How to revise for arts and humanities exams

Humanities revision - image of map
Revising for arts and humanities subject exams, such as geography, history or drama, should include knowing the specification, using other revision resources and doing practice papers.

To succeed in your revision you need to repeatedly learn and practise the content on the syllabus and know how to answer the questions. Read on for more in-depth advice on how to ace your arts and humanities exams.

Know the specification before you start revising

As with every exam, you should know what you need to revise before you get started. Print off the specification, collect your class notes, textbooks and other information and start condensing this information into a more focused and personal guide just for you. Steer clear of blindly copying endless notes and then just reading through these notes for your revision as this isn’t the most effective use of your time. You should continually condense your notes and test yourself to ensure that you are learning what you are revising by doing the following:

  • Try to condense your notes to one or two pages per topic
  • Get someone to test you as you try to repeat everything you can remember
  • Return to your condensed notes and only copy out the things you don’t know to make an even smaller cheat sheet
  • Revise this sheet and then test yourself again
  • Repeat this process to make sure you are remembering what you’re learning.

Top tip: Revision posters and mind maps can be useful ways of visualising your revision topics but, while colour can be a good way to help you remember things, don’t spend too long making the poster look pretty instead of revising.

Use other resources for your history, politics, geography and other subject revision

A great way to make your revision more enjoyable and more effective is by practising and testing yourself repeatedly. It is also more effective if you can test yourself in different ways, such as by getting your parents to test you or doing an online quiz. Make use of the numerous online resources available for you. Watch any documentaries and films (particularly for history, geography, religious studies and drama) and make notes. Be careful not to base too much of your revision on films though – use them as an addition to your learning rather than the only revision you are doing and be aware that the plot or characters may have been changed.

Make associations between the topic you are revising and abbreviations/rhymes/pictures

One of the most effective forms of revision involves making associations to stories or rhymes to help you remember facts. For instance, if you are studying geography, you could remember all the things that could fall down an avalanche with an abbreviation – SWIRT (snow, water, ice, rocks and trees). You could also make songs or remember names based on what the word sounds like; for instance, Jemima Jones may remind you of Jemima Puddle-Duck and you could draw a picture of a duck by Jemima Jones’ name in your revision notes. That way, when you are trying to remember names or facts during the exam, you could be reminded by a rhyme or story you made up.

Do practice papers (and practice essay plans)

The last crucial piece of advice is to do past papers to help you practise your knowledge and timings in the exam. This is especially true if you have longer question answers, essays or case studies to answer in the exam as well – you need to know how long you can allocate to these questions. You should plan your essay in your exam so it’s a good idea to practise writing essay plans as a part of your revision – they keep your argument clear and coherent.

You should practise highlighting the exam paper questions’ wording to ensure you are answering what the question is asking you. Learn the differences between ‘describe’ and ‘explain’ questions – looking at the number of marks these questions are worth can give a good indication of how much detail to include in your answer.

It is also wise to read your exam board rubric information online, which explains how the questions are structured and what they aim to test. For instance, the AQA history A level specification states the paper will consist of two questions where: ‘The first part will focus on the assessment of Assessment Objectives 1(a) and 1(b), the ability to recall, select and deploy historical information accurately, with instructions to candidates to offer explanations for events. The second part will focus on these and also on Assessment Objective 2(b), requiring demonstration of understanding, the ability to arrive at judgements and an awareness of the debate amongst historians around the issues in the question.’

It is also a good idea to mark your answers with the mark scheme by highlighting where you have got the marks. Review previous work that your teacher has marked as well as your mock exams and try to include your teachers’ feedback in your revision practice – ask your teacher if you are unsure what their feedback means or have forgotten.

If you run out of past papers you could try to formulate your own questions based on your knowledge of the specification and the example past questions and try to answer those.

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