Eat, Sleep, Revise, Repeat

In Memory for Learning by Alex Quigley0 Comments

I wrote this article for Teach Secondary (You can sign up to subscribe HERE) on the ‘science of revision’ over a year ago, but the advice still stands up well:

We can picture the scene: the day before the big GCSE summer examination, with all the Christmas Eve-like nerves, but without the attendant pleasures. For the first time in two years, young Jenny comes to speak to you at the end of the lesson. After a year full of the Sisyphean task of getting Jenny to listen in class, do her homework, improve her controlled assessments and more, this is the first time she has willingly approached you for help. She asks that fateful question: ‘Sir – what can I do to get an A grade?’

Maybe we are getting this whole revision business all wrong. With the pressure on external exam results, teachers end up slogging their guts out in the revision period, whilst many of our students, last minute questions aside, remain nonplussed.

We have all had classes that failed to do the requisite revision and suffered. We enact, as an annual rite, handing them a bunch of revision materials, and issuing the age-old lectures about the importance of revision. Results prove a mixed bag.

Perhaps – just perhaps – with a spot of training and rethinking we could get a few more truculent teens to do that all important independent pre-exam studty. Could they be primed to put in the effort required to help them get the results they deserve if we were deftly to apply some principles from the science of revision? It has to be worth a try.

Food for thought

Explaining to teachers the importance of nutrition is like telling them to suck eggs (which is probably quite good nutritional advice too). And attempting to persuade our students to change their eating habits is likely to prove a fool’s errand. Still, even with some marginal dietary adjustments, we can make some valuable revision gains.

Buying in a truckload of Omega 3 oil capsules isn’t likely magically to train our students
to solve quadratic equations, but if we can encourage them, alongside their parents, to build up a habit of eating breakfast, we could make a small, but significant difference to their capacity to learn during the energy sapping exam period.

Sticking to it during a dull revision session needs as much willpower as humanly possible. One intriguing piece of research undertaken in Israel showed that parole court judges proved harsher in their judgements just before lunchtime. The lesson here? Some healthy snacks and regular meals can help improve our judgement and our cognitive processes. For our distracted teens, the hard thinking demanded by revision may depend upon it.

Let’s sleep on it

Similarly, the sleep our students get is crucial for their ability to revise well and thrive in examinations.

Science is here to help again. We may not need neuroscience to tell us that teenagers are unresponsive in the morning, but it help to explain why a good night’s sleep is so crucial for memory consolidation and processing all that revision material. Those sleep fairies play a vital role in shelving what we need to remember in good order.

Our students are on a delayed sleep cycle compared to us adults – and frankly, they need a good night’s kip if they are to go onto store the requisite knowledge for exam success.

The right tools

We have been helped by cognitive scientists to unpick the details of how our memory works best and what tools are needed for effective revision. Swishing a highlighter upon every other word, or simply re-reading class notes looks and sounds like effective revision, but it really isn’t.

Research by the likes of Professor John Dunlovsky, from Kent State University, has shown that self-testing, quizzing and trying the trickier task of attempting to recall your notes from memory, all prove more effective. What tools are best then? Well, flashcards are a cheap and effective way for students to test themselves. Websites and apps like Quizlet can prove a boon for memorable quizzing. And even the good old-fashioned ‘look-cover-write-check’ passes muster when surveying the science of revision.

Repeat, repeat and repeat

Since time immemorial, teachers have recognised the value of repetition in learning. Nowadays, such repetition is often derided as learning by rote – a deadening lead weight pressing on our students’ learning. And yet, evidence of its value is long-since established: over a century ago Hermann Ebbinghaus was showing us that spacing out our revision, so that we are forced to forget, then remember again, by artful repetition, strengthens our memory.

Experiments in cognitive science have shown us that short bursts of revision, interspersed with different topics and subjects, can prove trickier to organise, but provide lasting results for our students’ revision regime. Effectively, there needs to be some artful repetition of material to be revised; it takes planning and effort – and no little support from us as teachers.

Final word

I’m sure we will all have our last-minute-Jenny characters to contend with – but
with a better understanding of the science of revision, we can certainly make some crucial, marginal improvements to increase the quality of revision undertaken by our students; and boost their chances of success.

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