Not all revision techniques are equal. In fact, some are great and some have been proved to make very little impact. Fortunately, decades and decades worth of research have separated the wheat from the chaff.
Which is one of most effective? Step forward ‘retrieval practice’.
What is Retrieval Practice?
Retrieval Practice, sometimes referred to as ‘The Testing Effect’ is any activity that forces you to generate an answer to a question. It can take many forms, be it past papers, quizzes, multiple choice tests or even something as simple as a revision partner asking you a question. It has consistently been proven to help students improve retention and recall (and subsequently exam performance).
Teaching Retrieval Practice
A recent study found that not only does retrieval practice help, but it is a skill that can be clearly taught to students. In the experiment, students who had a short programme teaching them of the benefits of retrieval practice and how to do it effectively outperformed students who used retrieval practice but had not had instructions on how to do so.
So How Does Retrieval Practice Help?
We have previously written about how doing past papers can help revision (see our blog ‘Good v Bad Revisers’ and ‘5 Ways to Maximise Revision’). What we haven’t done (until now) is highlight how retrieval practice helps aid learning:
Improved Memory, Retention and Recall – One of the biggest and most thorough reviews on revision techniques found that students who took part in practise tests remember more information for longer. Indeed, the researchers state that their “results reveal that practice tests are more beneficial for learning than restudying and all other comparison conditions”. Similar findings were also found in the ‘What Makes Great Teaching Report’ which states that “having to generate an answer or procedure, or having to retrieve information – even if no feedback is given – leads to better long term recall than simply studying”.
More Confidence, Less Nerves – A recent study on the power of the testing effect found that 92% of students who had studied using this strategy reported that it had helped them learn and 72% of them felt that it had made them less nervous about their upcoming exams. Given that many students report feeling stressed about their exams, this is a very effective revision strategy as it improves memory and reduces nerves.
Enhanced Memory During Stressful Situations – Too much stress can reduce memory and hinder focus. Luckily, the testing effect can help combat this. Research has shown that “participants who learned by restudying demonstrated the typical stress-related memory impairment, whereas those who learned by retrieval practice were immune to the deleterious effects of stress”. Not only does testing yourself improve your memory, this effect is magnified during times of anxiety.
Helps You Identify What You Do and Don’t Know – One of the great things about the testing effect is that it provides tangible and concrete information about what students do and don’t know. This can act as a springboard for future revision. By clearly showing where gaps of knowledge are, future revision can be targeted and therefore more effective.
It’s More Powerful Than You Think – What is really interesting is that the testing effect is likely to be more powerful than students think. Results from a study (below) suggest that despite improving the ability to recall more information (compared to multiple re-reading study sessions), students didn’t believe it would help them as much. This may mean it may be a bit of an uphill battle to convince students the value of doing quizzes, tests and past-papers, but one that will ultimately yield them better results.
How to best use the testing effect
A meta-analysis (which is a collection of a large amount of studies on one topic, in this case on retrieval practice) recently provided some handy tips and suggestions on when the testing impact may work best. They found that:
- The highest impact was found in maths
- The testing effect is at its greatest when feedback is given after the test
- Works for a range of types of tests = multiple choice, quizzes, flashcards and essays work well, though some other research have found that “students who took a short answer practice test outperformed students who took a multiple choice practice test on the final test, regardless of whether the final test was a short answer or multiple choice”
- It helps all types of students – regardless of age, gender or ability setting (though the strongest findings were for secondary, followed by primary, followed by university students)
The word ‘tests’ is a loaded concept in education. It brings up discussions about do our students have too many exams and are we obsessed with data. That is not the sort of tests we are talking about here and not the sort of tests studied in the research cited above.
For the testing effect to help students revise, it has to be low-stress, non-judgemental and regular. We are talking about anything that makes them think about what they do or don’t know. That is why it can be past-papers, quizzes, multiple choice, essays or answering a question someone asks you. If students do this, they will improve their memory, feel more confident, less nervous, identify what they don’t know, revise more effectively and as a result, do better in their upcoming exams.
For more help preparing for exams have a look at our page Best Ways to Revise - where you'll also find links to great blogs with tips on doing your best in exams.