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How do students revise closer to their exams?

How do students revise closer to their exams?

3 min read
  • Study skills & exam prep

Not all revision strategies are equal. Some have been proven to be helpful, whereas others have been found to add very little to students’ learning. But is the way students revise, the right way? Do they change their study habits dramatically the nearer their tests get? And how good are they at choosing the right strategies?

What the research says about the way students revise

These questions were the subject of a recent study, in which students were asked to estimate how much time they devoted to different revision strategies both during general study time and immediately before an exam.

The researchers found that students devoted 51.1% of their general study time to largely ineffective techniques. These included:

  • Highlighting
  • Re-reading their notes
  • Summarising passages of key texts
  • Creating mnemonics

When the panic sets in the nearer they get to their exams, students’ revision strategies significantly change. They still spend 37.7% of their time using strategies that have been found to be unhelpful, but are more likely to use more effective techniques, such as practice-testing and self-elaboration.

Why some revision techniques are more effective than others

Strategies such as re-reading and highlighting are inefficient, as they can be done on autopilot. This means they are less likely to become imbedded in one’s long-term memory. Furthermore, they often create the illusion that a lot of work has been done. Reading a lot of pages or highlighting many passages is not the same as really learning and understanding the material.

How should students revise?

Retrieval practice, which requires a student to generate an answer to a question, has consistently been proven to be an effective revision strategy. It can take many forms and may comprise of answering past paper questions, quizzes, or multiple-choice tests. The reason why retrieval practice has shown to be such an effective revision strategy is that by requiring students to recall previously learnt knowledge, stronger memory traces are created. This increases the likelihood that this information will be recalled at a later date.

Self-explanation is a strategy in which students describe their thought processes and seek to connect the new information they are learning with pre-existing knowledge. This is useful because it helps students develop effective schemas, which are models that help them make sense of the world.

The researchers did note that creating an imagery for text, which is how students form mental images of written materials, may have been more effective for the participants in their study (medical students), as this technique probably lends itself better to certain subjects (i.e. in science, where material can be more easily described or represented by with diagrams).

How can we encourage students to revise effectively?

Research has shown that there is often a disparity between students’ intended revision behaviour and their actual revision behaviour, such that they often intend to revise using retrieval practice but instead simply end up re-reading their notes. This is because the latter is easy and comfortable, whereas the former forces individuals to confront what they do and don’t know.

To help combat this, we suggest a three-pronged approach. First is to educate students about the different types of revision strategies and how some are more effective than others. Second is to help them develop their metacognitive skills by reflecting on which revision technique and resources they are going to use for each topic. Finally, third is helping students minimise procrastination and distractions in their study space; this will ensure they are less likely to cram their revision with poor techniques the nearer the exam gets.

Final thought

There is a huge difference between what students should do during their revision and what they actually do. Although they revise more effectively the nearer the exam gets, there is still too much time wasted on doing things that aren’t likely to help them that much. Here are 5 tips students should know about how to do well in exams.

Revision is about both quantity and quality. If we can teach them how to learn, then the time they spend doing that will be used much more effectively.

About the editor

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch is a Chartered Psychologist and a leading expert on illuminating Cognitive Science research in education. As Director at InnerDrive, his work focuses on translating complex psychological research in a way that is accessible and helpful. He has delivered thousands of workshops for educators and students, helping improve how they think, learn and perform. Bradley is also a prolific writer: he co-authored four books including Teaching & Learning Illuminated and The Science of Learning, as well as regularly featuring in publications such as The Guardian and The Telegraph.

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