At the moment I find myself caught in that horrible time where all my days are spent locked in a room (windows optional) pouring over old notes trying to revise for an exam. This isn’t a new feeling for me, like most people in my generation who continued with higher education our whole experience of learning has involved study for a set period of months followed by a test that your life itself depends on. Traditionally when faced with such tests we revise, a process that is meant to refresh us of all those things we have learnt throughout our time….yeah….about that.
In my experience revision is never a comfortable stroll down memory lane. Its a backbreaking experience whereby 1/3rd of it is refreshing my memory, 1/3rd learning things I have forgot and 1/3rd learning the things I never understood in the first place. I don’t remember much of how I revised for my early life exams but I do distinctly remember Sixth Form being the place where I learnt to loathe revision. It’s not that I don’t like learning, I wouldn’t have chosen to be a scientist if that was the case, I just get sick of spending hour after hour, day after day reading endless notes! Especially when this reading is accompanied by the dread thought that at the end of it I am going to have to sit in a dark room and suffer a Gestapo-like interrogation with a light in my face and bamboo under my finger nails! Not really, but that’s how it feels sometimes.
In actuality what I find annoying is how hard it is to convince the brain to remember something. In Sixth Form I had a tutor who would run revision sessions wherein the whole class would contribute to make a colour coded mindmap using the class’s digital white board (space age or what?). The tutor in question told us that specific colours help remember things when placed in order, I tried this out in other subjects but to be honest it never really worked. Perhaps I wasn’t associating Kant strongly enough with red, or was using the wrong shade of blue to recall how many people died in the Kobe earthquake. Another tutor once told me (with slightly more science behind her assertion) that the area of the brain associated with the sense of smell is next door to the area responsible for laying down long term memories. You may notice that walking into a room with a particular scent sends you flying into the deepest recesses of your mind to re-enact a summer picnic when you were nine. The idea being that if you were to revise with a scented candle for each subject and then take a hanky with a drop of that scent into the exam you could shove it up your nose when you forgot something. Needless to say, this didn’t work.
So I find myself once again wondering what exactly is the best way to revise? I’ve used many different methods in my life and have yet to find a winning combination. I’ve tried remembering things by rote, just repeating them either out loud or in my head, sometimes by writing them down over and over (like some semi-sadistic detention from middle school). This is OK to an extent but it’s hard to remember a thousand pages of work this way. Often I imagine all the elements of what I’m revising dancing around my room, trying to force my brain into remembering it visually. Sometimes I’ll even use my hands to move around these imaginary objects in an attempt to learn kinesthetically. A good trick I’ve picked up recently is creating a story to use as an aide mémoire for instance; “Dr Jell was telling me the other day how he used to be into horse racing. That was until in the 2003 derby he fell from his horse and had to have a hip replacement. He said it’s good but a bit flaky”. This is to jog my memory that Jell et al 2003 is a paper discussing the effects of wear debris from orthopaedic hip replacements.
When faced with many things to learn at once (like the dozen or so ideal properties of a tissue scaffold) I find doodling pictures around my notes helps. Especially if I can give these doodles a little story in my head; “cyborg stickman is a body builder, recently he broke his leg lifting weights and had to get a new bone implant”. This is to remind me that load bearing implants should provide mechanical support. It is very silly (and quite geeky) but because of that I’m definitely going to remember it. In my last exam I was struggling to remember who wrote all the papers I had to learn, when they wrote them and what they said. I ended up making a story about a Chinese takeaway with a trance night club in the basement and an Indian restaurant on top. There’s more to the story than that but I still remember Wu 2001 (cantilever biosensors), Chang 2005 (Quantum dot fluorescent imaging) and Rajnicek 1997 (neurite growth on nanopattern surfaces).
In no way have I found a suite of methods that turn revision from a slow slog through treacle into a laid-back holiday. All the tricks I’ve assembled over the years have helped but it’s still a bit of a chore. I always thought that Neo didn’t realise how good he had it; if I had a chair that could teach me kung-fu in minutes I wouldn’t have to write this blog post complaining about revising. Indeed you would have to drag me kicking and screaming from the chair (which would be hard as I now know kung-fu) to go to the exam because I would be too busy downloading the British library, facebook, Pubmed, facebook, wikipedia and facebook straight into my skull. In the spirit of attempting to assemble a toolkit of revision tricks (whilst we wait for the chair) I’d be interested to know how you revise? What’s your best tricks, do you like working in groups or solo, is there anything that you avoid like the plague? Feel free to leave a message in the comments.
Right, I’ve now spent half an hour bashing this out and it’s got my brain nice and warmed up for what you all know I should be doing. Back to the books!