Study Tips

Why Your Revision Method May Be Letting You Down

Psychologists specializing in learning and memory have devised some scientifically informed revision tips: space your practice out rather than cram it all together, practise retrieving information rather than recognising it, reorganise what you’re trying to learn.

However, even the best advice can prove futile if one doesn’t realise why it works. Understanding one fundamental principle of human memory can help one avoid wasting time studying the wrong way.

Individuals are drawn to ways of studying that feel good but are actually quite poor at helping them learn. This tendency can produce a fatal overconfidence when we study. Here are some crucial pieces of advice for anyone studying for an exam or trying to learn something new.

  1. Test, don’t recognise

The most common form of study is the one that gives “revision” its name – literally just looking at the thing you want to learn again. The problem with this is that we mistake our ability to recognise something for an ability to recall it.

According to Tom Stafford, recognition and recall are different psychological processes. Recognition is a much easier task – all you have to do is look at something in your environment and generate the correct feeling of familiarity (like when you look at your revision notes and think “I’m sick of looking at these”).

But in your exam you don’t get marks for things being familiar, you get marks for recalling relevant information and using it to answer the question. Even powerful feelings of familiarity don’t guarantee you can recall the information.

Prove this to yourself by picking your favourite song, one with lyrics you’ve heard a thousand times. Try singing the lyrics from start to finish and you quickly realise that even a loving familiarity doesn’t mean you can recall the lyrics. If someone had asked, you might have said that of course you knew the lyrics. But you’d be using “knew” in the sense of recognised, not in the crucial sense of being able to recall them in full.

So, don’t practise recognition in your revision – you need to practise retrieving from memory, not just generating an improved feeling of familiarity.

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  1. Space, don’t cram

If you organise five hours of study into one hour a day, you’ll remember more than if you study for five hours on one day. Yet time and time again we don’t do this – and the cause isn’t just being disorganised.

Cramming all your study together feels good. You finish the study session, thinking “I know this”. The problem is that although you’re currently holding it all in mind, the memories are more fragile. Spacing your practice out doesn’t feel as satisfying, but it results in memories that are more likely to be useful when exam day comes around.

  1. Effort, not flow

K Anders Ericsson – an expert in expertise – argues that nobody develops the highest levels of skill in anything without 10,000 hours of deliberate practice. This means that when you’re revising, you have to focus on the things you know least well, not the things you know best (especially when it’s more satisfying to revise the things you know best)

You shouldn’t study for an exam by never testing yourself at writing full answers in exam conditions

  1. Practise output, not input

The same common principle holds for what we practise as well as how we practise it. Any effective study plan needs to include answering questions with the information you’ve revised, but often we’re tempted to leave that out in favour of focusing on learning the information in the first place.

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While it may feel good to get completely familiar with the material before practising writing answers, it omits from our study practice the exact skill we are marked on. You wouldn’t practise for a football match by never playing football, and you shouldn’t study for an exam by never testing yourself on writing full answers in exam conditions. For any test, we need to rehearse exactly the thing we’ll be required to do.

The aforementioned revision tips are not rocket science. But the realisation that we all share a tendency to put in the least effort when we study, and rely on feelings of familiarity, which aren’t a good guide to learning, can help transform how you use them.

The answer to questions like “how much should I space my study?” or “when should I stop learning and start testing?” is probably “before you feel comfortable”. When you’re fully comfortable with the material, your time could be better spent learning it in a different way.

Depressing as it sounds, it could help to know that if you always enjoy revising, you’re probably doing it wrong. It’s meant to be hard.

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Adapted from The Guardian