The myth of easy revision
by Rob Caudwell
All teachers have been there. You’re outside the exam hall, the day of the exam has finally arrived and up walks one of your beloved students, looking awful. Bleary eyed, hair all over the place, often clutching a large coffee or energy drink in one hand and pages of highlighted key facts in the other. Uh oh. Proudly he will announce: “I was up until 4:30 last night re-reading my notes, I’m so ready.” Disaster.
The difficult thing about cramming is that it feels like it should work. In the few hours left before an exam why would you waste any of that precious time on sleep? Why wouldn’t you go through your notes a couple more times? Unfortunately, research repeatedly shows, that cramming just doesn’t work.
In fact, many of the traditional revision techniques students revert to (and often teachers and parents mistakenly encourage) just don’t work. In this famous study, Dunlosky et al show that highlighting, re-reading key facts and copying out notes are among some of the least effective revision techniques.
Students resorting to these techniques consistently struggled to actually retain the key information they were supposed to be studying.
Why then are terrible revision techniques so popular? Surely over time students, teachers and parents would realise that these revision efforts aren’t working?
A few years ago, UCLA published a report into why this mistake continues to be made. The problem they found is that, much like cramming, these techniques feel like they are working. It is easy to “remember” a key fact when you are reading it. It is easy to “know” the definition of a word as you are highlighting it. Essentially students are being tricked into thinking that the revision techniques that make “remembering” easy, must be the best ones. This “remembering” is short-term and superficial, rendering 'easy revision' nothing but a myth.
A quick trip down memory lane
The sad news for our highlighter-dependent students, is that according to the Deans for Impact, in their report on the Science of Learning, to really learn something “students must transfer information from working memory (where it is consciously processed) to long-term memory (where it can be stored and later retrieved)”. Committing something to our long-term memory is not easy, and so definitely shouldn’t feel easy.
A brain is constantly being bombarded with information about its surroundings. At all times, it has to process what the eyes are seeing, what the ears are hearing, what the nose is smelling. However, most things a brain experiences are not worth committing to long-term memory, and so are forgotten within a few seconds.
To embed something in our long-term memory we need to revisit it multiple times (so re-reading notes isn’t a complete waste of time) but we also need to engage our long-term memory in the process. A student’s long-term memory will absolve itself of any responsibility for remembering a fact if it isn’t ever being asked to try and recall it!
Recognition and recall are different psychological processes. Even powerful feelings of familiarity don’t guarantee you have actually remembered the information. We need to be reminded of the benefits of testing our recall process, when deciding how to study, because it runs counter to our instinct of relying on a feeling of familiarity, and the sense that cramming should work.
Fortunately, there has also been extensive research conducted into what does help students transfer information into their long-term memory. Yana Weinstein, an Assistant Professor of Psychology at the University of Massachusetts has found that “by far the most important strategies are spaced practice (spacing out studying the same information over time, I.E., not cramming); and retrieval practice (practising bringing information to mind, rather than re-reading information over and over again, or doing a shallow task such as copying out notes)”.
Students will need help creating revision timetables that allow them to revisit topics at regular intervals. However, even with this help, students will find that spaced practice is not fun. Revisiting a topic after you’ve started to forget it is much more frustrating than revisiting a topic when it is still fresh in your mind.
Teachers should share information about how memory works and encourage students to realise that revision is best when it is difficult and frustrating. If it is easy, you are doing it wrong. Bjork describes this as “desirable difficulty”. Your long-term memory is designed to ignore most of the information passing through your brain. Forcing it to notice the important content you are trying to learn is hard work.
Students will also need to be taught how to practise retrieving this information from their memory (rather than using their eyes to find it on the page in front of them). This can be as simple as using flashcards or asking a parent to test them on some key word definitions. Or it can be built into class by teachers setting low-stakes quizzes on key information, facts or skills.
Whichever technique is used, students need to make sure that when they are revising, they are deliberately using methods that rely on asking the brain to recall the information they are trying to learn. In a sense, rewriting the content of what they want to learn in a way that makes most sense to them.
Promoting good habits
Revision is a process that happens inside and outside the classroom. Students who possess the resilience and grit to persist with the monotonous and frustrating nature of revision will naturally have a greater chance at success, but teachers must also plan and identify revision strategies that work.
In What Does This Look Like in the Classroom, Professor Paul Kirschner tells us that teachers should not expect students to take the initiative to space out their own practice. Especially as it might not feel like it is working. Instead, teachers should “create the necessity of spaced practice” for their students. An easy way to do this is through strategic use of revision assignments. Setting homework on things you have just covered in class is not going to help strengthen a student’s ability to commit things to their long-term memory. Teachers should rethink how and when they are assigning homework to promote effective revision.
Teachers should also regularly test their students’ knowledge, whether as a starter in class or as a homework quiz. The performance on each of these tests is not really what matters. What matters is that you are regularly requiring your students to practise actually recalling the things that they have been trying to remember. Regular recall will help embed revision into long-term memory.
Using Doddle, you can teach a unit and then pre-assign homework or revision to appear in student accounts periodically over the next couple of months. This means they are continually revisiting topics in the build up to their exams, helping to improve knowledge retention by spacing out the learning. Doddle’s vast range of self-marking quizzes are also fantastic ways to use low-stakes testing to strengthen student recall. Students can get instant feedback without having to wait for a teacher to mark their work.
As a Maths teacher in Manchester, I was an advocate for creative learning strategies and the effective use of ed-tech. In my role as an Education Adviser at Doddle I help schools implement tools that engage students, save teachers time, help middle leaders use data strategically and allow senior leaders to “join up” their thinking on all things progress, assessment, homework, teaching and learning.
– Rob Caudwell
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