What to do (and what not to do) to get your revision to STICK!

I've been listening to a few podcasts recently and found Professor John Dunlosky's information that he recently shared with TES magazine really useful. He is a professor at the Kent State University, Ohio and has studied what revision techniques work and do not work. All of the following relates to all subjects but obviously, as an English tutor, I'm focusing on English revision. So how can you learn quotations, themes, characters, plots, exam techniques, language and structural techniques and terminology? And how can you make sure that it sticks in your mind for the exam? What should you be doing and, just as importantly, what is a big waste of your time? Let's take some techniques one by one...


Highlighting your notes.


Sorry, I know you love a highlighter, but this is not really the best use of your time. Professor Dunlosky says that, whilst highlighting may be a good start to your revision process as it may allow you to pick out the most important content to learn, it is not the end. If you highlight your work as your only revision technique, then his studies find that it will not help you learn content. If it motivates you to get started, fine, but be aware that this may not be the most impactful way of learning.


Re-reading your notes of texts.


Again, I've got to say that this is not the smartest way to revise. I've always felt that this was the lazy student's way to revising to give the illusion to Mum and Dad that they are doing something and it turns out that this is backed up with evidence. Dunlosky says that re-reading notes can give the illusion of knowing more so that you might actually think you are getting somewhere. However, re-reading is not going to allow you to be as engaged as you were the first time you read the material. The problem might be here that where re-reading might help you to remember the material immediately after you've read it, it will not help you to remember it weeks or months later as your understanding is superficial, surface understanding. I would recommend, despite this, having re-read notes and texts as many times as you can, but the key is to be doing something with it as you re-read it whether that is making posters, making further notes, annotating texts etc.


Test yourself


Now, here's a technique that does work! Phew! Flashcards can be a great way to test yourself or getting someone else to test your knowledge after you have learned it. By retrieving information from your memory again and again you are training your brain to know it. This will mean that when you need it in the exam it will be there for you waiting! The only thing to be wary of is whether you are really getting the answer right. It's no use testing yourself and thinking you got the quotation right when you check the answer but actually you missed out some key words. That is why when testing yourself, it is best to write the answers down and check correct answers against your written answers. The process of rewriting quotations, ideas and concepts can't be a bad thing anyway!


Studying with a friend


I'm afraid to say that the evidence from Dunlosky suggests that revising with a friend will slow you down. You will get more done alone. However, we all know that revising in groups can be more fun. If revising in groups is going to get you motivated to do any revision or, better, you do some group revision alongside the revision you are doing alone, I don't see it as a problem. It is worth knowing though that revising alone is the most efficient way to do it effectively.


Spaced practice


This, in my opinion, is the most effective way to revise and is why it is so much better to start revision early rather than cram in the days or hours leading up to an exam. Lots of evidence, including Dunlosky's, suggests that if you practice a skill or to retrieve information with gaps in between, the information is likely to be properly learned and therefore more likely to stick as permanent memory. The bad news is that you may be able to quote from the poetry anthology poems when you are 45 but the good news is that you will have that information ready for you in the exams despite the fact that you have many exams to revise for in a short period of time. What this means in practice is that you should relearn information regularly so that you really know it. Dunlosky suggests retrieving information (i.e. testing yourself) every other day in the lead up to exams. The longer you do this for, the greater the chance that your memory of quotes and information will be permanent. Here's a handy graph to help you:




Take content away slowly


This method is great for learning material especially quotations and is mentioned by Dunlosky as a useful way to spend revision time. Let's take the Prologue from Romeo and Juliet. Imagine you want to learn the whole Prologue as it has so many mini-quotations that you could use in an exam. Start with something that looks like this:


Two households, both alike in __________, In fair Verona, where we lay our __________, From ancient grudge break to new __________, Where civil blood makes civil hands __________. From forth the fatal loins of these _____ _______ A pair of star-cross'd lovers _______ _______ _______; Whose misadventured piteous ____________ Do with their death bury their __________ __________. The fearful passage of their ________________ _______, And the continuance of their parents' _______, Which, but their children's end, _________ _________ ___________, Is now the two hours' traffic of _____ ______; The which if you with _________ ________ ___________, What here shall miss, our toil shall _________ ___ _________.


Your first task is to be able to fill the gaps. Two days later (remember spaced learning), you make it trickier:


____ ________________, both alike in __________,

In fair __________ ________ ____ ______ ______ __________,

From ancient grudge ________ _____ ______ __________,

Where civil blood _________ _________ ________ __________.

From forth _____ ________ _______ ___ ______ _____ _______

__ ______ ___ ________ __________ _________ _______ _______ _______;

Whose _____________ piteous ____________

Do with their _________ _________ ________ __________ __________.

The __________ passage of their ________________ _______,

And the ________________ of their parents' _______,

Which, but their _____________ end, _________ _________ ___________,

Is now _____ ______ _______ ___________ ____ _____ ______;

The which if you with _________ ________ ___________,

What here shall miss, _____ ______ _______ _________ ___ _________.


Once you have that cracked, you can take more words away until you know the whole Prologue off by heart. The key is to give yourself the time to do this - a few days probably won't do!


Above all, Dunlosky says that the key to success comes with persistence, you ability to keep on going with revision however long it takes to get it right and also your belief in yourself. You CAN be successful but the ball really is in your court. Feel free to get in touch with any revision questions you have and let me know if you'd like to book onto a group session to revise for literature or language exams.


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