How should students approach revision and what are the best study techniques?
What are revision techniques?
Our improved knowledge of cognitive science means that educational communities are now far better placed to support students with their revision activities. We all carry around different ideas of what revision is, for some, this means highlighting large amounts of text and re-reading the same paragraph multiple times.
The art and science of studying independently has helped us understand what activities enable students to effectively understand and recall important information. Within all of our articles on this site, we have tried to explain the fundamental principles of how we all think and learn. This article focuses in on the specific activities that students participate in when trying to prepare themselves for summative assessments.
For some of us, it has been three years since we last prepared students for public exams set by the exam boards. For those newer to the profession, this may be the first time you've been asked to deliver a four-hour study session the day before the GCSE Maths exam or experienced the marking that follows May half term, otherwise known as the essay-writing practice marathon. Do not worry: this article is here to help! In this post, we will move away from passive revision tactics and look at making the most out of revision periods with a more effective mix of learning techniques.
Digging deeper into revision techniques
Scientific studies have shown that if a revision strategy is enjoyable and rated effective by students, it is probably one of the least effective strategies they could be using! Focusing on quality rather than quantity will make a real difference to the amount of productive study time students can achieve, increase their motivation for revision, and reduce teachers' workload.
While students' motivation for revision is likely to be at its highest as they prepare for GCSEs and A-Levels, their method of revision may be letting them down. They are probably already doing short periods of revision, taking regular breaks, splitting large topics into bite-sized chunks, and using memory tricks such as mnemonics. These are all good approaches, but what they do with the manageable chunks of information during their short bursts of revision will make the difference between plateauing and exam success.
If a student uses a one-hour revision session to complete a short exam question, write an essay and then checks their understanding using the mark scheme, they will have gained far more that one hour than a student who spends two hours writing revision notes with a personal tutor or highlighting their way through revision guides.
This article will examine how the theories and findings from cognitive science can improve our understanding of how students learn and therefore which revision techniques will be most effective for them.
The cognitive research behind revising
Learning results in a permanent change to a student's long-term memory. Information must first be processed by the short-term memory and then encoded into the long-term memory. Our short-term memory has a very limited capacity and duration, which means it can become overloaded quickly.
Common (and hopefully less common!) causes of cognitive overload:
- Too much information
- Exam anxiety
- The complexity of information
- Trying to listen and write at the same time
- Display materials close to the board
- A disagreement with fellow students
- Counting down the minutes until lunch
- Thinking about the paper aeroplane they are making under the desk!
Relieving pressure on the short-term memory, by either reducing exposure to redundant information or by presenting the same information to two different stores (dual coding), we increase the likelihood of the information being successfully encoded to the long-term memory. This process requires repetition (e.g. rote learning) or interacting with the new information in a meaningful way using a mix of learning techniques. Examples of this can include:
- Making and delivering a presentation
- Debating against fellow students
- Completing a practice exam question or essay writing
- Massed practice
- Making links with a different subject
- Generating a list of questions to answer during revision
- Spending 5 minutes completing a brain dump
When new information is successfully encoded into the long-term memory, the next challenge is being able to retrieve this new knowledge when it is needed. Our long-term memory may have unlimited capacity and duration but this means that it can be difficult or impossible to remember a precise skill or fact when it is required. The long-term memory relies on cues to access the information we need; the more cues associated with a memory, the easier it is to retrieve it.
The Purpose of Revision
The goal of revision is to increase and strengthen the cues associated with prior learning so that the information can be readily available and retrieved when needed. This can include information about exam techniques, subject-specific key words, essay plans, dates, skills or facts. Every time we retrieve a piece of information from our long-term memory, we strengthen a cue associated with that piece of information as well as the cues associated with related pieces of information. Revision time can be used to increase the number of cues by completing activities that require prior learning to be used in multiple ways.
If revision techniques do not strengthen cues or increase the number of cues, they should be replaced by ones that do. Rereading or highlighting notes, copying out a mind map, using a text book to complete exam papers or study notes to support essay writing are unlikely to have a great impact on the cues used by the long-term memory. Active rather than passive retrieval is a factor in determining how successful a revision technique will be. A poor revision style might include simply rereading a page or rewriting (word for word) answers to an essay question.
Active revision strategies require students to do a lot of thinking. Learning anything new is hard work and students will need to be in the right frame of mind. The human brain requires information to be organised and structured in such a way that it's easier to retrieve. This is the result of hard thinking and there are no shortcuts or real memory tricks we can use for this.
Which revision techniques work best?
Keep in mind that the goal of revision is to strengthen and increase the cues used by the long-term memory. Revision time should be focused on retrieving, and ideally using, the content that needs revision; this will build a deeper understanding of the topic being studied and make it easier to retrieve the information when it is needed.
Flash cards can be a great revision tool when used correctly: reading the question and then either speaking aloud or writing down their answer before turning the card over to reveal the answer. The danger of flash cards comes when students read the question and turn it over to read the answer and think 'I knew that'. They have not practiced retrieving the information and the process may also give them a false sense of confidence.
For GCSEs and A-Levels that are essay based subjects, there is no such thing as too much essay-writing practice, although the students may disagree! Open book essays are fine if the students need exam technique practice without worrying about the content, but in all other cases, closed book essay-writing practice will be more beneficial. It's fine for them to have study time beforehand to read through their notes or revision guides, but these should then be put away for students to practice retrieving the information while they complete the essay question.
Completing exam papers without notes, recreating mind maps or a list of key words from memory, having plenty of essay practice and spending 5-minute periods of free recall are all valid and effective revision techniques. And the best part: even if the information they recall isn't quite correct and the work isn't marked by a teacher, their memory for the correct information and related information will improve!
There are plenty of effective revision techniques available to students. To ensure their study time is most productive, they must be retrieving information. Scientific studies have shown that students prefer revision techniques that reconfirm their prior understanding, such as reading through revision notes, using flash cards incorrectly, or highlighting text. Retrieval can be uncomfortable, especially if students are revising a topic they find difficult, but reassure them that this means their revision technique is working.
What revision techniques might work for your students? We'll go into more detail shortly but you might want to consider:
- Retrieval practice - systematically recalling information within a revision schedule.
- Spaced practice - revision over time that is scheduled in the calendar.
- Organising information with graphic organisers - moving away from passive revision tactics.
- Creating quizzes using apps like Socrative - quickfire bursts of revision in games.
- Exercise (yes exercise) - periods of revision followed by movement away from computer screens.
- Word diagrams - Creating an effective mind map.
Selecting the right topics for revision
The perfect revision timetable doesn't exist. I have created many revision timetables for my students over the years, but all they really need is periods of dedicated revision time and to spend that time revising the right topics. Students often need help identifying which topics they know well enough to revise less frequently and which topics require constant revision. Providing students with plenty of opportunities to show you their current understanding, probably through completing past papers, will allow you to focus their revision on the topics that need the most attention.
If students are using flash cards or study notes during their revision sessions, encourage them to organise the cards into three piles: topics that need revision every two or three days, topics that need revision once a week, and topics that need revision less frequently than once a fortnight. This will enable their revision time each day to be focused on the topics that need the most attention.
Putting the revision research into practice
This is my favourite section of any article! I love thinking about how the findings from research can be applied to classroom practices.
How can cognitive science help our students to achieve exam success? There are so many ways, but I've narrowed it down to six revision techniques that are all supported by research and made them fit into a useful acronym for students: REVISE!
This should be the first consideration of any revision session. Encourage students to ask themselves 'does this method of revision require me to retrieve information from my long-term memory?' There are so many ways that students can retrieve information, even during a short period of independent study:
- Completing past papers
- Reproducing study notes or mind maps from memory
- Reading through previous essays and adding additional details without using notes
- Creating a list of questions and writing model answers
- Spending ten minutes writing out the key words for a topic
- Brain dumps: putting pen to paper and writing as much as they can on a topic for 5 minutes
This revision technique is designed to strengthen the connections between different concepts in the long-term memory. Students should read through their study notes for one or two topics, put these notes away and try listing the similarities and differences between the two passages they have just read. This could also be done to compare two or more of the subjects they are studying.
Encourage students to gain a deeper understanding by asking themselves questions such as 'what if...?', 'why does...?' or 'how do we know...?'.
Visuals and Text
This refers to dual coding, but the acronym wouldn't work as well if it was REDISE!
Encourage students to use images and text to represent information in their study notes or flash cards. This will give them additional cues to help their long-term memory retrieve the content when they need it. You can also use this technique when you are presenting new information for the first time to make it more memorable.
Interleaving means moving between different topics during a revision session. Students will be more productive if they spend 20-30 minutes (at GCSE) or 30-40 minutes (at A-Level) revising a topic before moving on to a different one. They can alternate between two different topics during one revision session or work through topics from each of their subjects. Interleaving can also be used in the classroom by combining two topics together in a question or inserting a question from a previous topic into a low-stakes quiz.
Spacing revision sessions for one topic over two weeks is far more beneficial than spending the same amount of time revising in just one day. Ideally, students should be revising (retrieving) new information soon after it has been learnt and then increasing the length of time between each subsequent retrieval.
A colleague in my school (who is exceptionally organised!) places each new topic she teaches into her planner one week and one month after she has taught it. She looks at the topics written in her planner each week and includes them in a low-stakes quiz, ensuring that every topic is revised in class at least twice.
Examples provide additional cues for our long-term memory. They can be used in class to improve students' understanding of abstract concepts and the list of examples can be added to for homework and revision. Encourage students to use some of their revision time to recreate lists of these examples.
Revision advice for students
The advice I will be giving my students during this revision season is simple: REVISE!
I will be reminding them about how our memory works and encouraging them to use the six techniques above to ensure that every minute they spend revising is time well spent.
I will also be telling them that revision should be deliberately difficult.
And finally: retrieve, retrieve, retrieve!
Students should be educated about how our memory works and the purpose of revision. With these two things in mind, it becomes easier to decide whether a revision strategy will be successful or not. Retrieving information and using it in different ways are two exceptionally effective ways to strengthen and increase the cues our long-term memory relies upon.
I hope you have found this article helpful. If you would like to teach your students about how our memory works and the six revision strategies I have shared in this article, you are welcome to show them these two short videos that I have produced for my students.
Connect with me @HeathfieldLearn or firstname.lastname@example.org