This article was written for SecEd magazine and first published in March 2017. You can read the original version on the SecEd website here.
You can read more of my monthly columns for SecEd here.
The words “today, we’re going to revise for an exam” strike fear into students’ hearts.
But when is revision not revision? Revision lessons have become synonymous with dull, repetitious labour. Revisiting by rote what students have already studied. Sitting past paper after past paper in silent rows, receiving nothing in return but a miserly missive in blood-red ink.
As such, I’ve learnt over the years that it is better to talk not of “revision” but of “exam preparation”, and it is preferable to think of “exam preparation lessons” not as repeating what’s gone before but rather as a form of deliberate practice.
“Revision” implies going over old ground without seeking to learn from it and make improvements, and without seeking to introduce new concepts and spark fresh ideas.
“Practice”, however, implies doing something new, incrementally improving your performance through a process of trial and error (or perhaps, as one teacher put it to me recently, “trial and improvement”). And so doing by receiving feedback, learning from your mistakes, and making tweaks in order to achieve marginal gains.
In short, exam preparation lessons should avoid learning by rote, reading and rereading class notes. They should, instead, make use of two teaching strategies which have been proven to be among the most effective forms of pedagogy in any lesson, be it exam preparation or not, namely:
- Practice testing.
- Distributed practice.
The word “exam” is – in the anxious, overworked minds of hormonal teenage students – a four-letter word.
So, although sitting past papers is a worthwhile exam preparation activity, we should make clear that the papers are not to be regarded as high-stakes assessments; the marks they get at the end don’t matter. Rather, past papers are to be regarded as a form of learning and a means of making progress.
The use of practice tests can improve learning in direct and indirect ways. For example, if a student read a chapter in a textbook and then wanted to review the most important information in that chapter, she could do one of two things…
She could simply read the information again. Or she could cover up the answers and attempt to recall the information “blind”, i.e. from memory.
The second method – testing herself – is by far the most effective because the student is boosting her long-term memory. Every correct retrieval improves the speed and ease of all subsequent attempts at retrieval.
Practice tests can also have an indirect effect on student learning because when a student fails to retrieve a correct answer during a practice test, their failure informs them that they need to revisit and re-learn this topic.
As such, practice tests help students determine and reinforce what has been mastered as well as what needs further practice.
In order for practice testing to be most effective, students should be encouraged to leave spaces in their study notes where they can test themselves later. When they test themselves, they should be encouraged to write their answers down, not simply say them aloud or in their heads.
The act of writing the answers boosts long-term retrieval and also uncovers false assumptions about what they know and don’t know. Sometimes we can fool ourselves into thinking we know the answer when we don’t. Writing the answer out in full quickly unmasks this misconception.
Also, we should encourage students to produce flashcards whereby they write a question or key term on one side and the correct answer on the other. They should then test themselves on all the questions and if they don’t answer a question right the first time, they should continue testing themselves until they get it right. They might manage this by removing flashcards once they’ve given the right answer but replacing cards in the pack if they get the answer wrong.
If students persist until they answer each question correctly or positively recall each idea or concept, they will enhance their chances of remembering the concepts during the final exam. But they shouldn’t stop there…
Students should also be encouraged to “get it right” on more than one occasion. For example, they could return to the full deck of flashcards on another day (once they have already mastered them all) and re-test themselves.
As well as using practice tests as a means of self-study, students can benefit from using practice tests in class. For example, teachers could choose the most important ideas from recent lessons and dedicate a couple minutes at the beginning or end of each class to test students on them.
Once all the students have answered a question, the teacher should share the correct answer and give feedback. The more closely the practice questions test students on the information that will be tested in the exam, the better students will perform in the end.
The second teaching strategy which is a highly effective form of exam preparation is distributed practice.
Imagine you’re studying for a spelling test. One method is to copy out each spelling several times before moving on to the next word and doing the same thing. This is called massed practice because you practise each word several times at once before moving on to the next word.
Another method is to practise each word only once before moving on to the next and practising that word once also.
After you’ve practised every word on the list once, you then return to the first word on the list and repeat the exercise, practising each word once again. This is called distributed practice because you distribute your practice of each word over time. The gap between practising each word is filled with another activity, namely practising a different word.
In this example, we either mass or distribute our practice during a single session. However, we could go further…
Imagine we’re trying to learn some key facts relating to Shakespeare’s Macbeth for an upcoming exam. We might diligently read all of our study notes in a single session the night before the exam, until we think we are ready for the test. This strategy is commonly called cramming. Alternatively, we might study our notes during the course of several shorter sessions on two or three separate nights leading up to the exam, repeating the same “revision” exercise a number of times on different days.
If we opted for the second tactic -– studying for a shorter period of time each night but doing so over several nights rather than cramming all our exam preparation into one long session, we would be able to retain the knowledge for a longer period of time even though, taken together, we dedicated the same amount of time.
Unfortunately, despite this fact, a majority of students still prefer to cram. One reason for this is that students become familiar with the content of their revision materials much more quickly when they cram than when they distribute practice.
If they spread revision out over several nights, their learning seems to be slower.
For example, a student studying for a spelling test will quickly write the correct word after practising it several times in succession, but when the same practice is distributed, she may still struggle even after several attempts.
Similarly, a student will become familiar with her notes after reading them twice during a single session, but when she distributed her practice over the course of two or three study sessions, she may discover how much she has forgotten and use the extra time relearning it.
In both examples, learning feels slower and harder when it is distributed rather than massed. However, the sense of success students feel (and their teachers appear to see) during massed practice is often short-lived and their learning is often superficial.
So although distributed practice takes more effort, it is essential for learning information in a way that will be retained (or more easily relearned) and retrievable over a longer period of time.
In short, massed practice leads to ephemeral and facile learning whereas distributed practice bolsters a student’s storage and retrieval strength, ensuring their learning is both deep and longer lived.
As I explained in my earlier article on teaching lower-performing students (Teaching practice: Lower-performing students, SecEd, March 2016: http://bit.ly/2ncJcIV), students love a challenge when it’s private. Outside the school gates, students are always seeking hard things to do such as Minecraft, make-up and nail art, Fifa, and hair design.
They are, I said, the YouTube generation who spend hours watching video tutorials, looking at graphic organisers on Pinterest or reading articles on Buzzfeed so they can learn by increments and improve their performance.
What I didn’t say in that piece is that this form of YouTube tutorial – of learning and improving by increments – is the very model of distributed practice. Students engage in distributed practice all the time outside of school, accepting that they need to spend time every night revisiting their learning. All we need to do is help them to make the connection and encourage them to apply the same skills to exam preparation as they do to their private endeavours.
So how can we help students to distribute their practice?
First, we should help students to map-out how many study sessions they will need before an exam, when those sessions should take place (which evenings of the week and between what times), and what they should practise during each session. Two short study blocks per week should be sufficient to begin studying new material as well as to restudy previously learned material. Students should be able to retrieve previous material more easily after just a few study sessions which leaves more time for studying new material.
Second, we should use distributed practice in the classroom by repeatedly going back over the most important knowledge and concepts. For example, we could use weekly quizzes that repeat content several times so that students relearn some concepts in a distributed manner. Repeating key points in several quizzes not only highlights the importance of that content but also affords students the opportunity to engage in distributed practice.
Third, we should set a cumulative exam that forces students to review the most important information they have studied this year.
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