In 1997, I copied out new notes while looking at old notes from my GCSE Business Studies textbook. In 1999, I stared at the A-level Geography notes I had made in class. In 2003, I sat on a train re-reading notes from a lecture on Spanish morphology. This was all in preparation for exams which I might have done better at.
Would I have been better served by reading my Geography notes once, leaving a little time for forgetting, and then writing everything out that I could remember in the style of a free recall test or brain dump? Quite possibly.
There are no silver bullets or magic beans for ensuring outstanding academic success. No one can create a magic potion that will guarantee full marks in any test.
However, in 2013, Professor Dunlosky and a host of eminent researchers published a study which analysed learning strategies, including self-explanation, re-reading, highlighting and practice testing, to name but a few. The winners were practice testing and distributed practice, with elaborative interrogation, self-explanation and interleaved practice in the silver medal position.
Practice testing is sometimes referred to as retrieval practice, bringing information to mind and quizzing. Retrieval practice has its own website, courtesy of cognitive scientist Pooja Agarwal.
In my book, Exam Literacy: A Guide to Doing What Works (and Not What Doesn’t) to Better Prepare Students for Exams, I refer to the strategies discussed in the research by Dunlosky et al. Other strategies referred to are from the Learning Scientists and Fiorella and Mayer’s Learning as a Generative Activity. Exam Literacy aims to give practical examples of how some of these learning strategies might look. It also includes suggestions from teachers.
Here’s some sample physics content which a student might need to revise:
Alpha (α) particles – these are made up of 2 protons and 2 neutrons, identical to a helium nucleus. They have a large mass and travel at about 5–10% of the speed of light. An alpha particle has a charge of +2, therefore they are highly ionising. They can be stopped by a sheet of paper, or approximately 6cm of air.
Here are some ways that students could go about ‘revising’ (or perhaps better to say ‘revisiting’) this content.
- Massed rereading: Read the text again and again for an hour or two in the few days and nights before the test.
- Spaced rereading: Read the text once, leave it a few days, then read it again before the test.
- Highlighting with the isolation effect in mind: Choose one fact from the section and highlight it to try and make it stick.
- Embedded elaborative interrogation: After each statement, add in a ‘Why is this true?’ prompt, to elaborate on each fact.
- Multiple-choice questions: Read the text once, then design a set of multiple-choice questions to target not just the recognition of the facts but to see if what was read once can be transferred to a different domain.
- ‘Brain dump’: Read the text once and then write everything out that you can remember on a blank piece of paper.
- Spaced and interleaved ‘brain dumps’: Read the text once and then write everything out that you can remember on a blank piece of paper. Do the same with a different subject (one which preferably doesn’t share similar content) before ‘brain dumping’ or free recalling the physics content again.
- Expanding rehearsal with the ‘brain dumps’: Read the text once and then write everything out that you can remember on a blank piece of paper. Leave it a day and do the same. Leave it five days and do the same. Leave it ten days and do the same, etc.