Sometimes, the stress of exams can be as much about calculating and planning how much time to spend revising as about the actual exams themselves. Many students spend hours slaving over revision, while others take the minimalist approach and gloss over topics in 5 minutes. And some do nothing for weeks and then cram everything in at the last minute.
We've warned against cramming revision into one long session, but there is a question all students seem to ask: how much time should they actually spend revising?
If research had come up with a specific number of hours students should spend on revision, you would probably already know about it. Part of the reason why this question is difficult to answer is that people have different expectations of how much students should revise.
Some suggest one hour of independent study per subject per day. Others suggest one hour of independent study for every hour of classes. Of course, the amount of revision time these suggestions result in depends on the number of subjects students are taking, and how many hours of classes they have. For those attending classes for 30-40 hours a week, the amount of independent study this would represent is enough to make their stomach turn. It’s easy to see why it’s a confusing matter for students.
The short answer? There is no answer. Opinions will vary from teacher to teacher and school to school. What's most important is that students find out what their teachers recommend and expect for independent study time. This way, they can work to a schedule that fits in well around their classroom learning.
What the research says
One study investigated this question, looking at 7,451 teenagers from Spain. They found that students who spent 90 to 110 minutes a day on homework had the highest test scores. But, effectiveness isn’t everything. What about efficiency? Those studying for 90 to 110 minutes a day weren’t the most efficient. The extra time spent after one hour led to minimal gains in performance that didn’t justify the extra time.
Quality over quantity
Of course, students who work more are likely to have better school achievement. But, as the research shows, more does not always equal better. We can only focus up to a certain amount of time. There’s no point students being at their desks for hours if they spend half of that time procrastinating and staring blankly at the pages. We don’t mean to say that students should only study for one hour a day, just that they need to break up their revision.
So, while students should seek advice from their teachers on independent study time, they should also prioritise quality over quantity. They’ll be wasting their time if they’re spending all day every day re-reading and highlighting. Instead, they should:
- Start revision early
- Break it down into manageable chunks
- Study for shorter periods of time
- Use effective revision techniques
- Leave time for well-earned breaks
- Work little and often
- Revisit topics on a regular basis to space their learning
These tips will help students to make the most of revision time, transferring information to long-term memory, and keeping it there.
It’s all about balance
Evidence on the importance of sleep also shows us why students shouldn’t be revising all hours of the day and night. Many students do push sleep aside to get work done. This just makes them tired during the day and in class, and doesn’t actually improve their grades. You need good sleep for good work.
One fascinating study engaged students in a challenge where they had to get 8 hours sleep a night for most nights in the lead up to exams. Those who completed the challenge actually outperformed those who didn’t take part.
Picture a triangle with three points: work, sleep and social life. Some people argue you can only meet two points of this triangle. Students can work well, and sleep well, but sacrifice social life. Or, they can work well, and have great fun socialising, but miss out on a good night’s sleep.
We believe not only that students can meet all three points, but also that they should. Protecting sleep and social life as well as working hard keeps students’ well-being intact. It also allows them to revise in a productive and efficient way when they are studying while avoiding burnout. Mastering the triangle just requires good time management and utilising effective revision strategies.
One final tip is for students to avoid planning their revision period down to every last minute. If they over-worry about how long they should spend revising, and try to fit too much content into short revision sessions, this only leads to more time planning (a kind of procrastination), less time revising, and failing to meet plans. Plus, if they fail to meet their own excessive demands, this can lead to disappointment and harm their motivation.
While it’s a great idea for students to have a revision timetable to structure their work, they should avoid this kind of over-scheduling. One thing students should plan is leaving more time than they think they need, so that they don’t fall into the trap of The Planning Fallacy. This will ensure that they don’t rush over topics, and that they can cover what they need to learn in a thorough way, at a steady pace.
When it comes to the question of how much revision is enough revision, there is no golden rule that all students should obey. The best thing students can do is to find out what their teachers recommend, remember to focus on quality rather than quantity, and make sure they maintain a heathy amount of sleep and down time too.