28 Mar

  • By kristianstill

Part 2 – more top tips or pitfalls to avoid in your revision.

Rereading (Rating = low)

Overall, rereading is found to be much less effective than other techniques – however the research has drawn some interesting conclusions. Massed rereading – rereading immediately after reading – has been found more effective than outlining and summarising for the same amount of time. It does seem however, that rereading spaced over a longer amount of time has a much stronger effect than massed rereading.

Practice Testing (Rating = High)

This is where things get interesting; testing is often seen as a necessary evil of education. Traditionally, testing consists of rare but massively important ‘high stakes’ assessments. There is however, an extensive literature demonstrating the benefits of testing for learning – but importantly, it does not seem necessary that testing is in the format of ‘high stakes’ assessments. All testing including ‘low stakes’ practice testing seems to result in benefits. Unlike many of the other techniques mentioned, the benefits of practice testing are not modest – studies have found that a practice test can double free recall!

Research has found that though multiple choice testing is indeed effective, practice tests that require more detailed answers to be generated are more effective. Importantly, practice testing is effective when you create the questions yourself.

So how can you apply this research? Students can create flash cards (or even use free software to do this). Alternatively students can use a system such as the Cornell note-taking system which involves noting questions in a column next to their notes as they learn. The finding is also great news for students – as practice testing actually takes up much less time than other methods such as rereading, which practice testing far outperforms!

Try it yourself: Can you name and explain two methods of self-testing?

Distributed Practice (Rating = High)

Have you ever wondered whether it is best to do your studying in large chunks or divide your studying over a period of time? Research has found that the optimal level of distribution of sessions for learning is 10-20% of the length of time that something needs to be remembered. So if you want to remember something for a year you should study at least every month, if you want to remember something for five years you should space your learning every six to twelve months. If you want to remember something for a week you should space your learning 12-24 hours apart. It does seem however that the distributed-practice effect may work best when processing information deeply – so for best results you might want to try a distributed practice and self-testing combo.

There is however a major catch – do you ever find that the amount of studying you do massively increases before an exam? Most students fall in to the “procrastination scallop” – we are all guilty at one point of cramming all the knowledge in right before an exam, but the evidence is pretty conclusive that this is the worst way to study, certainly when it comes to remembering for the long term. What is unclear is whether cramming is so popular because students don’t understand the benefits of distributed practice or whether testing practices are to blame – probably a combination of both. One thing is for sure, if you take it upon yourself to space your learning over time you are pretty much guaranteed to see improvements.

Interleaved Practice (Rating = Moderate)

Have you ever wondered whether you are best off studying topics in blocks or “interleaving” topics – studying problems of different types in a slightly more haphazard fashion? Unlike the other methods discussed above, there is far less evidence to go on. The research that has so far been conducted seems to suggest that interleaving is useful for motor learning (learning involving physical movement) and cognitive tasks (such as maths problems) – where benefits of up to 43% have been reported. It also seems that like distributed practice; interleaved practice seems to benefit longer term retention:

“Accuracy during practice was greater during block trials but accuracy a day later was far higher for students who had received inter-leaved problems.”

So why do we use the wrong techniques and which should we use?

Create a schedule to distribute your practice or revision.

While you’re reading – instead (or as well as) taking extensive notes why not write yourself some practice questions with a special focus on why questions; and when you are learning a new skill why not write a detailed explanation of how you answer the questions.

This doesn’t mean you should rush out and bin all the highlighters, but maybe try to gradually incorporate a new technique every time you study and as you move onto revision.


Dunlosky, J., Rawson, K., Marsh, E., Nathan, M., & Willingham, D. (2013). Improving Students’ Learning With Effective Learning Techniques: Promising Directions From Cognitive and Educational Psychology Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 14 (1), 4-58 DOI: 10.1177/1529100612453266