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!

dunlosky

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

highlight

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

retrieval

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.

What-are-revision-flashcards

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.

Twelve ways families can support revision

As we approach the exam period families will be wondering what the best methods are to help their children revise. Below are some tips which, based on research, are some of the best ways to help students to revise effectively.

Our mantra for revision is to recap and practise.

  1. Get them to self-test, a lot.

Research shows that testing in order to recall content is the best way of getting us to think hard. Thinking about and getting the answer is much better than re-reading notes. The more we recall information the better it sticks in our long term memory. This should be in the form of quizzing themselves where possible.

  1. Past Papers

Encourage them to redo any past exam questions without their notes. Simply trying to recall answers to mind is an effective revision technique. Afterwards,  use the mark scheme and help them to identify successes and areas for further work. Past papers and mark schemes can be found on any exam boards’ websites. Our exam board specifications for 2018 can be found on our website for Year 11 and Year 13.

  1. Talk to them

Get your child to tell you what they have learnt or are revising, then quiz them at random times: at breakfast, at the dinner table, or even in the car. Ask them questions that relate to their studies and get them to think hard about the answer. Their books should be a good source of quizzing information for you.

Get them to explain their answer. Adding reason to an answer helps them to remember. And only accept the right answer – no half marks.

  1. Read around the subject

Even if the content is not in the exam, understanding the subject area better helps to build links which may be valuable for those higher grade questions. Recommended documentaries, websites, exam board resources and places of interest to visit can also be beneficial.

  1. Space it out

Distribute their practice of different subjects or different areas of a subject. Research shows that spacing out practice aids memory. Cramming will help for a short period and may be useful the night before an exam but this is not the most effective for long-term memory. A revision time table can help with this.

  1. Learn keywords and definitions by heart

Learning the correct definitions in some subjects will help gain a few extra marks, so long as they use them correctly. Produce memory cards with the key word and the definition on to test them regularly.

  1. Use memory tricks

Mnemonics, such as “Richard of York gave battle in vain” to remember the colours of the rainbow, can be a good trick to remember sequences and lists of information. Get them to invent their own. Making them funny or rude can be a great hook for memory! They can be a good way of helping to store larger chunks of information. Write them on posters and stick them up around their room or the house.

  1. Go easy on the highlighters

Rereading and highlighting key points is not the best way to revise. If they are unsure on a subject this may help to learn a topic, but always get them to check with a teacher that they’ve understood properly what they’ve read.

  1. Sleeping, eating and hydration

Exercise can be beneficial for the mind and body and students should not ignore this. Exercise and revision can lead to tiredness and learning is hard work, so the brain and body need plenty of fuel.

  1. Build in breaks

Splitting up a study day in to small study and rest periods can be beneficial. Remove any distractions such as computers and other media sources, especially mobile phones. These can be a reward for studying hard. It is useful to have a positive learning environment – a dedicated space that is clear and equipped for revising so there is no procrastinating.

  1. Start now

The mock exams are a good indicator of where they are but with a balanced programme of study they can gain those few extra grades between now and the summer.

  1. Subject specific is best

The nature of revision varies from subject to subject. The subject content is the most important thing for them to learn. Their job is to remember what we taught them in class. The whole purpose of revision should be to help with that.

Good luck! 

revision tips

How to revise #6: concrete examples

This is the sixth and final 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 – she’s the real deal!

Read all the revision posts here.

Concrete examples: what is it?

Concrete examples help you to remember abstract or difficult ideas by finding ways in which they can be applied in the real world.

Concrete examples: why?

Ideas on their own are difficult to remember. If you have a good example of how an idea is applied, it is much easier then to remember the idea itself.

Concrete examples: how do I do it?

Keep note of examples of concepts, ideas, and theories provided in class, either by your teacher or in textbooks or other resources. Also, try to think of examples for yourself. For example, if I am trying to remember the idea that repetition is an important rhetorical device used in public speaking, it’s much easier if I think about Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech which repeats “I have a dream” eight times and “let freedom ring” ten times. In this case, the speech is a concrete example of the effective use of repetition in public speaking. If I remember the speech, I remember the idea of repetition as a rhetorical device.

Concrete examples: next steps

Checking that the examples you are using are accurate is really, really important. If you are able to create your own examples it’s a sign that you have fully understood a concept or idea.  And don’t assume that examples you find on the internet are necessarily correct – always double check with a reliable source. Check your examples with your teachers just to make sure.

Concrete examples: watch the video

How to revise #5: interleaving

This is the fifth 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!

Read all the revision posts here.

Interleaving: what is it?

Interleaving is when you switch between different topics in your revision sessions.

Interleaving: why?

Switching between topics helps your brain to see the similarities and differences between them. It helps to avoid confusion and also allows you to make links between different areas of study, which aids retention. Finally, it’s much harder than studying just one topic for a long time, and this difficulty means your brain has to work harder, which means it remembers more.

Interleaving: how do I do it?

It’s more effective to revise one topic for a short time, making sure you have a good grasp of it, then switch to another topic, then another. When you come back to the topics again as part of your spaced practice, review them in a different order. Try to look for the links and connections between topics as you study them.

Interleaving: next steps

Don’t switch too often – you’ll get confused! Three separate topics in one revision session is usually about the right balance. And don’t switch too quickly – make sure you’ve fully understood what you’re studying before you move on to the next topic.

Interleaving: watch the video

How to revise #4: Dual Coding

This is the fourth 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!

Read all the revision posts here.

Dual Coding: what is it?

Dual coding is when you use a combination of pictures/visuals and words to help you learn material.

Dual Coding: why?

By transferring the material from a visual form into words, or from words into visuals, you are strengthening the connections in your brain around the material itself. You are also giving yourself multiple formats to remember things in – the words might act as a memory hook for the visuals, or you might remember the visuals and that will trigger the memory of the words.

Dual coding: how do I do it?

If you have a textbook, look for the visuals and see what the connection is between those and the words. What does the visual tell you that the words don’t? What do the words clarify that isn’t clear in the visual? Asking these questions helps secure your knowledge of all aspects of the topic.

When you are revising, draw visuals to go along with each section of your written notes. This could be a timeline, a diagram, a flow-chart, a mind-map, an illustration, an infographic or whatever you want!

If you have diagrams, illustrations or other visuals to work from, write down in your own words what the visual is telling you. Processing the information from one code (visual) to another (words) helps you to recall it later.

Dual coding: next steps

When you are first starting out, you will have your notes, textbook or resources in front of you. As you get better, try to dual code without the material in front of you – drawing a visual representation of the material from memory, or writing a description or explanation of the visual in your own words without looking at it. This combines dual coding with retrieval practice to help secure your revision.

Dual coding: watch the video

How to revise #3: Elaboration

 

elaboration

 

This is the third 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!

Read all the revision posts here. 

Elaboration: what is it?

When you are elaborating, you are explaining and describing what you are revising with as many details as possible. You are looking for answers to why and how things work, and you are looking for connections between the material and other things you know.

Elaboration: why?

When you elaborate, you focus on the details and the connections between the material (what you are revising) and things in your own experience and knowledge (already safely in your long-term memory). These details and connections create “hooks” to help you remember the material you are revising.

Also, by working the material through your brain and doing something with it, you are strengthening the connections in your memory.

Elaboration: how do I do it?

How you elaborate depends on what it is that you are revising. Let’s say you are revising Biology, and you want to remember cell structures. You could ask yourself why animal and plant cells differ, and how they differ. Note the answers down, or say them out loud to yourself (or into a voice memo recorder). You could then ask yourself how they are similar, and why.

Always check that your elaborations are accurate after you’ve done them. Refer back to your notes, textbooks, or online resources. Correct and mistakes and repeat the elaboration with the corrections, otherwise you’ll risk remembering the incorrect material.

Elaboration: next steps

In the early stages of elaboration, it’s a good idea to have your notes around you to refer to. The eventual aim, however, is to get to the point where you can describe and explain accurately without the material in front of you.

Elaboration: watch the video

 

How to revise #2: Spaced Practice

 

 

This is the second 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 – she’s the real deal!

Read all the revision posts here.

Spaced Practice: what is it?

Spaced practice, sometimes called distributed practice, means that you revise little and often rather than all at once.

Spaced Practice: why?

forgetting curve

The Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve – reviews over time lead to better retention of learned information

Spacing out your revision so that you revisit your material again and again  over time with breaks in between is far more effective than cramming all at once. Studies have shown that revisiting material helps secure the connections in your brain.

Spaced Practice: how do I do it?

Spaced practice needs planning – but it can start straight away. In any year, you can start spaced practice immediately to help secure your learning for the future. At the weekend, give yourself time to go over what you’ve learned in the previous week. It doesn’t need to be long – just a few minutes to make sure you’ve remembered what you’ve studied during the week.

Spaced Practice: next steps

After a few weeks, go back over the stuff from a month ago to make sure it’s still there. If you have to remind yourself of things that you’ve forgotten – don’t worry! Re-learning and reminding yourself of things you’ve forgotten actually makes the retention rate better.

In the run-up to exams, make sure you revise your material a little and often, leaving spaces of a few days between sessions on the same subject.

When you are revising, use the retrieval practice method, elaboration (see post #3!) and self-testing. Don’t just read over your notes – make your brain work hard with the material so you remember it better.

Finally, don’t leave all your revision to the night before – you won’t remember it! You’re actually far better off getting a good night’s sleep than pulling an all-nighter. Your brain will be sharper and more effective for the exam if you’re well rested.

Spaced Practice: watch the video

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!

How to revise: techniques that work

loverevision

We love revision…right?

Revision – it really matters. But, with the best will in the world, it’s not the most exciting way to spend your time. The process itself requires you to look back at work you’ve already done – to “re-vision” it – to try and remember it and commit it to memory. There’s nothing “new” in it. But the trick to making it effective is to get your brain working as hard as it can be.

The reason for this is best summed up by cognitive psychologist Daniel Willingham. Willingham says:

Whatever you think about, that’s what you remember. Memory is the residue of thought. 

In other words, you need your brain to really be processing the information you are trying to revise, if you want to stand any chance of remembering it.

What doesn’t work?

There are a few techniques that seem effective – but actually aren’t. These include:

  • Highlighting
  • Re-reading
  • Summarising
highlighting

Highlighting: expectation vs reality

These techniques allow information to pass through your brain without much thinking. Covering pages of A4 with beautifully highlighted patches might make you feel like you’ve achieved something, but it won’t actually help you to remember the information. These are low challenge activities, and therefore low impact

What does work?

Practice Testing

This technique is pretty straightforward – keep testing yourself (or each other) on what you have got to learn.  This technique has been shown to have the highest impact in terms of supporting student learning.  Some ways in which you can do this easily:

  • Create some flashcards, with questions on one side and answers on the other – and keep testing yourself.
  • Work through past exam papers – many can be acquired through exam board websites.
  • Simply quiz each other (or yourself) on key bits of information.
  • Create ‘fill the gap’ exercises for you and a friend to complete.
  • Create multiple choice quizzes for friends to complete.

Distributed Practice

forgetting curve

The Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve – if you revisit newly learned information, you remember more of it

Rather than cramming all of your revision for each subject into one block, it’s better to space it out – from now, through to the exams.  Why is this better?  Bizarrely, because it gives you some forgetting time.  This means that when you come back to it a few weeks later, you will have to think harder, which actually helps you to remember it.  Furthermore, the more frequently you come back to a topic, the better you remember it.

Elaborate Interrogation

One  of the best things that you can do (either to yourself or with a friend) to support your revision is to ask why an idea or concept is true – and then answer that why question.  For example:

  • In science, increasing the temperature can increase the rate of a chemical reaction….why?
  • In geography, the leisure industry in British seaside towns like Porthcawl in South Wales has deteriorated in the last 4 decades….why?
  • In history, the 1929 American stock exchange collapsed.  This supported Hitler’s rise to power….why?

So, rather than just try to learn facts or ideas, ask yourself why they are true.

Self explanation

Rather than looking at different topics from a subject in isolation, try to think about how this new information is related to what you know already.  This is where mind- maps might come in useful – but the process of producing the mind map is probably more useful than the finished product.  So, think about a key central idea (the middle of the mind map) and then how new material, builds on the existing knowledge in the middle.

Alongside this, when you solve a problem e.g. in maths, explain to someone the steps you took to solve the problem.  This can be applied to a whole range of subjects.

Interleaved revision

When you are revising a subject, the temptation is to do it in ‘blocks’ of topics.  Like this:

revisionblocked

The problem with this is, is that it doesn’t support the importance of repetition – which is so important to learning (see distributed practice above!)  So rather than revising in ‘topic blocks’ it’s better to chunk these topics up in your revision programme and interleave them:

revisioninterleaved

This means that you keep coming back to the topics.  So, instead of doing a one hour block of revision on topic 1, do 15 minutes on topic 1, then 15 minutes on topic 2, then the same for topic 3 and 4. The next day, do the same. On day three – just to spice it up and stop your brain getting into a rut – mix up the topics!

Have a break

Your brain can only work effectively for so long. Scientists differ on this – some say our attention span is around 20 minutes, whilst others say we can work for longer. My advice is to revise in blocks of around 45 minutes, giving yourself a 15 minute break in each hour to recharge. Make sure you get some fresh air, relax and switch off. You don’t want to underachieve because you haven’t done enough revision – but equally, you need to stay healthy and happy if you’re going to do your best, so don’t overdo it!

Resources

There are lots of resources out there to help you revise. Here are just a few:

Good luck!

 

With thanks to Shaun Allison for the inspiration  and some of the images for this blog. Read Shaun’s original post here.