Revision strategies from cognitive science

Revision. A word which probably conjures up memories of the anxious weeks before exams, frantically reading through notes wielding a highlighter in an attempt to get vaguely remembered knowledge into your head. Perhaps you did some practice questions, or maybe you felt so overwhelmed that you ended up doing nothing. Whatever your approach, you would probably have benefitted from what cognitive science tells us about learning.

Long term memory is key. An apparently limitless repository for knowledge, the more we have committed to long term memory before those final few days or weeks, the easier revision will be. As teachers we can support our students in long term memorisation of knowledge and the earlier we start the better. Training students in effective study strategies from the outset will remove much of the anxiety and pressure of exam preparation.

Some routines and strategies we can use to support students are outlined here.

In the classroom

  • Detail expected knowledge [1] – Using direct instruction [2] and providing knowledge summaries or core questions and answers supports students in knowing exactly what’s expected of them. Encourage them to see this as a minimum, not a limit.
  • Regular low-stakes testing [3,4] – Start each lesson with a few questions from across the content already studied [5] because retrieval practice requires thought which builds long term memory. Answers can be written down and you can review by ‘cold-calling’ individuals to share their answers – an excellent opportunity to probe depth of understanding with further questions. 
  • Lots of practice [1] – The more students practise, the more they will remember. Doing this in lessons, when you’re there to help, ensures misconceptions and areas of weakness are quickly identified and addressed.

At home

  • Distributed practice [3] – Revisiting topics at intervals helps to secure long term memory. Guide students through developing a study schedule where they tackle each subject (and topic) at intervals rather than focusing on one subject and then another for long periods of time. It can help to set a homework task on a topic studied a couple of months previously or to wait a month after completing a topic to set the test. This encourages review of material spaced over time.
  • Teach effective memorisation strategies – Copying or highlighting notes are two favourite revision strategies, but also some of the least effective [3]. Explain this to students and show them a better way. Making notes purely from memory is much more effective. The notes won’t be perfect, but the process of thinking and remembering will strengthen recall. It will also reveal any areas of weaker understanding for students to go back and review.
  • Self testing – A possible strategy would be for students to review a section of a topic (from a knowledge organiser, key questions, flash cards or their notes) before asking someone to test them. Alternatively they can cover up information and write down what they can from memory before checking and correcting.
  • More practice [1,3] – Provide or signpost students to banks of practice questions (textbooks, revision guides, websites, past exam papers). Answering questions without notes, checking, and correcting answers will help knowledge to stick as well as building confidence.

You will have noticed some repetitive themes – know what you need to know, recall and practise applying knowledge from memory (the thinking process is crucial), check what you have remembered, review areas of weakness, repeat. These simple strategies, grounded in cognitive science, will support students both in building long term memory and ensuring maximum learning gains from revision. Why not pick one or two to try with a class this year?

Some resources about effective revision and study strategies which might be useful to share with students:

References

[1] https://teacherhead.com/2018/11/12/three-powerful-steps-to-deeper-understanding-and-better-recall-specify-check-apply (accessed 10/09/2019)

[2] https://rogerhiggins.wordpress.com/2019/06/02/rosenshines-principles-a-must-read-for-teachers (accessed 10/09/2019)

[3] https://www.aft.org/sites/default/files/periodicals/dunlosky.pdf (accessed 10/09/2019)

[4] https://medium.com/age-of-awareness/why-we-need-more-testing-not-less-97fab705e7e8 (accessed 10/09/2019)

[5] https://teacherhead.com/2019/03/03/10-techniques-for-retrieval-practice/ (accessed 10/09/2019)

Helen Skelton photo

Helen Skelton is Head of Science at Beaumont School in St Albans where she has taught Science as a Chemistry and Physics specialist since joining the teaching profession in 2011. She has led subject knowledge training for Science trainees and a Physics Partners network. As a head of department she is particularly interested in curriculum development and implementing evidence informed approaches to education. Helen is an editor at cogscisci.wordpress.com. Her Twitter handle is @DrHSkelton and she blogs at elementsoflearning.home.blog.

Further reading

Dom Shibli provides an introduction to cognitive science in this blog post.

Adam Robbins explores the benefits of SLOP in this blog post.

The CogSciSci website is run by a grassroots group of teachers and other education professionals and provides ideas and resources for using cognitive science principles in science teaching.

The Oxford Revision Project webpage includes links to useful blogs and articles on cognitive science as well as information on related publishing from us.

2 thoughts on “Revision strategies from cognitive science

  1. sabina moraa says:

    Excellent post. I have used this material to my students about brain and learning.

  2. Some great tips here. Another one is to make use of muscle memory. If you can turn knowledge into physical movement or even just speaking out loud, you will definitely find it easier to recall. That’s why for Computer Science, lots of programming practice is a good idea, as typing is physical. Also working on a whiteboard or mini-whiteboard is very helpful.

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