We now know more than ever about the science of learning. Evidence from research suggests that there are certain strategies that help students learn more efficiently and more effectively.
Knowing what does and doesn’t work will allow students to feel more in control and be better equipped for revision in the build up to their exams. As a result, they'll have a better chance of acquiring and demonstrating their knowledge when it really counts.
Retrieval practice (sometimes referred to as 'the testing effect') is the name of a strategy which requires students to generate an answer to a question. It has been proven to be one of the most effective revision strategies. Retrieval practice may comprise of past papers, multiple choice tests or answering questions aloud. Flashcards are another good example of this.
Spacing is another good revision technique that students can employ. This involves students learning a little information regularly, rather than trying to learn a lot in a single day.
Recent research has found that the use of spacing resulted in a 10% to 30% difference in final test results compared to students who did lots of cramming. Spacing out their revision gives students enough time to forget previously learnt information, meaning that when this information is re-visited and re-learnt it is more likely to be transferred to their long-term memory.
Interleaving involves students mixing up the topics they study within a given subject. Recent research has shown how effective this technique is: while students who ‘blocked’ their learning (the opposite to interleaving) performed to a higher level when tested immediately after learning the information, those who used interleaving performed more than three times better if the test was more than a day later.
Interleaving helps students make links between different topics as well as discriminate between different types of problems, allowing them to identify the most ideal thought process for each.
This one comes with a warning attached, as students need to ensure that they are choosing a study partner for the right reasons rather than choosing someone who they believe will reduce their boredom and distract them from their revision.
A good study partner is someone who is motivated to revise, as research has shown that if the person next to you is working hard, it is likely that you will follow and increase your work ethic to match theirs. Another study also found that if students are able to work together, for example on a problem-solving task, they are more likely to experiment with different techniques in order to try and solve it as well as learn faster from positive and negative feedback.
Many students rely on cramming in hours of revision the day before an exam in a last ditch attempt to try and prepare themselves. However, cramming should not be relied upon; and whilst it might make students feel as though they are learning more, this is an illusion. Instead, cramming can make students feel stressed, an emotion which is not ideal for exam preparation.
Recent research found that 84% of students re-read their notes when revising, whilst 55% claimed this was their number one strategy. Such results make for worrying reading, as countless studies have proven the ineffectiveness of re-reading, showing that when students employ this strategy they simply skim read the text. This means that the information is neither considered nor processed, and does not become embedded in the long term memory.
Multi-tasking is a myth. Revising with your phone next to you just doesn’t lead to better learning. Research has found that simply having a mobile phone out whilst revising causes a decrease in concentration and a reduction of 20% in performance. Similarly, revising with music on can distract students, with recent research showing that a quiet environment is preferable and leads to an exam performance that is 60% better than those who revise whilst listening to music with lyrics.
Teachers can help their students retain more of the information taught in class by using dual coding, which involves giving students two representations of the same information (i.e. one being words and the other being pictures). Dual coding would work very well in many lessons; for example, when learning about the different part of the heart in GCSE Biology, a teacher could give students a diagram of the heart alongside an explanation of the functions of the different areas. Having two representations of the same information helps students cement the information in their long-term memory.
All humans fear the unknown to some extent, which is why exams are often stressful, as students have no way of knowing what questions will be presented to them. One way in which teachers can help students cope with the pressures of exams is by encouraging them to keep a diary. Keeping a diary of the thoughts and emotions that they feel uncomfortable with can enable them to develop a sense of control and reduce their levels of anxiety.
One of the largest studies which investigated parental behaviour and the impact it had on a child’s achievement demonstrated that high parental expectations lead to higher academic achievement. However, it is important that these realistically high expectations are accompanied with social support, so that the child doesn’t become stressed and feel a huge pressure to excel.
The exam period is a highly stressful time, and some exams may not go as well as the student would have hoped. When this scenario occurs, a parent’s reaction to this can be key as to whether or not the child overcomes the setback. Parents should try and view the child’s mistakes, however frustrating, as an opportunity for learning rather than a judgment on their ability, as this helps the development of a growth mindset, causing the child to believe that they can do better next time.
Recent research has demonstrated that not eating breakfast can have detrimental effects on a student’s performance in exams, such that the odds of achieving an above average score in a test are twice as high if students eat breakfast. Not eating breakfast leads to a reduction in memory and lowers student’s concentration levels.
Avoid Anxious Students
Recent research has shown that emotions are contagious; therefore, when students see others acting anxiously before an exam, they too experience an increase in their cortisol levels, which makes them feel more nervous. So, before an exam, students should try and avoid those they believe will make them feel anxious, and instead engage in non-exam related conversations with calmer students.
Take Deep Breaths
When students feel themselves getting anxious, they should focus on taking some deep breaths. By slowing their breathing, students should experience a reduction in their heart rate and feel their bodies moving closer to a state of psychological rest, where they can regain control of their emotions and situation.
A growing body of research has found that taking short breaks can play a key role in the learning process. During these breaks, it may be a good idea for students to exercise, even if this only involves going for a short walk. Recent research demonstrated that taking a short walk for just 12 minutes can improve happiness, attentiveness and confidence, all of which would be useful for students taking exams.