By Kelly Reid, kellyreidcreations.com
How we revise for exams can have a huge impact on our results, and trying to study with a chronic illness is no mean feat. I’ve had M.E since I was 13, an illness that causes chronic fatigue, brain fog, muscle and sinus pain, and a whole load of other symptoms. I spent several years homeschooling myself through my GCSE’s, went back to school for A-levels and then eventually on to university to get a degree in Maths, and it took a lot of trial and error to figure out how to study with such limited energy.
Studying effectively is so important to reduce the time and energy needed to learn, something we Spoonies are often short on. In this article, I’m going to explain the methods I use to learn and revise and provide some examples that will hopefully help you with your learning. Most of the advice below applies to STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) and exam based subjects, but the core themes can certainly be applied to arts and humanities too.
Focus and Concentration
My biggest limitation throughout my time in school has been my chronic fatigue. I was often trying to keep on top of full-time workloads, despite only being able to work 15-20 hours a week. It was in my second and third years of university that I started to understand how to leverage my energy to get the best results, and that meant learning how to focus.
One of the rules I study by is;
High-Quality Work Produced = (Time Spent) x (Intensity of Focus)*
For example, if I do 2 hours of work with 10/10 focus, that is more productive than 4 hours work with 4/10 focus. Training myself to focus without distraction made a huge difference to my study life, as it meant I could complete more work in less time than my classmates.
Learning how to concentrate intensely without distraction is a difficult task. For most of us without practice, 30 minutes is about as long as we can last and even the world’s top performers who train hard in this area would struggle to do this for more than 4 hours a day. For me, it meant starting small with just 30 minutes to an hour each morning and slowly increasing that amount of time. I turned off my phone, sat at my desk, and often turned the internet off on my laptop. Eventually, almost all my independent study time doing coursework was spent with complete focus, and as a result, I was finally able to keep up with a demanding third-year timetable.
Discipline is Key
To keep myself disciplined, I kept a tally of how many hours I spent completely focused each week. This didn’t include the lectures where I sat playing on my phone or group study sessions, and if I got distracted for more than a minute or so daydreaming while I was studying, then that time didn’t count either. I got very strict with myself and by doing so I was able to get a clear picture of how much I was capable of.
The next question I faced was what should I spend this ‘focused’ time doing? During term time it was fairly obvious to me – I had multiple worksheets due in every week that challenged me and related directly to the class. But when exam season comes around there are many hours of revision to be done.
So, what is the most effective way to prepare for an exam?
We have all heard lectures on how to study properly from teachers, ‘Use flashcards!,’ and, ‘Don’t just reread your notes.’ As irritating as it is, it’s also good advice, but I like to take it a small step further.
To memorise all the theorems, definitions, formulas etc that I need to learn before an exam I do what’s called a ‘Quiz and Recall.’** Essentially you are looking at the title or name of the thing you’re trying to memorise, then you try to recall it fully by saying it aloud or writing it down, and check it against the actual answer.
But I also like to do this with relevant worksheets and past exam papers. It’s all well and good to sit and do a past paper, but there is a difference between reading the correct answer and remembering how to answer those types of questions when they come up again. That’s why I also quiz and recall past paper questions. I reread the question, and then try to explain clearly aloud the steps I would take to answer such a question, and why I would take them. The ‘why’ is very important here – you’re not trying to memorise the answer because it is unlikely the same question will come up again. What you want to remember is the process of how you found your answer and why you do each step, so when a similar question comes up you recognise it and know how to move forward.
Quiz and Recall
The not so fun thing about quiz and recall is just that, it’s not fun. It is intense work that requires a lot of focus, but it’s also very effective. Breaking it down into 1-hour slots with big breaks in-between can be helpful, as is rewarding yourself with treats.
Finally, try not to leave this till the last minute! I have made this mistake before and it is always a nightmare. If your exam preparation relies on quiz and recall to remember the basic definitions and questions that will come up in an exam, then you should start reviewing a few days before the exam. I have had numerous occasions where I left this till the day before the exam, ended up having a bad health day and went to the exam not even remembering the basic equations.
I hope that you found this helpful! Studying alongside a chronic illness can be a real challenge, but with the right support and study habits, it is possible to do well. I wish you the best of luck with your studies!
If you’re interested in learning more about effective study habits I highly recommend checking out Cal Newport’s, ‘How to Become a Straight-A Student,’ and his more recent book, ‘Deep Work,’ as well as Scott H Young’s book, ‘Ultralearning.’
I’ve been studying alongside a chronic illness for about ten years and the thing that’s had the biggest impact on my work is learning how to focus fully and choose the most effective revision techniques. In this post, I talk about how learning to focus has helped me keep up with a full-time workload on part-time energy, how to practice focusing and the most effective revision techniques I have used to prepare for exams.
*Newport, C.N.(2016) Deep Work. England: Piatkus
**Newport, C.N (2007) How to Become a Straight-A Student. United States: Three Rivers Press.
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Kelly is 23 and has had M.E for ten years, surviving mostly on tea and books. She creates content about chronic illness and vintage fashion on Instagram @kellyreidcreations, and on her blog kellyreidcreations.com. She also runs a pen pal matching service for Spoonies looking to make new friends at spooniepenpals.com.