Matters of Revision

Ah, it's that time of the year again. No, not the time when they start herding you into large, draughty rooms and plonking exam papers in front of you - it's the time of year when they start trying to prepare you for that, otherwise known as "study skills". I put those words in quotation marks for a very good reason.

Half of this is a rant about what happened at school and, to be frank, how much it pissed me off. Instead of our much-unloved Congers session (basically hymn practice), which is a chance to switch one's brain off for half an hour, one of the Learning Support people came in to talk to us about revision. That already set off warning bells in my brain, or more precisely, it set off an urge to suicide. That urge to suicide only grew into an urge to murder the speaker. Why? Well, there are a lot of reasons, and I'll go through as many as I can remember - you see, the speaker didn't take her own advice about making notes easier to remember...

Firstly, after the first couple of times listening to people gas off about it, you know everything necessary to know about study skills. All the rest is embellishment, much of which may be wrong. How do I know it's wrong? Because the models are grossly oversimplified and because I have personal experience with some of what's being advocated.

Secondly, the speaker liked to put everyone into boxes and had very rigidly defined ideas of what these boxes should be like. Two examples stick out very clearly:
At the beginning of her speech, she talked about something called "active learning". Now, I don't see how you can learn passively - that's called not paying attention to what people are saying - so the fact that half of the term is redundant is already a bullshit sign. Anyway, her idea of an "active learner" was someone very organised who enjoyed studying and made loads of pretty, colourful notes. She also went on to say that THEY got good grades and put their social lives on the back burner (to use her expression) and asked the teachers for help. In other words, a keeno. For those of you who don't know what that is, keenos are basically teacher's pets - extraordinarily organised, no social life, enjoy doing homework, and without all of this hard work they would be nowhere. That's the key difference between a keeno and a nerd - I'm the latter. A nerd or a hard worker will stay up until 3am on a difficult and demanding project and enjoy it, because nerds enjoy being challenged. A keeno will stay up until 3am on the tediously simple homework for the sheer pleasure of getting praised by the teacher and because, had they done the normal amount, they'd have gotten quite poor grades - Cs and Ds as opposed to As and Bs.

Please note that I am not against hard work or against overachieving - part of the reason I get good grades is because I work very hard, even with all of my pet projects and extracurriculars. I'm against flattering teachers and asking for more prep, and I'll explain why later.

The speaker also seemed to be confused about the differences between learning, revision and homework and lumped them all under the category "study". Now, as a nerd, I enjoy learning - hell, I love it. I love expanding my borders and learning new things. I love to stretch myself and see more of the world around me. I love to learn because, as horrible as it can be, I love this universe and all of its workings. However, I don't enjoy doing homework (unless it's a research prep, which we get very rarely) because it's often tedious and simple and because it takes away from time I could use on my other projects, which I put just as much effort into as I do into my schoolwork. I definitely don't enjoy revision, because that's not learning - it's going over things I've already done and know quite well, thank you very much. And apparently you have to be organised to get good grades - I'm one of the messiest and most disorganised people on the planet and I get As and A*s. This is what annoys me about "active learning": the implication is that you HAVE to be a keeno to get good grades, when I'm the walking exception to that.

The second thing which annoyed me, in terms of putting things into boxes, was music as a revision aid. Some people think it's distracting, some people can't work without it - I'm one of the latter. I have to have music on in the background, otherwise the song currently stuck in my head will drive me crazy and make me even less productive than I already am. Thankfully, the speaker didn't mind us listening to music, and initially I was pleased. However, she then went on to prescribe a set of rules: no words, no faster than 60bpm, no large intervals, a bunch of other stuff I blocked out due to trauma from how retarded (for lack of a better word) these rules were...
...Do you realise that if you follow these rules, you don't have interesting music, you have something that a first-year studying from Hindemith or Piston might come up with as an example of common-practice harmony? All the fun in music is that it has interesting chord progressions and harmonies, that it goes at any speed the composer or performers want it to, that it might even have interesting words and meanings behind it. I personally like listening to emotional music - not emo music, because that makes me want to go on a murderous rampage - or music that creates a "wall of sound" (I'm not using it in the strictest sense here, I mean music with an accompaniment that seems to blow your brains out with its sheer loudness and layers), as well as early music - basically, I listen to anything that sounds good. This includes everything from Sumer is icumen in to pop music and a lot in between. This is why the "rules" piss me off: they're telling me that I can't listen to the stuff I want to listen to, but to harmonically uninteresting canned tunes.

The third thing which annoyed me was the speaker's suggestion that you put your social life to the side and revise. I don't have a problem with staying in to work - I do it quite a lot, because I'm introverted and because I prefer to get things done before having my fun. However, I do believe that you should take everything in moderation - including intensive study. Going out and having fun is really important, even when you have exams coming up - in fact, it's especially important when you have exams coming up, because it takes your mind off the thousand and one things that you've been nagged to revise.

Thirdly, most of the stuff in the presentation - and in study skills generally - is quite superfluous. There is some good basic advice in there, I'm not going to deny it: things like getting enough sleep and eating properly are essential. Yes, making pretty colourful notes does help, as does pretending you're explaining what you're learning to an audience, or actually explaining it to someone. Yes, you do need to be somewhat organised, and yes, you do need to read the instructions properly and do past papers. That's pretty much all you're ever going to get out of study skills. The rest of it is, to be frank, bullshit: the gains in efficiency you might get from sleeping 8 hours a night as opposed to "however many I feel like" will probably be offset by you feeling tired, especially if you're a teenager/have weird sleeping patterns which work just fine for you, and I doubt there's a special diet which helps you to study. You don't need to make a revision timetable or to obsessively plan your life. Studying 24 hours before the exam will help tremendously, whilst rote learning might not. It's OK if you forget everything once you've done the exam, because it probably wasn't that interesting anyway - people hold on to the things they're interested in, so if you're genuinely interested in the subject, you'll remember it. Getting on top of your stress in the exam is important, but that can't be remedied by obsessive organisation - it CAN be remedied by doing lots of past papers and by using cold, hard logic.

What proof do you have that my way works and someone else's way doesn't? Me and my friend, who's a great guy but not that smart, let's call him Zack. I'm incredibly disorganised, I don't plan timetables, I'm really lazy about doing revision, I sleep as much as I want to and I spend more time on my projects than I do on making pretty notes. I do, however, take some of the advice on board and make copious, colourful notes, as well as pretending to explain it to people, sometimes in an imaginary flowchart. All the same, most of my intensive revision is done the night before or right before I'm due to sit the exam.

My good friend Zack, however, is incredibly organised and planned, using every method in the study skills guide and then some more that weren't. He stays in to revise while I go out to see friends and go to plays and musicals - in short, he's more or less the perfect "active learner".

And in tests and exams, I can show up having done almost nothing and get almost full marks while he gets around 60% with intensive revision. (Slap me if I'm bragging too much.) The thing is, he needs the intensive revision to do well, while I don't - OK, if I did revise intensively, I might be able to do even better, but I work better when I'm relaxed and not up to my eyeballs in planning. Not everyone learns in the same way: some people need more than others, some need less, some just need to laze about and flip through the textbook the night before. This is why I dislike study skills: it tries to make everyone the same when everyone learns differently, and it assumes - no, it outright tells you - that if you don't follow its ways you'll fail. I think my friend and I, and many other people around the world, have proven that wrong.

It's time for teachers, psychologists, researchers and anyone who pushes study skills or works in that field to realise that everyone is different and we need more one-on-one counselling instead of generalised advice. And if they have already realised that, shame on them for pushing that generalised agenda.