With exam time fast approaching, students, teachers and parents up and down the country are quickly feeling the strain and stress of it all. There is no doubt that for many, last minute cramming and after school revision sessions will be the strategy of choice. But is there a better way? What does the research say are the best ways to maximise student studying time?
Space out your learning and test yourself
A recent review into the science of memory and revision examined what are the most popular and effective revision strategies employed by students? Unfortunately, some of the most commonly used techniques are actually the least effective (for this, read using highlighter and simply re-reading key passages).
The two most consistently effective techniques are arguably the least glamorous. They may not be fun, but they sure are effective. The first is to space out your learning. Actors don’t leave all their rehearsals until the day before the opening night of a play. Athletes don’t only train the day before the match. To commit something to memory, it takes time.
Starting early and revisiting topics regularly helps commit it to your long term memory. By giving yourself enough time to forget it and then re-learn it, it ingrains and cements the knowledge deep in your brain.
Likewise, testing yourself is a good revision strategy. It forces you to think about what you do and don’t know. The act of retrieving information is powerful. As stated in the excellent ‘What Makes Great Teaching’, “having to generate an answer or procedure, or having to retrieve information – even if no feedback is given – leads to better long term recall than simply studying”.
As well as this, it can be used to prepare students for exam conditions. By replicating the format of the exams, this will help normalise exam pressure and help students develop exam strategies that work best for them.
Teach it someone else
Teaching the material to someone else has been found to boost students’ memory and recall. This is known as ‘The Protégé Effect’. As author Annie-Murphy Paul explains in this article, teaching someone can help improve your learning in two ways.
Firstly, by preparing to teach someone else, it prompts you to categorise the information clearly in your own brain, ensuring you have made full sense of it.
Secondly, by knowing that you have to answer someone else’s questions on the topic, it ‘compels users to think and explain the material in different ways’. Their questions can also expose any gaps in your knowledge, forcing you to go back and re-learn the material in more depth and detail.
Create a sense of purpose
The three tips above: spacing out learning; testing yourself; and teaching the material to someone else, all relate to improving your memory. Buy what about increasing the motivation to want to revise. What does the research say about that?
You could try to enhance motivation with rewards (i.e. “I will give you £20 for each A you get in your exams”). This sort of approach is becoming ever-popular amongst parents. The Sutton Trust investigated the effect of incentives on pupil attainment. In a randomised control trial involving over 10,000 pupils in 63 schools, they found that rewards such as an end of year trip had some impact on classroom behaviour and effort, but not on actual GCSE grades.
The problem with rewards is that they can hinder intrinsic motivation. It also takes a BIG reward to change daily behaviour.
A recent study found that there may be a better way. Participants in the study were taught a new language in a very boring way. They were divided into four groups:
- Some students were not given any reason as to why they should do the task.
- Some students were told they should try hard as it was expected of them (in this group, words such as ‘should, must’ and ‘have to’ were emphasised).
- Some participants were told to pay attention as they would have to take a test at the end.
- The fourth group was told that learning a new language would help them in their future career (and thus created a ‘sense of purpose’ in them).
The results? Those who had the explanation as to why this skill would be useful to them put in much more effort and learnt more than the other groups. If we can help students identify: a) why their revision is important; and b) how this will help them in both the short and the long-term, it may help them fuel their motivation during their revision sessions.
Get a good night’s sleep
Sleep is an important and often overlooked area during the revision session. For those dedicated students, the temptation may be to sacrifice some sleep in order to stay up and revise more. This would be a mistake.
Sleep plays a major role in how you feel and also how much you remember. It is linked to your health, your concentration and your ability to make good decisions. We have previously blogged about the 9 Common Sleep Mistakes students make. As well as avoiding these, having regular bedtime routines and regular wake-up routines should help.
Revision and exam time can be a tense affair. There are no magic cures or silver bullets. The best we can do is to equip students in a way that maximises their memory, boosts their concentration and fans the fire of their motivation.
Research suggests that students Spacing out their learning, testing themselves, teaching it to someone else, creating a sense of purpose and getting a good amount of sleep are some of the best ways to do this.
Now that you have some great tips to maximise your studying time, have a look at our other great revision tips at Best Ways to Revise – where you can also find a bunch of links for other ways you can help yourself during exams.