We all have our favourite revision strategies, well-honed from the countless exams we’ve taken in our lifetime. Highlighting, scribbling down quick summaries, re-reading all our notes until we can recite them backwards to name just a few. But are these tactics effective? Professor John Dunlosky shares his expertise on the subject.
According to Dunlosky, many of the common techniques students use are simply ineffective. For instance, summarizing material has been proven to be just as effective as re-reading, which Dunlosky is quick to point out, isn’t a very helpful revision method. When students re-read material they get a false sense of security that they understand it. This occurs merely because they are familiar with the text but not necessarily because they understand the concept. This familiarity leads them to skim the information which doesn’t lead to a deeper understanding or better memory for it.
So summarizing and re-reading are no-no’s. How about highlighting? We all love making our books look like rainbows, coordinating the colours, all the while hoping the information will somehow stick better in our brains. Dunlosky, however, strikes again. When students highlight, they tend to focus on one concept at a time. Dunlosky claims that this doesn’t allow them to integrate the material they are learning into a whole in order to understand the bigger concept. This hinders learning.
What does work then? If re-reading, summarizing and highlighting, all staples of student’s study strategies, don’t work, what does? Dunlosky suggests imagery. According to recent research, this study technique looks promising. If students can elaborate mentally and form pictures in their heads of the text, this will help them remember it. This may help for subjects such as English Literature or History but is unlikely to help with more conceptual courses.
Another method Dunlosky is a strong advocate of is creating mock-tests. Testing yourself or creating flash cards from memory are conducive to long term retention of information. Retrieving concepts from memory helps one to better understand them and is more engaging than simply re-reading. After all, how many of us have read a sentence for three or four times before realizing nothing has sunken in? Testing and flash cards, however, allow the brain to create a more elaborative memory trace.
So while studying for your GCSE’s, A-Levels or final year exams make sure to buy yourself a set of note cards and get testing. After all as the Chinese proverb goes, “Tell me and I’ll forget, show me and I may remember, involve me and I’ll understand.” Perhaps the proverb wasn’t based on student study tips but it can be related. Involving your brain and engaging with the information in an active manner will no doubt lead to more successful study habits and long term memory retention. So with the Chinese mantra in your mind, prepare well and don’t forget, leave the highlighters alone!
Hammond, C. (Writer). (May 14, 2013). Exam revision; Therapists who cry; NHS acute bed shortages; Skin disorders [Radio series episode]. In Hill, F. (Producer), All in the Mind. UK: BBC Radio 4
Image credit: AALDANA. (2012). Study Tips for Dead Week. Retrieved May 20, 2013, from http://collegestudytips.net/