January 7, 2017 at 11:12PM

I teach many students who stubbornly insist that they revise best simply by re-reading their notes.  I have also known students to ignore their notes altogether and instead revise exclusively by reading the textbook, despite my warnings that the textbook in question does not cover the whole syllabus and/or includes limited amounts of the necessary detail.  I have tried explaining why re-reading isn’t an efficacious way to revise, and am met with claims that ‘it works for me’ or ‘it’s been fine for other exams’.  Last year I made a list of students who I knew were doing practice questions as part of their revision programme because I was curious to see if these students would do better than those of similar ability who refused to revise in this way.  They did.  The list was only for my own interest, of course.  I didn’t turn round to students on results day and say: ‘If you’d started doing practice questions in March, like Deidre, you wouldn’t be crying now.’  This year, I have been a bit more proactive and have provided Dunlovsky’s excellent article for my examination classes as a way of reinforcing my message about how to revise effectively.

Dunlovsky explains the benefits of both practice testing and distributed practice in useful detail.  His focus is on these two techniques because they are the two for which there is most positive evidence.  Practice testing, by requiring students to retrieve information from their long term memory, boosts this memory.  It also highlights to students what they do not yet know, and thus on what they should focus their efforts.  Dunlovsky suggests that teachers encourage students to use flashcards when taking notes.  With a key word on the front and important information on the back, they make self testing easy.  Also, if a student has a stack of flashcards, it is easy to put one to the back of the pile once the information on it has been learnt, allowing the focus to be on the as-yet-unlearnt cards.  Concerning distributed practice, Dunlovsky points out that although ‘learning appears to proceed more slowly’ the information will stick in a way it won’t if students cram.  He also points out that many students will already use distributed practice successfully.  For example, when preparing for a dance show, the participant will normally practise their routine regularly over a period of time, as opposed to simply running through it ten times the night before the performance.  Reflecting on how many of my students train for sports matches, gym and dance shows and concerts by distributed practice, I realised that I had an excellent retort to the students who claim that starting work well in advance won’t help them.

Dunlovsky also devotes some space to techniques which have emerged as ‘promising’ from recent studies but which lack the array of evidence necessary to be heralded as definitively beneficial.  These are interleaved practice (‘not only distributing practice across a study session but also mixing up the order of materials across different topics’), elaborative interrogation (‘trying to elaborate on why a fact might be true’) and self explanation (‘trying to explain how … new information is related to information that [s/he] already knows’).  There is also some discussion of (a) summarisation, which is only really useful to those who have received training on how to summarise, and (b) strategies that involve mental imagery, such as keyword mnemonics and imagery for text (‘students develop[ing] mental images of the content as they read’), which have been shown to have been shown to help students retain information in the short term but are not even applicable in many contexts.  Re-reading and highlighting are both crisply dismissed as revision techniques.  Students please take note, preferably on a flashcard.

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