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Most Students Get Revision Wrong – Help Make Sure Yours are Doing it Right

Most popular study methods are largely ineffective, says Gordon Cairns – so don’t let learners waste time on them

  • Most Students Get Revision Wrong – Help Make Sure Yours are Doing it Right

Right now, the spring ritual is in full flow; migratory birds are returning to their old breeding grounds and hibernating hedgehogs crawl out from wherever they’ve been hibernating.

The human young migrate too, to their favoured quiet spot, nesting in with arbitrarily arranged screeds of paper that are covered in random patterns of luminous shades, to begin their own rite of passage. Revision.

But while animals in the natural world are responding to an ordered reawakening, our pupils are using studying techniques which have been developed rather haphazardly. And while they might be working very hard; they could be hampering their chances by not following the most advantageous procedures.


The trouble with revising is that up until recently, we’ve had little evidence about what system actually works best.

In order to address this, Professor John Dunlosky from Kent State University and a group of educational psychologists from three other leading US universities conducted an in-depth study of all of the available data on the 10 different revision techniques most commonly used by students.

Surprisingly, only two out of the list – from writing summaries, rereading and highlighting to using mental imaging techniques – were rated by the team as being beneficial.

The first of these genuinely effective techniques is self-testing. Unfortunately the inherent problem of this form of revision will be in encouraging your pupils to use it.

Testing takes us out of our comfort zone and is far more challenging than simply reading over the relevant chapters again, something educational researchers have known for over a century.

The report authors recommend that after a period of time, pupils retest themselves on the elements they got wrong until the mistakes are eliminated. The source of the test could be an end of chapter test from a text book, questions sourced online or through creating a series of questions written out on flashcards.

And, although using past papers are beneficial, the self testing does not have to mimic the structure of the final exam. Finally, self testing works best when gaps between test sessions are widened.

However, if practice testing does not incorporate feedback about where the student went wrong, it loses its effectiveness as a study tool.

Distributed practice

The other study method wholeheartedly recommended by the authors will also require a good deal of self-control from your pupils. Distributed practice is described as “implementing a schedule of practice that spreads out study activities over time.”

This requires students to make revision a long term discipline rather than a short term buzz of caffeine and late nights.

Research has shown that spaced learning, where there is a longer time period – up to 30 days before returning to the material – causes greater forgetting between each session, but will lead to better retention in the long term, perhaps because the brain has to work harder than re-reading what is already remembered.

Teachers could encourage their pupils to use this revision method by setting weekly or fortnightly class tests of subjects covered earlier in the term throughout the academic year, pushing the students towards revising at spaced intervals.

Nine months before the examination season begins, learners should be encouraged to organise their materials on the first day of term.

Most school students seem to organise their materials chronologically when they need to arrange their work thematically.

Having themes of work clearly labelled, dated with the last time that they were revised at the top of the pile like the slip inside a library book, could greatly simplify this type of revision.

So there we have it. When a student fails an exam, they generally blame either their lack of intelligence, not studying hard enough or, occasionally, their teacher.

And conversely the successful student doesn’t attribute the A pass to carefully following the correct studying technique.

However, time spent training teachers in how to help their pupils revise could prove a game-changer when it comes to final outcomes.

Gordon Cairns is an English and forest school teacher, who works in a unit for secondary pupils on the Autism Spectrum Disorder.

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