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The Best Way to Revise for Exams- Make It Stick summary and review part 2

Updated: Jul 12, 2021

See part 1 on how most people are revising incorrectly.

Recall and Retrieval

Retrieval or recall is proven to be one the most effective way to study (numerous studies discussed in the book) and I personally believe that it is one of the easiest to implement. The definition is pretty self-evident- it involves recalling facts and concepts from memory. An example of this is flashcards where on one side of the card you have a question and on the other is the answer. What you do is to look at the question, recall what you think the answer is and either confirm or void your answer. How this contrasts with massed practice is that you are retrieving information from your brain- you are putting in cognitive effort- rather than trying to force it in and this is a big advantage of recall, especially since it mimics what you do in exams.

Testing is a big and important part of recall. Regular, low stakes testing is shown by studies to help students learn more effectively. I know many people who do not use some form of testing and recall while studying. I find that they like to do massed practice and once they have 'learnt' the material, they will test themselves on this. Even though this is a more effective way to learn than massed practice alone, it is far from optimal. People should be using retrieval practice from the outset, whether this is short but regular testing, having not tried to learn through massed practice prior or simply doing flashcards. People may protest and say 'how can I test myself without learning the content before' but the very act of testing yourself is the more effective than any other strategy what you would use to 'learn the content before'. So, to summarise, ditch the rereading and rewriting, get a whole load of questions and go through them, trying to recall the answer. This is the most effective way to learn.

The importance of testing cannot be overstated. Studies showed that simply including one test in a class proved to improve final exam scores. I think it is a shame that testing has negative connotations for students. To often tests are used as a marker for performance rather than a tool for learning. This puts pressures on students, forcing many of them to cram or fall back on their tried and tested massed practice strategies. Not only is this inefficient but also it does not aid long term memory. Studies showed that cramming may have been beneficial for short term tests but is no benefit for long term memory. I really think that schools should not test purely to award grades and mark ability but rather use testing as a way to help students learn.

Another benefit of testing is that it helps people avoid what the book calls 'Illusions of Knowing'. An example of this would be the illusion that massed practice and fluency gives of mastery. Another example of this is the 'big lie', where a big lie is told repeatedly that it becomes the truth. When learning anything, it is important to avoid these illusions; studies showed that we are more susceptible to illusion and misjudgement than we think. However, the use of tests can be used as objective gauges to show what we actually do know rather than what we think we know.

Repetition and Interleaving

As discussed earlier, the most effective way to study for exams is to make the studying more effortful. Active recall is one way to do this, especially in comparison to massed practice. The use of spaced repetition is another way to do this and I found it most effective when used in conjunction with active recall. The idea of spaced repetition is to space out your practice of a specific topic. You should space them out in such a way that at the start of each practice session, you have forgotten some of what you have learnt. This seems counter-intuitive; why should you only start to study once some forgetting has happened? The idea of spaced repetition is to interrupt the forgetting curve. As you can see below, as time goes on, the amount of content you remember decreases. However, as you revise this content, the time for you to forget, decreases.

Research and studies show that this method does work and leads to strong long term repetition. Spacing out your practice makes each practice session harder than if you studied having not forgotten anything and as we already discussed, difficulty and putting in effort aids studying. Spaced repetition also helps you to avoid mindless, repetitive recitation that happens when you don't allow forgetting to set in. So to summarise, you should space out recall sessions in such a way that you have forgotten some material so that recalling it requires some cognitive effort. It is important to acknowledge that this method will probably feel less satisfactory or rewarding than if you more regularly practised your material. Regular practice feels rewarding as it gives the sense that you have learnt something while spaced practice is both hard and will feel less satisfying since you will have forgotten some material. However, the key is to remember that we do not gauge well whether we are learning effectively and often, these feelings of dissatisfaction are an inherent part of effective studying.

Another good (and proven) way to use spacing is to interleave your practice. Here's a analogy from the book:

  • 'A group of eight-year-olds practised tossing beanbags into buckets in gym class. Half of the kids tossed into a bucket three feet away. The other half mixed it up by tossing into buckets two feet and four feet away. After twelve weeks of this they were all tested on tossing into a three- foot bucket. The kids who did the best by far were those who’d practised on two and four- foot buckets but never on three- foot buckets.'

Sure, this exercise was more to do with motor skills but the lessons learnt can be applied to cognitive skills. Interleaving or varying your practice in an exam context would look something like: study respiration for biology then go onto membranes then maybe go onto maths. The idea is to mix up your practice. This helps you develop a broader understanding of the relationships between material- it helps you put what you have learnt in context. For example, having studied respiration, you can link stages of respiration to active transport in membranes. I find forming these bidirectional links very helpful when studying for very content heavy topics such as biology, where each topic relates to one another. I found that thinking of the topics as discrete entities to put myself at a big disadvantage during exams. A really good site which makes creating links very frictionless is Remnote, see my review of it here: Remnote Review: the best note-taking tool for students.

Forming these links also help you apply your knowledge. If we take maths as an example. Often in maths you will learn a range of different methods for a single topic. For example, when differentiating you could use the chain rule, product rule, implicit differentiation etc. Interleaving your practice helps you discriminate between problems, selecting and applying the correct solution from a range of possibilities. The other benefit with interleaving is that it can be used as a tool to space out your learning. Ironically, a study showed that students who performed better, having used interleaving still preferred strategies of massed practice. This is because interleaving can occasionally be confusing and it definitely makes learning more effortful. However as discussed earlier, this are what makes learning effective.

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