Often revising can feel like having to blindly choose from a huge range of techniques, not knowing what will work unless through a process of trial and error. Well-meaning teachers will tell you that you need to find “what works for you”. To a degree, they are correct. However, science can tell us what generally to try and what to avoid.
A study was conducted by Prof Dunlovsky on the top 10 revision techniques by students and he found what worked and what didn’t.
The best revision techniques
Of the 10 revision techniques, two were by far the most effective. These were “Distributed Practice” and “Practice Testing”. Distributed practice means to schedule revision over a long period of time (see “The Three Layer Technique” blog). Practice testing means to use exams, quizzes and other types of tests to actively learn a subject.
A side note of practice testing and using exams to revise:
A mistake that many people make when using exams is to wait until they feel they know a subject very well before they start using the practice papers or questions. This comes from a fear of failure and a want to not “waste” the practice questions. However, the most effective revisers start using the questions and exam papers as soon as possible – they fight against that uncomfortable feeling of taking an exam not fully knowing the content. By starting to use practice tests early, you recognise that the very act of marking questions, getting them wrong and correcting them is a great form of revision.
The okay revision techniques
While distributed practice and practice testing are by far the most effective forms of revision, other good methods can and should be used alongside to keep revision interesting.
Some good revision techniques include:
- Elaborative interrogation — Understanding the content/fact by exploring and researching the subject. This may be a great time to talk with friends, teachers and class mates about the content to gain a deeper understanding.
- Self-explanation — Explaining to oneself the connections between known information or the steps in getting to a conclusion.
- Interleaved practice — Creating a schedule that mixes different kinds of problems and materials into one study session. E.g studying 3 subjects in a day rather than 1 per day
- Keyword mnemonic — Using keywords and mental imagery to associate memorise things. This is helpful for scientific subjects.
The revision techniques to avoid
The most common revision techniques are the worse, students do them because they are easy and not because they are very useful. These include:
- Summarization (Note: Summarization from memory can be a good revision technique if you run out of exam questions)
- Highlighting/underlining – this can actually make your learning worse as you prevent your mind from making links by treating the information as separate
- Imagery for text — Attempting to form mental images of text materials while reading or listening
- Rereading – the most overused, ineffective revision technique – (instead you could try reading once and then rewriting what you remember from memory or using exam questions to test yourself right away)