Revision – what works?

A paper called ‘Improving Students’ Learning With Effective Learning Techniques: Promising Directions From Cognitive and Educational Psychology’ (Dunlosky et al, 2013) considers, in some detail, 10 learning techniques that cognitive and educational psychologists reckon could help students achieve their learning goals. Rather than spend valuable revision time reading the whole paper (though it is a fascinating paper to read), the Psychology Blog is happy to summarise some key findings for each technique.

The techniques investigated were:

  1. Elaborative interrogation – coming up with your own explanation for a concept
  2. Self-explanation – relating new information to info you already know (making links, describing steps)
  3. Summarization – creating summaries of longer text passages
  4. Highlighting / underlining – marking sections of text that you consider important
  5. Mnemonics / keywords – as found in AS strategies for memory improvement
  6. Imagery for text – trying to create mental images of text passages
  7. Rereading – going back over text passages
  8. Practice testing – testing yourself or taking practice tests on material you need to learn
  9. Distributed practice – a revision schedule that spreads out study activities over time
  10. Interleaved practice – a revision schedule that mixes up different types of material or problems within one study session.

These are all well-regarded revision techniques, but there were some key winners and losers (when tested against four different criteria for utility).

Highlighting and underlining got a low utility score, as did mnemonics, re-reading and summarization. Each of these techniques could work well, but only if you really know how to make them work for you. Highlighting was shown to be potentially harmful if you are revising material that you need to be able to evaluate in different ways.

All the rest got a moderate score apart from the two clear winners:

  • practice testing – works across the board: great outcomes and long-duration memory effects
  • distributed learning – the opposite of cramming the night before the exam! Give yourself the time you need, plus breaks to stop your brain melting.

So while revision is definitely about what works for you, these experts say the best approaches are to give yourself plenty of revision time and to do lots of practice tests – past paper questions are ideal as you are testing your knowledge in lots of different ways.

Good luck with your revision from everyone at OUP!

PS: Seen our AS Revision Companion yet?