When it comes to revision, many students start out with high levels of motivation and good intentions. But these good intentions often don’t translate into reality. So, what can students do to ensure that they revise well and make the most of the time available?
Intended vs Actual revision behaviour
One study that looked at this surveyed 268 students over the course of a semester to find out about their study habits. More specifically, the researchers considered what specific strategies the students used, how much time they spent studying, and when they studied. In addition to this, they compared student reports of how they intended to study and their beliefs about the effectiveness of certain study strategies with how they actually studied and the strategies they used.
What did researchers find?
The researchers found that the most common strategy used by students was re-reading notes, followed closely by re-reading textbooks. These strategies are relatively ineffective in facilitating later recall of study material. On the other hand, strategies shown to be most effective such as practice testing and flashcards were underused.
There was often a discrepancy between the materials that the students intended to use and actual use, with this being the largest for practice testing and flashcards. The researchers also found that students did not effectively distribute their study time very well. Students spent around 20 minutes per day studying until 2 days before the exam, but on the day (or night) before an exam, they spent on average 45 minutes studying, with a further 40 minutes on the day of the exam. This means that students are more prone to cramming their revision instead of spacing it out.
Students’ good intentions in terms of the amount of time they would spend studying also did not translate into reality. The research showed that students, on average, only completed around half the amount of study time that they had intended to.
How can students revise effectively?
Students often make the mistake of thinking that re-reading information is effective, as it produces an illusion of competence. When students re-read information, they get a sense of familiarity, and falsely believe they have mastered the content. Instead of re-reading, students should use flashcards and practice testing, strategies that are underused but most effective in improving memory of information.
Research has shown that students who test themselves remember significantly more information than those who re-study information. Furthermore, other research has shown that testing yourself can protect against the negative effects of the stress associated with exams. Students that test themselves do not show stress-related memory impairment, whereas those who re-study information do.
Instead of cramming for 2 days before an exam, students should use a much more effective technique known as spacing, shown to increase exam results by 10-30% compared to cramming. Spacing is where you spread out the learning of materials across a number of days and keep returning to it. Allowing time for information to be forgotten and re-learnt means that it will be stored in the long-term memory, becoming more likely to be retrievable in an exam. For more information on this technique, click this link.
75% of students consider themselves procrastinators, which can be problematic when it stops students from revising for exams. Procrastination can be overcome by carrying out harder tasks earlier on in the day. Research has shown that we are most awake around 10 am and therefore students should look to revise the harder topics earlier when concentration and energy levels are higher, as this means they are less likely to postpone these topics until the next day.
Students’ intentions often do not line up with their behaviours, as they don’t start their revision early enough and run out of time. This means that they have to rely on easy-to-use but less effective strategies such as re-reading. Students can better manage their time and motivate themselves by breaking their revision down and giving themselves a certain amount of content to learn each day.
Having good intentions to study is a positive starting point when it comes to revision behaviour, but turning that into reality is the holy grail of revision. We can help students do this by educating them about the common mistakes often made during revision. It is not enough for students to come up with a timetable of when they are going to revise; they also need a clear structure in place, and advice on how best to use that time for it to be as effective as possible.