Ready for September?

Being organised is boring, right? Getting ready for the new term, even more so. If you were getting exam results this summer, hopefully they will let you do what you were hoping for. (If not, take your time figuring out how to choose your next steps.) Assuming you’re going to be studying some more, this post can help you get things sorted quickly. Organisation ideas are first with a ‘shopping list’ at the end.

Being organised might not be very exciting but it’s better than getting behind with coursework, grief for not meeting deadlines or losing your notes so you can’t revise. The best kind of system is simple. There’s less to go wrong and it’s easier to stick to.

Your Aims

  • Have what you need each day at school/college.
  • Get assignments done by the deadline.
  • Keep up with long-term projects.
  • Avoid wasting time at home.

The best way to sort this out is to have three stages in your daily routine at home. Along with school/college life, they complete the cycle so nothing gets missed.

GTD cycle

Unpack bag and brain

As soon as possible after you get in, empty out your stuff. As each item comes out, stick a post-it note on it with the job that needs doing and the deadline, and stick it on the folder or book. This could be finish maths worksheet, research Versailles Treaty online or just review notes. If you’ve nothing to stick a note to, use a filecard instead. If you can, add a guess about how long it will take, and anything else that comes to mind that will help.

example task

Before putting each thing in the jobs pile you might want to fetch a relevant textbook from the shelf or whatever. The point is to set up the jobs for yourself while you remember, to make the next stage easier.

Ideally, have a break before you carry on. You might have sorted out your stuff while having a cup of tea; if not, now’s a good time. Kick a football around, catch up with friends online or cook dinner as a surprise for the folks. Just don’t leave the actual work too late in the evening. Some people prefer an hour’s break, some just a few minutes so they don’t get out of ‘study mode’.

Do what needs doing

Sit down and get the work done. Sounds simple – but it’s not quite that easy. Get rid of distractions as much as possible first. Then look through your pile of work, starting with the most urgent (nearest deadline). Set a timer according to your estimate. Then get on with it.

When it’s done, put it to one side for a final check and start the next piece of work. Many students find it best to alternate ‘easy’ and ‘hard’ work, or complete one favoured subject in between those you’re not so fond of. Just don’t leave all the hard, despised subjects for last. How long you work for will depend on your workload and how much you managed at the weekend. If you know the next few evenings are busy it might be a good idea to do some extra time now. This is not complicated.

Make sure work gets reviewed even if formal homework isn’t set. This makes eventual revision easier too. It’s worth saving anything you produce, which will be in two categories. Electronic stuff needs to be saved or bookmarked so you can find it again. Paper is the same; revision notes, mindmaps, practice Qs should probably be divided by subject and stored in some kind of folder. Obviously, if it’s in your book or handed in to a teacher this will have to happen some other way, but don’t be afraid to save draft copies for your own reference just in case.

Pack bag

Check your timetable and put in what you need. Check deadlines on your calendar, whether it’s on paper or electronic. Your teachers and parents will be frantic to tell you this should be done the night before. That’s because they know that if you leave it for the morning, it’s more likely to be rushed. The important thing is that checking and packing should be a routine, so things are less likely to be forgotten.

So are you ready?

Getting these routines going will make your life easier. They’ll mean work gets done, hopefully before deadlines, and you don’t lose stuff that matters too often. But you can’t really use them until September starts. What you can do is sort out the hardware.

  • Plenty of pens and pencils. Keep some for use just at home if you can.
  • Paper, including graph and plain if possible. Bookmark this link to printable graph paper for emergencies.
  • Post-it notes and index cards. You can get them cheap at pound shops or get pretty ones at Paperchase.
  • Folder with a space for each subject (see this example at Amazon)
  • Subject stuff – art pencils, calculator etc.

Please suggest improvements or your own ideas in the comments – and hope you manage to start back in a good frame of mind. At least until the homework assignments start piling up…



A very quick one, this – and one aimed more at publicity than information.

I hope that any and all student readers of this site are sharing useful posts with friends. There are easy ways to do this, especially now that we’re on Facebook and Twitter. But how are students going to find out about it in the first place?

One way is downloadable by clicking on the image below, a fairly boring poster.

I’ll work on a slightly flashier one, or perhaps small ones (A6 maybe) that can be added to existing displays. Of course, there’s nothing stopping you from adding links to VLEs, noticeboards etc, either in text or QR form. You may find it most useful to link to specific pages or sections of the blog, of course. And the printables available here can be added ‘as is’ to displays, with the QR code already included.

What Should I Revise (first)?

It’s really easy to spend the first half hour of any ‘revision session’ faffing about what you need to revise. Something that’s worth doing early on, for each subject, is to figure out:

  • what will be tested
  • how well you understand/remember it
  • what you can do about it

Some of this was covered in an earlier post but right now it’s time to focus on a particular subject. It’s time for an audit, which is nowhere near as scary as it sounds.

You’ll need a copy of the sullabus (from your teacher or the contents page of your revision guide is best). There’s two versions of the ‘audit’ available, a pretty pdf one which you can scribble on, or an editable word version.

  1. Write topics in the left hand column. These should be one or two words, and in some kind of logical order. You might find that you can use the titles of each lesson, or each page in the revision guide. Break them down if you need to.
  2. Give yourself a ‘star rating’, from zero to five, for each topic. The more accurate this is, the better. It should reflect competence (how good you are at getting the marks in an exam-style situation), not just confidence.
  3. Add some comments in the right hand column. These should be details about the topic, how you think you need to fix any problems, perhaps a page reference, a pointer to a website or a friend who’s agreed to help.

This should not have taken you long – perhaps 20-30 minutes for each exam subject. Those topics you’ve given yourself low scores for are your priorities – you need to ask for help, ideally from your teacher, before you can really start effective revision. Four or five stars means a quick review is probably enough for now.

For each priority area, spend a few minutes reviewing it as soon as possible. On the back, use the boxes to make a few notes, key words or flow charts that will help you with proper revision. Every time you finish studying a topic (using one of the active methods discussed here) write the next priority area at the top of a piece of paper and put it where you can’t lose it. This means your following revision session can get off to a prompt start. As you make progress, you can add stars to your audit sheet.





Guest post: From a Student’s Point of View

Today’s post is not mine.

Well, this is kind of a guest post for another blog. I’ve written about tactics and stuff about how to get a better mark, but this is a bit different, a bit more personal.

Well… um, hi. My name’s Josh. I’m an 18yr old Aussie, working on a blog called Mathematical Mischief.

But my little piece isn’t about that at all, today. Today, I’m writing about high school.

That’s always fun, saying those words… it’s been a full year and a half since I’ve had class at a school. I’m at university now, which is really different. For a variety of reasons, I mean, there’s all sorts of amazing people in unis, and in schools, and the learning is crazy different.

Now, when I was in high school, I can say safely that I had an awful lot of bad habits. Which is not cool. It’s an awful feeling, when you know you can do something, but you’ve completely stuffed it up, because you’ve done the complete opposite thing you should’ve done.

So, today, I’m writing about the five things I wish I’d done better in school. I’ve ranked them from what was more important for me, but these’ll be different for every person. I am hoping that these will be useful for someone, and that you’ll take something out of my mistakes.

Let’s start, shall we?

5. Get enough sleep!

I can say this honestly, I’m terrible at getting any sleep the night before most tests. Sometimes, I’ll be really chilled and like ‘Yeah, I can do this.’, but most days, I’m like this:


Sleeping at the desk - (Photo credit: giuseppesavo)

Now, sleeping at your desk is a terrible idea. I’m 6’5″, so it’s both painful and cramped, when I wake up with my wallet squashed into my face. I’m grateful I’ve learnt my lesson from this.

Solution? – Well, you can do a few things. You can set yourself a study cut-off time, and stop studying. Alternatively, you can go to bed before you crash. Trust me, it saves your back a whole lot of pain in the future.

4. Organise your junk!

I have learnt, numerous times now, that throwing out homework, while it’s still relevant, is the dumbest idea you could possibly think of. What’s the point of throwing out work, when you can revise with it?

So, now I have a system. I divide my work up into two piles – Useful, and Out Of The Box. All my crazy hard questions go into the Out Of The Box pile, and the rest goes into the Useful pile.

It might get crazy, and you might like to chop out any stuff that you’re confident will be remembered, but filing my stuff has been so much of a benefit to me, that it’s not funny. I can use the questions as references, when I receive assignments, or tests, and I can apply that knowledge to my future work.

3. Relationships are distracting!

Right, I can summarise this in one sentence.

In the space of six weeks, while I was dating my girlfriend, I saw her half the time, did my homework none of the time, and my school marks fell through the floor.

Do yourself a favour – Realise that not all relationships last forever. If you want to get into university, or vocational training, you need to be able to apply yourself fully at school. Otherwise, you do lose valuable marks, and a competitive edge on other students.

Now, I’m not saying ditch your partner. But do yourself a favour, and without seeming harsh: step back and take a look at the big picture for a bit. Your relationship might fall apart, but your schooling is so much more important.

If your partner really cares, they’ll understand this.

2. Big money does not mean big score (or intact morals).

First of all – bribing, extortion, theft, and cheating are all terrible things to do. Unfortunately, there are people desperate enough to resort to cheating, or to get someone else to do their homework for them.

The sad world we live in, mean the rich get what they want, and the poor have to work hard to get the most meagre of things. It’s unfortunate, but it’s true.

The plus side? You can achieve your goals, with persistence and hard work. You don’t need an inheritance to get a good job, you just need to work hard, and show you mean business. Unfortunately, I feel victim to that stigma (I thought money meant success, and I was wrong).

If you don’t have much money, there are often tutoring services available for free (or lots of examples) online. Khan Academy is interesting to check out, and there’s also Math Help Forum and my own blog, just to name a few.

The benefit to this is that while they may not be 100%, you will save 100% of the cash you were going to spend, or didn’t have.

1. Ask for help!

I can say, when I was in high school, I was an ok student. Terrible, with my attitude, however. My poor teacher comes into the classroom one day, goes ballistic at the class, because none of them did their homework. He still went over the course material, though, and asked if students wanted help with the work.

You can never have enough assistance in school. If you’re stuck, make sure you ask for help. Sometimes, there are a lot of difficulties from the core idea of a teacher-student relationship, so it’s good to seek help and advice from a wide range of people.

Ideas like this include using search engines to find explanations of similar questions, emailing teachers constantly for advice, seeking help outside the box.

Teachers aren’t here to judge you, they’re here to make sure you succeed. Make sure you take advantage of that, suck up your pride, and ask the questions that need to be asked. Teachers love questions, and they’re there to help.

So, they’re the five things I’d wish I’d learnt in high school. I’m fortunate to have only ever really seen others affected by 3 (because I have some rich friends (sucks)), but everything else applied to me pretty well.

I hope that I’ve helped someone take something from this – and I hope to see you again another time. 🙂

All the best,


Mathematical Mischief

Now also available on Facebook…

Just a quick post to say that you can now find us on Facebook. How much will be posted there is not yet decided – which means I’ve not yet figured out how best to use it – but it means you can link to us easily at least. Hopefully like Twitter it will provide an easy way for students to be updated about what’s appearing on the site.

If you have suggestions or ideas about how Facebook or Twitter will be most effective, please get in touch.

Simplifying Revision

Hopefully you’ve already read through the ideas about how to make revision effective, via the MORSE Code. The S stands for Simplifying or Summarising, and both ideas are worth using when it seems like there’s too much revision to start. The whole point is to bring a topic back to basics.

  1. Take a while to read through your folder, making a list of key words or phrases. You might like to highlight or underline main points to help them stand out. Don’t try to define or explain them – you’re just making a list. Do one area of the topic at a time, so you end up with somewhere between 3 and 6 lists.
  2. For each list, put aside 20 minutes to write what you think each word or phrase means. This isn’t about organising it, just getting the main points clear. Limit yourself to one or two sentences each. If you want, try making study cards for yourself, either on paper or electronically (loads of different ways to try this, post on best methods coming soon). Try making an extra card which prompts you to recall the list as a whole.
  3. Now go through the list with your resources to hand – folder, textbook, webpages. Use Bitesize or similar rather than Wikipedia. Remember to save any particularly good links as discussed in the recent bookmarks post. Give yourself a clear, concise definition. Add an example or application you’re likely to remember.
  4. If there are some you’re struggling with, think about previous work that links to it. There’s often not much difference between a good KS3 explanation and a basic one at KS4. Speak to your teacher if you can’t get the words right.

You’ve now got a key word list you can learn, just like you would a set of spellings or foreign language vocabulary. You could

  • use this as the basis for a concept map, showing the links between ideas.
  • develop it by writing a question around the idea, or improve your explanation using C words.
  • check your recall just by having a family member test you on a different sheet each day.

All of these ideas are ways to organise what you know, rather than simplifying, but now you’re starting from basics which are correct and useful. Ideally, over time you’ll build up a set of summary sheets for each subject, kept somewhere safe.


More Work in Less Time

Getting distracted is pretty easy. It means that getting the same amount of work done takes longer, using up time which you could spend on something fun. If wasting time’s not a problem for you, then you might as well go and do something else instead of reading this.

Still here?

The truth is that everyone gets distracted. Let’s assume that you have a certain amount of work you must do. This could be your own review tasks, assignments set by a teacher or active revision. You should always know how long it should take you, more or less. Any time you spend on something else is a distraction, and means less time for you to move on to something else. that ‘something’ could be another subject, or a hobby or interest of your own. So if you’d like to have more time for fun stuff, keeping reading is a good idea.


Everyone gets distracted by different things but there are probably some common themes, even if the details differ. Read through the list and decide what costs you the most time when you’re supposed to be working. Not in the time your parents say you should be working, but when you’re actually planning to get something done.

  • mobile phone (calls/texts)
  • social networks (Facebook, Twitter, instant messaging)
  • computer games / off-topic web browsing
  • music playing
  • TV on nearby
  • family members
  • pets

There might be other things, too. You might want to spend an hour working and write down everything that distracts you, see if it matches up what you think. Now, some distractions are worse than others, either because they’re hard to ignore, or because they happen again and again. Spend a couple of minutes putting them into an order, from most to least distracting, like this one from Information Is Beautiful a few years back.


You’ve got your list. You know what’s distracting you. Now it’s time to do something about it.

There’s no real shortcut here. You’re not trying to justify what you’re doing to your parents or your teachers. If you want to get more done, in less time – with the incentive that you can then have guilt-free time afterwards to do fun stuff – you need to work with fewer distractions. If it helps, remember that these distractions are not only making the work take longer, but it’s likely they’re reducing the quality too. Which means you won’t understand it so well, which means you won’t do so well in the exams…

Anyway. If you want to avoid the distractions, you need to do something about it. What you do will depend on the problem, but there are some pretty common-sense ideas.

  • Turn off the TV and games console. Music can work as background noise but moving pictures scream “look at me!” Researchers actually use this to test how interesting programmes are and have done since Sesame Street.
  • As a minimum, put your mobile on silent. Ideally put it in another room.
  • Use a kitchen timer, set to go off to tell you when you’ve done enough and need a break. Much less than 20 minutes and you won’t get into the routine, much more than 40 and you’ll lose focus. A few minutes to stretch is probably enough. Don’t put the TV on.
  • If you need to use a computer, don’t try to keep a tab or window on Facebook ‘just in case’. The web can be fantastic for research, reviewing work and testing yourself. It also has millions of hours of cats playing on YouTube. Resist.
  • For once, emotional blackmail can work in your favour. Tell your family you’re trying to get work done properly for school. Insist that little sisters/loading the dishwasher/walking the dog will distract you during your study session. With luck, they’ll have forgotten when you’re finished and you can choose something fun to do.*

If distractions still happen, keep a note of them. If the same thing shows up a lot, then do something about it. Over time it should get easier to remain focused and you’ll get more done in less time. Leaving you the rest of your evening or weekend to watch cats on the internet. Or whatever.


*Not guaranteed.

Getting It

It’s amazing how many people – often those who will happily spend hours rehearsing stunts with a football or the intricacies of a computer game – assume after a couple of minutes that they can’t answer a question in school.

Claiming “I don’t get it.” is rarely helpful. It’s hard to type this without it sounding like a pep talk, but some concepts are difficult for everyone. The question isn’t about whether you’re good at something or not, it’s more complicated than that. People’s intelligence isn’t a fixed quantity. We all learn things, all the time. Having a different approach can make a big difference, to your understanding and to your achievement. What you want is what’s been described as a ‘growth mindset‘.

So instead of claiming that you don’t ‘get’ something, try a few things out. This is not about getting it magically. You still might not understand it. But by going through this process, you’ll understand better what is causing the problem, and hopefully be able to seek more useful help or advice.


You might want to swap around the order of Buddy and Book – although there’s a big difference between asking for help and copying someone else’s answers. But this way by the time you ask a teacher for support, you’ll be able to tell them what you’ve tried. You might have narrowed down the problem a little. This might depend on the subject – maths problems can affect how you approach a science problem, or the use of words in sources makes history difficult. Once you start to recognise what is causing you to find it difficult, you can address it. Learning is about making progress in steps, not about having a flash of inspiration.

How about adding some prompts in the comments below? What tactics help you to figure out a question? Do you refer to a subject glossary,  highlight question words or something completely different?



Written Exam Answers

Your subject teachers will have taught you about different kinds of written answers. How you approach them will depend on just how much writing is needed. Some require a single word or sentence, and probably start:

  • define
  • state
  • what is…
  • when
  • where
  • give an example of…

Those are the easy ones, and are usually more about recall than anything else. Some are much more open and may require a longer answer or even an essay. If so, there are a few things you can do to help you get as many marks as possible.


Check with your teacher – what kind of format is needed? Will bullet points lose marks? Can you use headings? Even if you can’t break a long answer up into explicit sections, it will probably be good to have some idea of what you will need to include. The number of marks available should guide the amount of time you spend on the question, but a moment spent thinking before you write will probably be well spent.

Showing Off

Your answer should show that not only do you know stuff but also that you can explain it in the context of the question. Use key words and processes, explain links between different parts of the topic, and relate concepts to real situations or consequences. One acronym which can be interpreted in several ways is PEE.

  • Point: what are you trying to say?
  • Evidence: state the fact in the real world, historical event, scientific concept or quote from a text you think is relevant.
  • Explain/Evaluate: justify your choice and show why it is linked to your opinion.

Of course, once you have given your answer you will need to check it makes sense. It might also be worth checking important words for spelling, and going over the grammar. Using the sequence on the printable above will help you to slow down your thinking so that the clear, concise sentences don’t need much editing once you’ve written them down.

Practice using this structure in your various subjects – perhaps write up a summary you can refer to during revision. You’ll probably find different ‘internal checklists’ useful in different topics (Safety, Variables, Controls, Measurements, Repeats might be helpful when writing experimental plans but less so in English) but the process of explaining your thinking in writing is universal – and useful in real life too.

Planning Revision

Start off by asking yourself some basic questions.

  • When is the exam?
  • What will I need to remember?
  • What will I need to understand and how will I show this?
  • What will I need to be able to do?

Use the list you’ve put together – perhaps checking it against the contents of a revision guide, syllabus or checklist from a teacher – to choose priorities. Some stuff you’ll be confident with and will just need to check a few times between now and the exam. Other parts will be worrying you already and these need to be addressed first. The question is how.

  • practice papers or exam-style questions are really useful to test yourself.
  • use active methods as described in MORSE code.
  • set aside one hour sessions, early in the evening or in the morning at the weekend.
  • in advance, make sure you’ve paper and pens, calculators, revision guides and relevant bookmarks online.

During your revision time, try to make sure distractions are limited. Opinions on music are divided, but you may want to turn it down. (You might find thinking about the music you played while revising helps you remember the facts you covered.) Turn OFF the TV. And unless you are sure you can avoid Facebook or similar, avoid depending on the internet. At least set email and message notifications to ‘away’ so you don’t get interrupted.

In the hour session, don’t try to work continuously. Set yourself a target – a certain amount of material you want to be familiar with by the end. You might want to focus on one area, or cover some verbal work and some mathematical. Work for 15-20 minutes, then take a break. Repeat. Finish by assessing what you’ve learned – perhaps by past papers, or having a friend or family member test you – and planning your next session. This can be as simple as writing a key word and a textbook page number at the top of a piece of paper. Next time you need to revise, open the folder and you’re ready to go with no messing around.

Aim to review each part of the syllabus at least twice before the exam. The week before, skim through everything at least once. (This will tell you how early you need to start revising.) Don’t waste time on a pretty, full-colour timetable months in advance. Instead, set up a weekly schedule, with gaps to allow for likely delays, and try your best to stick to it. Have at least one day in the week as a total rest.

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