Kirsop Labs

Skills development for science students everywhere

Study hints for first class grades

We asked 5 different students who all achieved first-class grades in 3rd year to explain how they use different revision techniques.

We found that different methods work for different people. Which one works best for you?

Really understanding the subject area is vital for performing well in exams. If you think you’ve got it all sussed, ask yourself this question: “Could I teach this tutorial to other students?” You can only do that if you truly understand the subject.

Study techniques from 3rd-year students

Student A
For me, the core for good studying is a comprehensive set of lecture notes. I write these during the semester so that I pick up concepts early on and have my questions answered before it’s too late. With these notes, I answer as many tutorial, and past paper questions as possible.

This is when I challenge my knowledge and learn the most, as I don’t always know what to write at the start. When I think that this could happen in an exam I’m inspired to learn more.

Don’t just memorise

Study methods that don’t work for me are reading through my notes over and over again or rewriting the same notes. Simply trying to memorise stuff (rote learning like you did at school) doesn’t work now.

Student B
I take thorough notes during the lectures and when answering tutorial questions I highlight and expand on the notes with information from extra reading. I never rewrite my notes as there’s always a trade-off between time and what can be achieved.

By starting off with good, legible notes from the lectures I have time to challenge my thoughts more. I come up with questions quicker, giving me more time to ask the lecturer for clarification. It advances my learning, promotes my curiosity in the topic and makes it easier and more enjoyable to learn.

Getting the best from tutorials

Tutorials are definitely where I do most of my learning – the smaller the better – and I always go prepared with questions written down (usually for every question). By writing out model answers and explanations that come from these sessions, it helps immediately with anything that I found challenging.

Doing this right after the tutorial is best when the information is still fresh in my mind.

Time vs effort

The exam period is where I do most of my revision and (re)learning of material (‘cramming’) though I know I’d have more confidence in the exams if I made more time to revise during the term too.

During this period I knuckle down and re-read notes to get them ingrained in my head. I have a very particular exam regime:

Organised on paper = organised in the brain

Re-write a condensed set of notes from lecture slides, own notes, and textbooks

I follow the logic that organised on paper = organised in my mind. Usually, the lecturer doesn’t compartmentalise the course, which can make it seem scarily big. So, when writing out notes, I split every lecture series into sub-headings until I have bitesize chunks that file away into my memory easier.

This process takes a lot of time but I use these notes for the rest of the revision period, so it’s worth it.

Condense your notes to fit onto an A3 sheet of paper

This technique can be in the form of boxes, mind-maps, etc., (which usually scare me by their lack of logic, but did work for some topics).

It forces me to pick out key words and phrases that I can visualise in the exam – a great tool for visual learners.


Before an exam, I make flashcards, with a question on one side and an answer on the back. These contain information I find difficult to remember (there are also free phone apps for this).

If I can’t answer a question, I go back to my notes.

Past Papers

Of course, I also revise with old exam papers to confirm my knowledge. If I realise I can’t answer questions, I consult my notes again or read further into the topic.

Here are some example notes:

Example study notes

Example study notes 1

Example study notes 2

Example study notes 2

Example study notes 3

Example study notes 3

Good note-taking is key

Student C
I learn by rewriting my lecture notes as I read through them and expanding these with data from other sources, such as textbooks or papers. I don’t use colour or pictures. This process takes time, but this is how I learn the material effectively.

Nearing the exam period I have finished my notes and I use these to answer past paper questions. There isn’t much time to study in 3rd-year, so this note preparation method does the job!

Student D
I sort my notes into a folder after every lecture and highlight the key points, but I don’t re-write these with perfection during the term as this uses time that I can spend on studying and understanding the course material.

Online videos and schematics

Once the lecture course is over and I’ve attended the tutorials, I make concise notes that include everything (lectures, tutorials, and additional info from the internet and books). I have a better understanding of the course by then.

For more complex topics I use online videos, via sites like EdEx, provided I keep my focus directed! Some time before the exam I write 4-5 A4 sides of condensed notes for each lecture series (about 5 lectures in one series) on loose paper that I stick around my room to revise from (see example notes).

I find that without actively trying to revise I pick up on more information than when I read long passages, as my attention span is pretty limited.

Colour coding my notes, bolding in the relevant words, and finding schematics helps me to visualise the pages during the exam. Note: It’s true that for 3rd year you need to know everything, so don’t miss out information you deem ‘irrelevant’ as it might still come up to catch you out!”

Example notes:

Example study notes 4

Example study notes 4

Example study notes 5

Example study notes 5

The gold standard – past papers and tutorial questions

Student E
For me, the best way to revise is by doing questions from tutorials and past papers (note that tutorials are often made up of past paper questions). If the course was delivered a while ago, I start by redoing the tutorial questions. If it was more recent, I go straight to past papers.

I read a question and if there’s a part that I don’t understand I’ll look it up and write notes around the topic until I’m confident that I can answer the question. Then I move on to another question. This method gives me a focus in my revision and allows me to revise for longer by switching topics after every (few) question(s).

If you do enough questions, by the end you’ve covered everything and learnt more material, more efficiently.

Well, that was a round up of some study techniques that have proved to be successful. If you’ve never thought about using these before (colour coding, flash cards, online videos, condensed notes, rigorous question answering) then how about giving them a try this year.

A reader has recommended the following site for study tips: BagsinBulk – a great resource for college students.

If you have any techniques of your own that work well, send them to our Editor, Dr. Allison Kirsop (see Contacts page for email), and we’ll get them added to the list.

Stay tuned for more advice from senior year students throughout the year. And, if you’re already heading into Yr 4/5, you might like to try out our ‘Predictatron‘ – a degree calculator devised by one of the students at Edinburgh – just remember, it’s for fun only so don’t use it as an indicator of the exam finals!


Thank you to the following students for their input and advice:
Connie Büttner
Emma Carnaghan
Sacha Corby
Hannah Muir
Hannah Mai Best

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