We know more about the science of learning than ever. Working smarter involves using your time and energy efficiently, but many students still do not use many of the most effective strategies. So what techniques can pupils use to improve their long-term memory, and help them to flourish in exams?
Doing something little and often – spacing – beats doing it at once, or cramming. Revising for eight hours in one day is not as effective as doing one hour of revision for eight days. This is because the time in between allows you to forget and re-learn the information, which cements it in your long-term memory. In some studies, using spacing instead of cramming has resulted in a 10% to 30% difference in final test results [pdf].
There is no ideal amount of time to leave between study sessions [pdf]. Indeed, researchers have found that the length of time before the test, and therefore for how long you want to retain the information, is key to deciding optimum spacing. The gap between revision sessions should be between 10% and 20% of the total time you want to retain the information. If the test is in a month, you should review the information around once a week. If the test is in a week, create time once a day.
Where spacing is about how long you leave between revision sessions, interleaving is about what you do with your time. When students dedicate a whole day to revising one subject – “On Monday I will do chemistry, and on Tuesday I will do French” – this is known as blocking. Interleaving is the opposite: mixing up subjects and doing a bit of both on each day.
Interleaving helps students make links between different subjects and discriminate between different types of problems, which allows them to identify the ideal thought process for each. In a study examining performance in maths, students who had previously blocked their revision did better than other students if the test was immediately after [pdf]. Once the test was more than a day away, interleaved students performed more than three times better.
Low stakes tests, quizzes or past papers are one of the most effective ways to improve memory. This is sometimes referred to as retrieval practice, one of the most robust and enduring findings in educational psychology. One study investigating this asked students to revise a piece of work. They were then offered the chance to have another revision session or quiz themselves on what they had learned. The results? Students who tested themselves remembered significantly more than the group who elected to re-study [pdf].
Exams can often be stressful for students, and stress can impair memory. The testing effect can be especially helpful here. A recent study found that “participants who learned by re-studying demonstrated typical stress-related memory impairment, whereas those who learned by retrieval were immune to the deleterious effects of stress”. Not only does testing yourself improve your memory, the effect is magnified during times of anxiety.
A good study partner
A word of caution: studying with other people can be distracting. This is probably magnified for teenagers who, due to ongoing changes and development in their brain, are more likely to seek novelty and find it harder to manage self-control. If chosen carefully, however, working with the right study partner can have multiple benefits.
“Confidence is contagious,” said American football coach Vince Lombardi. The same is true for effort, according to a recent journal that found that if the person next to you is working hard, your work ethic increases. This impact was found to be consistent regardless of whether their task is easier or more difficult, or similar or unrelated to yours.
Another study also found that teenagers who had to work through a problem-solving task together “engaged in more exploratory behaviour [and] learned faster from positive and negative feedback”, compared with working on their own.
The Zeigarnik effect
On average, 75% of students consider themselves to be procrastinators [pdf]. Low levels of self-belief and a lack of self-regulation are two of the biggest factors, and research suggests that this results in students delaying the start of their work. Sitting down and starting the task is half the battle.
The answer to overcoming this may have been found in a café in Berlin almost 90 years ago, where psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik would discuss research with her supervisor, Kurt Lewin. They were amazed at how their waiter was able to remember multiple orders without writing anything down, but once they had finished their meal he was unable to recall what they had asked for.
This prompted years of research that found that once a task has been started – but not completed – an inner tension helps the person keep it in mind. If we can encourage students to just start the task, even if for only 10 minutes, then the Zeigarnik effect may take over, increasing their motivation and likelihood of seeing the task through to completion.
For more revision help have a look at our page Best Ways to Revise - where you'll also find links to great blogs that will help you do your best during exams.
This article was originally published in The Guardian on 12th April 2017, you can read it here: https://www.theguardian.com/teacher-network/2017/feb/21/four-ways-to-help-your-students-overcome-impostor-syndrome