Revision methods that actually work

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Exam season is inching ever closer, and what better way to prepare than with scientifically proven techniques?

Leave the others to battle over who's doing the most insane revision marathons, safe in the knowledge that you're focused on a revision plan that is guaranteed to work.

What's the plan? Well, everyone has a different way of revising, but there are some key revision tactics that will work for all of us.

Don't just take our word for it; these are backed up by science. We've trawled through studies, meta-analysis and research papers on revision to find out what works best.

1. Break your revision into chunks

Let's start with your overall approach. Should you revise one topic until you feel you know it or should you leave gaps between learning sessions so revising a topic takes place over a few sessions of, say, half an hour? 

Professor John Dunlosky’s meta-study comes to a clear conclusion. 

In experiments where one group learned in long sessions and the other broke the sessions up into chunks, the second group always performed better when they were tested.

The message is clear. It's better to use spaced practice. Learn a topic over several shorter sessions rather than studying for hours on end until you’ve finished. Even leaving gaps of days between sessions is fine.

Take breaks and keep going back to your topics. This way your brain has to work to recall what you're learning every session and the information is more likely to get stored in your long-term memory. In other words, you'll be more likely to remember it in the exam.

Chunk your revision with our smart study planner

2. Revise actively

Our second technique focuses on how you go about revising. Marzano Research’s meta-study shows the sort of revision methods that are going to be most effective – so effective they can improve your work by the equivalent of two GCSE grades. 

These methods are known as active learning. They make you think while you're learning, so that you understand the material enough to use it in different ways in an exam, depending in the question asked and the skills being tested.

Instead of just reading through your notes or highlighting them, make question and answer flashcards or turn your notes into something more visual like mindmaps, tables of advantages and disadvantages, timelines or cause and effect tables. These will help you recall the information you need and turn what you've learnt into answers to real questions.

Make active revision resources with TSR's free study tools

3. Test yourself

Test yourself regularly and do it often. Be ruthless with yourself; find the gaps in your knowledge and fill them. 

More than 100 experimental studies over the last ten years have all come to the same conclusion: testing works.

It works whatever method of testing you use – flashcards, multiple choice, short answers – and it works even if you’re testing yourself using a different format from the exam.

Why is testing so effective? It seems there are two reasons.

Firstly, the act of testing involves retrieving information from long-term memory – the answer you need but also related information. Pathways in the brain are created that link information and make it easier the next time you need the information.

Secondly, testing yourself teaches you what you know and what you don't. That means you can restudy the material you were weaker on – plugging the holes in your learning.

Find flashcards, crosswords, notes and quizzes to test yourself


4. Combine all three!

How can you put these three pieces of advice together? Let’s say you're learning an important topic. You might allocate five revision sessions for this, each half an hour long and a few days apart.

In the first session, make your own brief notes based in your class notes and in the second session, turn these into question and answer flashcards.

In the third session, test yourself on these cards and in the fourth, practise an exam question, checking your answer against the mark scheme. For the fifth and final session, check how well you did and filling in gaps in your knowledge.

This way, you’ve used all these three techniques: spaced practice, active learning and testing.

Need more revision inspiration? Here are four things A* students are doing over Easter57 study, learning and revision habits of A* students and 10 ways to not completely screw up your exams.

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