class as notes often have missing bits. You can’t always rely upon class notes to have covered every single point. Many times teachers demonstrate or talk through something but don’t have time to write up formal notes on all of it. It would take far too long and writing notes isn’t the point of a lesson anyway. That’s not taking into account the times you were absent, day dreaming or mucking about! The specification is the bible of your course and is the go-to document for checking your have covered everything.

 

5 – Understanding is the Key to Remembering

There is no point remembering incorrect facts and your brain won’t retain information that you can’t make sense of. Use your specification to find the gaps in your understanding then spend your time targeting those gaps. Everything else will fall into place around them. There is no point revising things you understand and remember already. You must find and work on the gaps.

Then use your class notes, reliable webpages and textbooks to study and understand the sections you have identified that need work. Create your own notes, labelled diagrams or mind maps of topics you have identified as weaker. Just reading a page of text will not miraculously make you understand and recall it. You have to do something with the material to make it stick.

Take a list of bits you just don’t understand yet to your teacher or tutor and see if they can break down the topic and explain it. Sometimes all you need is to hear the explanation put in a slightly different way for it to click.

Go and Do This Now!

How incredibly helpful is this document? It lists everything you need to know in concise and manageable chunks which let you learn key facts and check off every single item as you go. You can find which bits you don’t understand and there are all kinds of ways you can colour, highlight and annotate the sections to flag up bits you need to work on or remember.

Coloured pens, stickers, highlighters and post-its are your friends when it comes to revision.  That’s why I chose the picture at the top of the page. Make good use of your specification and you will feel so much more confident and prepared. I remember getting hold of my A Level chemistry specification a month before the exam (the teacher was reluctant to hand it over) and it made such a difference. Go and use it now.

Tackling Long Answer Questions – Top Revision Tips

In the UK the new A Level and GCSE exams include 4-6 mark questions which require an in-depth written answer several paragraphs long.

These long answer questions come in certain types and test the higher level thinking skills of interpretation and explanation (creating a logical explanation for a scenario), synthesis (pulling ideas from different areas together) and evaluation (weighing up options or outcomes). They also award a mark for clear written English and a well structured argument.

Long answer question can put the fear of God into many students who never seem able to break the 3/6 mark barrier and achieve the higher marks.

Thinking Skills in Long Answer Questions

Some questions on exam papers are easy, 1 mark for recalling the charge of an electron for example. These questions usually come with a certain prompt or command word which indicates you have to remember a fact but not actually do anything with it. “State the definition of electric current” is a typical, “name”, “give”, “what is…” etc are all command words for rote recall questions.

Long answer questions are different. Usually they give quite a lot of information before stating what you must do with it. They are setting the scene and every word used to set that scene is important. Examiners spend hours getting the phrasing of exam questions just so. If they have told you about the efficiency of a power station in the introduction to the question, you HAVE TO mention that in your answer.

The skills you need to answer these questions go beyond just including the larger amount of information these questions give you. Here is a famous pyramid called Bloom’s Taxonomy. Benjamin Bloom was an American educational psychologist who chaired a group which first devised this taxonomy (or classification) of command words into groups according to the level of brain power needed to complete each task.

Long answer questions are targeting the top three layers; analysing, evaluating and creating. These skills involve selecting the most important information, working out which order to put it into, identifying the key bit of physics the question is about, linking in related principles that may not be explicitly stated in the question and offering a solution to the problem solved. What makes this hard is holding all these aspects in mind at the same time.

Let’s look at an example:

6 mark A Level physics question – OCR exam board

  • Identifying the most important information: They tell you up front it is about the Big Bang. They mention the CMB radiation, they give you wavelengths.
  • Key bits of physics: the origin of the CMB, probably need to relate this to wavelengths somehow, the idea of the expanding universe, OK that’s Hubble’s Law, then wavelengths from galaxies which must mean cosmological redshift tying in with Hubble’s Law. OK sorted.
  • What order to put them in: “Explain” command word, 2-3 marks for explaining the role of CMB in Big Bang theory. Go on to discuss how present day Universe must still be expanding and how we could show this, 1-2 marks, relate data from the table to this. Have to use an equation relating wavelength at rest and in galaxy to redshift or recessional velocity. Need to use data they have given me, 2 marks for working out the redshifts. “Comment” command word, finish off with remark about how the data is relevant.
How to Tackle Long Answer Questions

The main strategy is not to read the question and immediately start writing, DON’T DO IT!

Here is a printable infographic which breaks down how to tackle these questions.

Step 2: Annotate the question is identifying the most important information

Step 3: Jot down ideas is recognising the key bits of physics to use

Step 4: Sequence your ideas is working out what order to put them in

 

Types of Question

Now we know how to go about answering these questions let’s consider certain types of question that crop up.

1) Experimental Design

Describe how you would compare … in a laboratory. Billy Bob wants to determine Planks Constant using LEDs, outline an experimental method which would….

The main things to include are apparatus, preferably a labelled diagram, brief method stating what you change, what you measure and what needs to be controlled. Give the range over which you take readings using the equipment you chose. Mention how many repeat readings you take. State two (or more) measurements will be plotted and what data processing you may need to do to find the desired result. This could be a simple as saying we divide voltage by current to find resistance, or you plot an I-V graph and work out the gradient. But you must say what you intend to do. Experimental method does not mean JUST apparatus and method. You must talk about range of data, reliability and data processing as well.

6 mark experimental question, A Level Physics – OCR exam board

The marks for this question were awarded as follows:

Equipment used safely (E)

  1. Wire fixed at one end with load added to wire
  2. Suitable scale with suitable marker on wire
  3. Micrometer screw-gauge or digital/vernier callipers for measuring diameter of wire
  4. Referencing to safety concerning wire snapping

Measurements Taken (M)

  1. Original length from fixed end to marker on wire
  2. Diameter of wire
  3. Measure of load
  4. New length of wire when load increased

Calculation of Young modulus (C)

  1. Find extension (for each load) or strain (for each load)
  2. Determine cross-sectional areas or stress
  3. Plot graph of load-extension or graph of stress-strain
  4. Young modulus = gradient x original length/area or Young modulus = gradient
  5. Calculate Young modulus from single set of measurements of load, extension, area and length.

Reliability of results (R)

  1. Measure diameter in 3 or more places and take average
  2. Put on initial load to tension wire and take up ‘slack’ before measuring original length
  3. Take measurements of extension while unloading to check elastic limit has not been exceeded
  4. Use log wire (to give measurable extension). Scale or ruler parallel to wire

To get 5-6 marks you had to include all points E1, 2, 3 and 4 for equipment, all points M1, 2, 3 and 4 for measurements and for the calculations you were expected to show C1, C2, C3 and C4.

Each specification says which experimental methods students should be familiar with and you can practise these questions by ticking off each experiment in turn and writing your own diagram, method, data collection and calculation notes.

 

2) Big Physics

We have seen an example in the previous section. Big Physics is particle accelerators, the Big Bang, life cycle of stars, fission and fusion, MRI scanners etc. These questions ask for descriptive explanations of the phenomena. Quite a lot of which is recall from lesson notes and reading. However exam questions increasingly throw in a data or a graph to make the answer more specific to a situation.

These are best revised for by practise writing the “story” of a particle through a mass spectrometer, the “story” of the interstellar dust cloud which becomes a blue giant or whatever.

 

3) Analysis of a given scenario

These questions are the trickiest in my opinion as they throw a piece of data or a novel set up at you and you have to think on your feet a bit more. These questions are often designed to identify the A* students as they are the ones who score 5-6 marks most easily on these.

Here are two example, one GCSE and one A Level

6 Mark GCSE Physics – AQA exam board

6 Mark A Level Physics – OCR Exam Board

These question include apparatus and/or graphs and tables. You must refer to the data in the graph or table. Describing the overall trend in words, identifying relevant data points on the graphs and using the numbers given on the axes i.e. quantifying the data will all score points.

In the first example the axes are not numbered so you would have to point out key features or trends. Most particles have an average speed much lower than the fastest particles forming a large hump or maxima on the graph, and that small number of particles have very high speeds forming a tail. You should fully describe the graph in other words. Do not say “the graph goes up at first and then it goes down”. The fact that a small number of particles have a slow speed is irrelevant to the question about evaporation (why?) and so you wouldn’t need to include a comment on that as it is not important information.

The second question outlines a device which student won’t be familiar with but they will have seen similar circuits before. The important information includes the stated range of temperatures and this should be linked back to values on the top graph because the graph has gridlines and numbered axes meaning you will be expected to read values from it.

The circuit is a potential divider (a fixed and a varying resistor in series) with two resistances and two voltages necessary to use the potential divider equation. Explaining how it works now becomes a more general question on explaining how a potential divider works.

Using the data to work out the voltage across the thermistor will be the route to take to score the second half of the marks.

Tackling an analysis long answer question involves more of the identifying the key physics step than some of the others. You have to be able to look at the question from a distance and spot the topic area they are asking about, recall the main points and then go back in to the detail and apply that to the scenario. You always get marks for spotting the topic area and identifying the key features/equations to use.

 

4) Pros and Cons

These style questions are often a straightforward comparison of two outcomes, for example should nuclear power replace fossil fuel power stations? Or they ask you to consider the wider impact of a certain choice given data and context in the question, for example is converting to an electric car a worthwhile choice?

6 mark GCSE Physics Question

This particular question about Europa came with some additional data showing where it is (a moon around Jupiter) and how far away it is compared to the Earth’s Moon.

These questions are best tackled as a list of pros and cons, 3 reasons with an explanation for each side and an overall judgement on the best outcome. The specific reasons you choose for or against will of course be led by the important information you have identified from the question and any key physics ideas (distance, speed and time, energy costs etc) that you know relate to the topic.

 

Conclusion

Following these tips and thinking about what type of question you have been handed will enable you to get the most out of your answer. Every question style can be tackled using the 1-6 Step method shown in the infographic, this is the basic cake, tailoring your important information and key physics topic facts to the question style is the icing on the top.