How to revise: retrieval practice

It’s that time of year when revision is moving to the forefront of our minds. It’s a particular focus for our Year 11 and Year 13 students they approach their public exams, but good revision practices are important for all students. If Year 7 get into good revision habits now, they will stand them in good stead for the future!

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Key research paper from Dunlosky et al – how to learn!

Extensive research studies by cognitive and educational psychologists have shown that all revision is not equal. Some revision techniques are more effective at securing learning than others. So, what works? And what is less effective?

Less effective: reading through and/or highlighting your notes

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Highlighting text feels good – but it doesn’t lead to effective learning

Whilst these techniques might make you feel like you’ve spent your time well, the research show that they are not that effective at actually helping to to remember what you’ve read or highlighted at a later point in time. They are generally quite low effort – your brain doesn’t have to work too hard to read through or highlight things. And, because you haven’t had to try too hard, your brain doesn’t retain much of what you’ve done.

More effective: retrieval practice

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Retrieval practice is hard work – but it helps you learn more effectively

Retrieval practice is recalling information to mind from your memory without notes or reminders. Some examples of retrieval practice are:

  • Having a list of key words in front of you, and writing down the definitions or meanings of those key words from memory
  • Having a quotation from a book, play or poem in front of you, and writing down what the quotation implies, demonstrates or illustrates – from memory
  • Having a topic title in front of you, and writing down everything you can remember about that topic without referring to your notes
  • Doing past paper questions without your notes in front of you.

After any retrieval practice, it’s really important to go back to your notes, the textbook or the answer sheet to check which elements you were able to remember correctly, and which you got wrong.

The research shows that even if you can’t remember the answers, or if you get them wrong, retrieval practice still strengthens your recall of the correct answers days and weeks later – provided you’ve corrected your mistakes after the retrieval practice.

Using flashcards is another great way of doing retrieval practice – there’s an excellent blog on how to do this from the psychologists at Inner Drive here.

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Flashcards are a good way to organise your retrieval practice revision

More on how to revise

There are lots of older posts on this blog about revision techniques. You can find them all collected in the Revision category – just click here.

How to Revise #1: Retrieval Practice

This is the first post in a series looking at the most effective ways to revise, based on the work of The Learning Scientists. The Learning Scientists are cognitive psychologists who want to make scientific research on learning more accessible to students and teachers. Their aim is to motivate students to study and increase the use of effective study and teaching strategies that are backed by research. I’ve met Yana Weinstein PhD at an education conference in Southampton last week – she’s the real deal!

Retrieval Practice: what is it?

Retrieval practice is when you make your brain recall information from memory, and then do something with that information.

Retrieval Practice: why?

By forcing your brain to recall information from memory, it strengthens the connection in the long term memory and makes it easier to remember it next time. Failure to retrieve information also helps. If you can’t remember an important piece of information, fact or idea, it tells you that you need to re-learn it carefully so you can retrieve it next time.

Retrieval Practice: how do I do it?

 

Flashcards are particularly useful. Write a concept or keyword on one side, and the definition on the reverse. Alternatively, write a question on one side, and the answer on the other. Look at the front and remember the information on the reverse. Don’t be tempted to flip the card – if you do, you’re just reading the information, not recalling it from memory, and this isn’t helping with retrieval.

Retrieval Practice: next steps

Testing yourself is difficult! Don’t worry if you find it hard. The struggle is actually making the connections in your brain more secure. Follow the advice above and it will get easier – but if you cheat and look at the answers, you aren’t securing those connections to your memory.

It’s also vital to check that you’ve recalled information correctly, otherwise you might be cementing incorrect definitions and ideas into your memory!

Retrieval Practice: watch the video

In this video, the Learning Scientists explain about retrieval practice:

 

Happy revising!